Elaine Scarry once noted that there are “many errors made about beauty.” We tend to forget that it is not an innately embodied quality, the kind of faultlessness that could be described as fact. Any statement about beauty is a willfully made thing, a gathering of the images, memories, and texts that circulate within a shared cultural imagination.
Throughout her magnificent body of work, Donna Stonecipher invokes a familiar literary landscape littered with the darkened ruins of romanticism. Each poem appears as a luminous assemblage of received tropes, which have been made to reflect on the ethical problems inherent in their own making. Indeed, the “roses,” “mirrors,” and “blooming domes” that populate Stonecipher’s poetry subtly call attention to their own artifice, “wondering” at our “easy ability to abstract suffering into the picturesque.”
Even more importantly, Stonecipher reminds us that our ideas about aesthetic pleasure are inseparable from the economies in which they circulate. One witnesses the transcendent moment made commodity. As the “swans,” “gems,” “white butterflies,” and “flowers” begin to accumulate, the speakers of these intricately crafted poems mourn the possibility of pure wonder in a global marketplace. Stonceipher renders us suddenly and startlingly aware that this particular kind of loss is inscribed onto every “postcard,” every “violet,” every “blur of honeysuckle vines at dusk.”
Though the experience of beauty—in its myriad forms and incarnations—is part of the human condition, its representation has arguably fallen out of fashion in contemporary literary culture. Unlike many poets writing today, who are often limited by a fear they will fall into emotionality’s shimmering silver trap, Stonecipher engages the sublime, and its relationship to memory and longing, in all of its wonderful complexity.
In the opening poem of her prize-winning first book, The Reservoir, she writes, “Who wouldn’t be sentimental, given half the chance.” Her unwavering acknowledgement—of aesthetic pleasure, the desire that it instills, and the universality of that particular experience—comes across most visibly in her punctuation. Though the sentence retains an interrogatory structure, Stonecipher presents her language as though it was a mere statement of fact.
The poems that follow, in The Reservoir and other collections, examine the many ways that our inevitable pursuit of beauty, like everything else, risks being subsumed into the machinery of commerce. The memory of aesthetic pleasure, the wish each one of us has for that perfect vista in the distant past, is revealed as the perfect commodity: illusory, subjective, and immaterial, it is wholly impossible to promise its delivery.
“It was like noticing hotel after hotel going up all over the city with unstoppable force and imagining a city consisting only of hotels, a city composed solely of expensive emptinesses,” Stonecipher notes in Model City. In her deft hands, the work of facilitating our experience of beauty is revealed as an industry in itself. The impossibility of a transcendent moment outside of this elaborate economic infrastructure becomes a constant source of sorrow for the speakers of these elegant, enigmatic poems. “After all, utopia means noplace,” she reminds us.
And what desired
weight is this,
threatening to smash my fragile
holding of sovereign
state? One day too soon I must go
In much of Stonecipher’s work, travel is a hidden doorway into transcendent experience. The speakers in these incandescent poems often inhabit places that are deeply unfamiliar to them: “the winding streets of Cairo,” “a tiny hotel in the mountains of Morocco,” Geneva, and Malta, to name only a few examples. Through travel, the landscape and language are made startlingly new, but so too is the self. This manifestation of the self as other becomes a persistent source of wonder for Stonecipher’s narrators.
At the same time, she calls our attention to the labor, profit, and exploitation that results from this thrill of experiencing one’s self made strange. She offers a deconstruction of contemporary travel culture in which her speakers are made vulnerable, implicated in their involvement in maintaining this ethically fraught machinery. “We bought china in China. We bought cognac in Cognac. We bought turquoise in Turkey, and I bought an afghan in Afghanistan. I bought india ink in India, and you bought an indiaman in India. But nowhere did we relinquish any little bit of ourselves,” she observes in The Cosmopolitan. As the novelty of place is bought and sold, the locus of power in these interactions—the one reaping the benefits of such tourist culture—remains strangely and persistently disembodied.
For this particular narrator, much of the beauty of a given locale comes from the inherently transitory nature of travel. Indeed, one’s experience of an unfamiliar place is often limited in duration. Stonecipher reminds us that this impermanence constitutes a lack of vulnerability for the traveller, however adventurous they may be. One passes through the landscape before sensing its borders and boundaries, and the tension inevitably contained within them.
If airports, counted, she could more than double her list of vanquished cities. And if train stations counted? Her eyes lit up...
Travel—and the ensuing experience of beauty—becomes a “city” waiting to be “vanquished.” Though this particular piece seems subtly humorous, its assertions prove to be incisive, even profound. In Stonecipher’s skillfully constructed texts, the sublime is revealed yet another object to possess, to claim, to assert ownership and dominance over.
“Everyone is, at bottom, an aristocrat,” she notes in The Cosmopolitan. The transcendent moment, as commodity, is also privilege. By situating “gold reliquaries” and birds “singing sweetly” within the towering infrastructure of late capitalism, Stonecipher shows us the impossibility of pure wonder. The omnipresence of commerce, its valuations and judgments, is inevitably embedded within language and internalized in the individual’s consciousness. Stonecipher shows us, in prose as luminous as it is unflinching, that the very weight of this economy, and its myriad injustices, is borne on the physical body itself. Indeed, we cannot flee the economy in which aesthetic pleasure circulates because we cannot escape ourselves.
For Stonecipher, then, to gaze in awe at the “wonders of the ancient world” is also to mourn the inauthenticity that surrounds them. We begin to understand that every appreciation of beauty, every encounter with the sublime, is also an articulation of loss. As we move through the “exhibition of clouds,” we grieve an impossible version of that same moment of that is more just, and being more just, is also more true.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and multiple residencies at the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, Agni, New American Writing, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog and the Academy of American Poets’ website, Poets.org. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean.