Oliver de la Paz’s fourth book of poetry consists of a series of epistolary poems addressed to a fallen and therefore absent empire, which (interestingly) makes these poems a species of apostrophe as well. “Dear Empire,” the ambiguous speaker writes, “These are your ashes. We’ve carried them for years in baskets, urns, boxes, and lockets.” The first line of each poem catalogues one characteristic or trait of the empire. De la Paz considers it a work of taxonomy, but I think a more apt analogy would be that of the post mortem. The empire is upon the table and its parts are being recorded in alphabetical order in a sort of coroner’s report: “divided into rows . . . arranged alphabetically, so as not to lose track of them.”
It’s not often that I spend so much time worrying about a title, but this one wouldn’t let me rest. There are so many things that are “post” in Post Subject that it quickly becomes dizzying. In an interview de la Paz revealed that the book began simply as an exchange of poem postcards that then took on a life of their own. He admitted that he intended the poems to be read as actual post cards. Of course, knowing this doesn’t answer the question of what a post subject is or what it means to be post subjective. In its simplest terms, it must refer to the fact that the book begins with the empire having already fallen. Thus, in this context, the subject of the book—the Empire—no longer exists and these letters are all that is left, like the photograph in the final poem: “This is your photo . . . So let the forgetting begin.” It is no surprise then that the Empire is often described as a ghost: “The artist says it is the ghost of you. And like other ghosts, there is a hunger for an ellipses that is necessary.” The metaphor of the ellipse is even more powerful and revealing than the image of the ghost. Ellipses imply continuation—infinite continuation, maybe—but don’t actually show it. They suggest what is not materially present; it’s an unsatisfying kind of eternity like that of the ghost.
The speaker can also be considered post subject in that there is no political machine left to be subject to. “In the days you have left us,” he says, “we’ve nothing to do but count the elements: it is not raining. It is raining.” He has lost his purpose now that there is no clear power structure to order his days. But for all that the book begins after the Empire has fallen, the majority of the book, unsurprisingly, reads more like a series of love letters that glory in its former power and control, and so the book is mostly about subjugation and the many ways that power is abused and, more sinisterly, how it is internalized. “These mortals,” writes the speaker, “certainly do not understand us.” In another poem, he writes,
“Your satellites are in constellational drift—gods launched into the ether, their limbs moving in orbit. They watch us all, I think. I think I am constantly judged by you.”
Once authority is internalized, constant monitoring can take on the qualities of moral judgment—which is exactly how ideology works when it is near absolute.
Another way that the speaker of the poems can be considered post subject is that it is very hard to tell if there is one speaker or many speakers. When asked about this ambiguity in an interview at The Rumpus, de la Paz answered that he was unsure if there was one speaker or many, but he speculated that it was probably “a collective. Maybe a group of indoctrinated voices, but not a single entity.” So in this sense, this indoctrinated collective has no real individual subjectivity either, which is quite a trick for a book of epistolary poems. The seeming intimacy of the post cards is belied by the fact that we know very little about the speaker(s) of the letters.
As the catalogue grows and the pieces accrue and pile upon each other, the irony of the author clearly shines through. The speakers are the kinds of characters one might use in a time of extreme repression, where they are in deadly earnest but the writer, of course, is not. It’s the sort of thing that would pass by a clueless censor but not an informed audience. Much of the irony is bound up in the absurdity of the statements being vehemently posited by the letter writers. For example, a speaker writes, “Despite the putrefaction in the streets, I want to say how much your goodwill is welcome. I cask it. I cask you from far away.” I have no doubt the speaker is in earnest but the too-easy dismissal of bodies rotting in the streets and the punning on “cask it” and “casket” demonstrates that de la Paz has other intentions altogether.
Post Subject is a sweeping opera of a book, which might be an odd way of characterizing a book that wants to be, as we said earlier, a catalogue, but it is true nonetheless. Its scale is its strength but also its challenge. To help ground us in the text, de la Paz gives us the Artist and her son—two important characters that provide a counter-example to the Empire and its cronies—but, to be honest, I found the most meaning hidden away in the one poem about the stevedore: “Though she is lovely, she has the worth of poetry . . . She will flash a knife at you, pulled from her boot, as you try touch her red hair.” Poetry’s ability to affect change might be small, but it is always sharp and always dangerous.
Carlo Matos has published several books of poetry, fiction and scholarship. His work has appeared most recently in Boston Review, Iowa Review, PANK, and Another Chicago Magazine. He has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and the Sundress Academy of the Arts. He currently lives in Chicago, IL where he is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a teaching artist with the Rooster Moans Poetry Coop. A former fighter, he now trains and coaches cage fighters and kickboxers.