“what use Empire/ to the body’s known world?” Brian Sneeden’s debut collection of poetry, Last City, brings antiquity to the speed of modernity, corporeal specificity to the speed of transcendence, and light. Sneeden’s erudition (he is also a Greek translator and essayist) is everywhere on display in this stunning collection, yet the poems are never overwhelmed by said learnedness: instead, they mark time and space through a revolving door of consistent figures and tropes: particularity and universality, ritual and sacrifice, Keats’ “living hand,” the bitter acidity of lemons, the haunting presence (whether mythologically figured or not) of dogs. The roving speaker is a contemporary Baudelaire, and cities, dead and alive, mythological and real, are the sites from which these meditations on matter, metropolis, and desire, take root. These articulations of desire take many forms (fantastically, in “The River of the Given” as “the reaching muscle”) and the collection’s love poems (“Spell to Divert a Summer,” and “The Longing Room”) are among the strongest herein. From “The Temple”: “I have wanted// a body that, like kudzu,/ would not stop growing . . . I wanted a body that could sit/ like a growth of quartz,/ sacrificing nerves// for a skin that echoes,/ patiently waiting on/ nothing in particular.” In “The Temple” “thoughts form/ slow as seasons,” and the earth eventually wins in the timeworn struggle between immortality and death. And yet, the speaker remains adamant in his embrace of said evanescence—as well as in his valiant efforts to rescue beauty from ruin and petrification. From “Ode to Future Thirst”: “If/ you drink/ from the bowl left out// you may lose/ all your memories,/ but only the ones/ of this earth.”
In what world can the living peacefully co-exist with the dead? In what world can emptiness and absence be appreciated as a rightful kind of form, and place? In the world this poet has created, which regularly hearkens back to cities (Eleusis, Gion, Ithaka, Alexandria) and figures (Cavafy, Antony, Ephesus, Bryshen, Persephone, Stratis) from time immemorial, asking the question: do we haunt history, or does history haunt us? The answer may be contained, considering this poet’s considerable gifts for subtle lyricism, in the musicality of the poems themselves, which shift in register between prayer, odes, elegies, studies, and duets, and between heroic figures and marginalized others, such as ghosts and squatters. The craftsmanship is masterful, resisting epiphanic closure in favor of dissonance, and visceral diction and active verbs (“picked chickweed,” “the fluke/ of a minke whale,” “pipsissewa/ and his net of sweaty bells,” “flecks of spittle”) in favor of seemliness. Nearly edible in their fleshliness, this collection is anything but body-denying—the human figure takes center stage, and is often a tragic figure, beset at time by illness, violence, or simply want. And yet, the figure of the beloved, and the trope of the hero’s journey, are also paramount, lending a sense of continuity and succor to these spare, compact poems, and giving them breadth and depth.
Although the allusions in these poems largely belong to antiquity, there are also strategic nods to 20th century writers, most notably William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” in the beautiful poem “Strange Abundance,” which memorably ends: “I wanted/ you to know/ I picked/ all the leaves off your kale/ in the garden./ You might have thought/ it was the cat, but it/ was me. I did it/ with my hands, then/ washed my hands/ in the blue shadow/ of the hazel tree.” Even here, the speaker introduces the fact of desire (“I wanted”) into an elegant (and fascinatingly enjambed) pastoral poem about the wonders of the earth.
The four seasons and the four elements thematically unify the collection, with water prevailing as the element that promises absolution and renewal, yet also erasure. Again, from “River of the Given”: “Let it go, that which you gave to me . . . Put it/ in the water now and let it go/ to where the river starts over,/ to where the parts of us gradually/ flake off, and it can be again/ someone’s food, someone’s joy.” From the poem “Squatters”: “By doing nothing/ they are building a room for the rain.” And, from “New Year on Pleasure Island”: “Each letter I write/ returns to water.”
Laika, the dog that went to space, is the star of the poem “Dogmoon,” a poem that contains the line that is perhaps the ars poetica (also timeless) for the collection: “What/ animates when the animating spirit/ moves on?” The paradoxical conflux of matter and spirit (and mind and body) is a philosophical conundrum this collection takes very seriously—here, matter is not just incumbent thingness, but cherished. We are asked to “think of Laika, cowering in holes of air/ beneath the great metal wings of a satellite./ Hearing no master, curling up/ at no one’s feet.”
Without a master, there can be no subjugated other; without spirit, there can be no animated life. These are among the brilliant and fruitful tensions of this dazzling debut collection, as invested in ecology and process as it is in historicity and the lyric. In a world where nature can be and is commodified and sold (even the very wind, in “Assets”), the poet’s role emerges as one capable of capturing the “primordial quivering” that is at the heart of object and subjecthood. This collection settles for nothing less than the labor (measured, rhythmic) of soul-making, and the defiance of limitation. The result is an alchemical process by which walls become doors, wounds becoming song, and language becomes opportunity—its readers are invited to join the poet-journeyer in the most aesthetic (and ascetic) of quests: to halt or at least slow the endless cycle of rebirth and death, memory and forgetting, by “defeating/ desire itself.”
Virginia Konchan is the author of the poetry collections Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019), and Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She holds degrees from Beloit College (BA), Cleveland State University (MFA), and the University of Illinois-Chicago (Ph.D). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, and The New Republic, her essays and criticism in Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, Jacket2, and Guernica, her translations in The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote and Circumference, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, and Memorious, among other places. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, and her honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, The Banff Center, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and Associate Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, she currently lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University.