“Beauty and Serendipity Amidst the Hum of Daily Life”
A review of
Ideal Cities: Poems
By Erika Meitner.
Reviewed by Brittany Buczynski
Ideal Cities: Poems
By Erika Meitner.
Paperback: Harper, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
What is a “modern” poet? How does he or she differ from the poets of the past, from Shakespeare and Browning, Keats and Shelley, Yeats and Eliot? In the twenty-first century, amidst the ubiquitous distractions of smart phones, gas station cable TV, and constant information overload, where does poetry fit in? How does one find those quiet moments to contemplate the precious, intangible elements of life? How can something as fragile as a poem survive the crushing weight of skyscrapers? Is it possible for a poem—or a poet—to breathe in an atmosphere thick with car exhaust and frenetic stress?
Erika Meitner answers these questions in a way that affirms both the legacy and the future of poetry. Her collection entitled Ideal Cities explores the ways modern culture intersects with ancient human emotions. Built around a familiar infrastructure of trademarked brand names, highway traffic, and memories thick as concrete, Meitner’s poetry reminds us that poems can fit anywhere. They are like water, taking the shape of their surroundings. They do not need to be pastoral or sanitized or delicate or euphemistic. And hers are not. They are less about “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” and more about crawling bumper-to-bumper through an urban commute. They are less a flowery meadow and more a city parking lot—with a stubborn dandelion poking its head through the asphalt.
Meitner’s strength is in her animation and invigoration of what many would consider throwaway moments. She picks up the cold instruments of everyday monotony, and in her hands they become breathing portraits, symbolic of human adaptation to many different environments and less-than-ideal circumstances.
Beyond the sheer vigor of her poems, Meitner expresses a sharp, ironic sense of humor. Her ability to incorporate conversational elements into the larger structure of the poems is particularly effective. Reading them aloud, we can literally hear her mother calling the baby’s special blanket “that straitjacket.” Equally winning is Meitner’s own admission that the blanket does create in her newborn an uncanny resemblance to “a tortilla / so when he’s wrapped / the baby seems like a / burrito with a head.” The chuckle is welcome, a moment of comic relief in a poem about the difficulty of getting a newborn to sleep, amidst the fear that he could, perhaps, not reawaken in the morning.
The reader is drawn into Meitner’s family circle, mainly through these types of exchanges with her mother and memories of conversations with her grandmother, including all the unspoken horror of surviving Auschwitz and all the idiosyncratic glory of colorful Yiddish vocabulary. The pieces come together slowly at first, then faster, until they are suddenly staring back fully-formed through the poems, and one is aware of a desire to change the past, to avenge these atrocities. But, as Meitner says, “some stories are not mine for telling.”
Opposite this rich, sometimes heartbreaking history, Meitner introduces us to the wonders of the next generation: her son. In a poem called “We Need to Make Mute Things,” she describes her pregnancy with an understated realism. “I am / cumbersome and forget my own girth, though in my winter coat / I blend with everyone else.” This image of blending in, of anonymity which has become possible only with the advent of huge cities bursting at the seams with people, harkens back to the collection’s theme of surviving in the urban jungle, of knowing your “home” is also the home of millions of other people. Yet it is no less yours because you share it.
But the sharing does change the experience, interrupts one’s private life. “I am pregnant,” she writes, “and the world is too noisy.” There is no subjectivity in this line; it is a statement of fact. The life growing inside her, the unborn child who will become her son swaddled in the burrito-like blanket, demands a quiet that the city is simply incapable of providing. Incubation is by its nature a calm, slow, subtle process. Pregnancy is not well-suited for the loud city, and while Meitner knows this, she struggles against it. Her rebellion becomes the poem we read, the revelatory moments she plucks from the din of urban life. “I have two hearts, and the second one beats faster,” as if even in utero her son is trying to keep up with the hectic pace of the city. Metaphorically, Meitner’s desire to create “mute things” speaks volumes about the effect of bringing a tender, new life into this earsplitting environment. Later, she and the baby will battle this noise nightly, as in the poem called “Lullaby,” when they “rock and sing / to car alarms, / the silent blue / strobe of cops / cruising our alley.”
When Meitner commits an image to the page, when she transforms a place into a poem, she does not just leave it there, as a landscape painting to hang over the mantle and be admired. No, these poems are not paintings but momentary snapshots, cell phone photographs snapped on the go, a little blurry but full of emotional presence and immediacy. In fact, that is one of Meitner’s greatest artistic strengths. With a love of place reminiscent of John Clare’s, she swims fluidly through the “ideal cities” she inhabits. Each poem is inextricably tied to its location. They are woven together like a cross-stitch pattern to its cloth surface.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the collection’s final poem, “May the World to Come be Neon, be Water.” Given only whispers of an explanation as to why they left the city, it appears that Meitner and her family have moved to the country. But she does not offer up a joyful “good riddance” to her old home, nor a wholehearted welcome to the new one. Her longing is for a collision of both, a wish for her future world to blink neon like the city’s unsleeping lights and to flow and ebb rhythmically, like a body of water. “Because I no longer live / in a city of any kind,” she must get used to the quiet—the “mute things” she once longed for and now hears “because the crickets are loud” outside her open windows. Despite the struggle to adjust, she ends on a hopeful note, reassuring herself and her family—and her readers—that “we will be all right.”
Erika Meitner is a modern poet, but her writing somehow settles comfortably between convention and innovation, between metaphor and reality. Ideal Cities is a solid collection, in more ways than one. Each poem is a fusion of honesty and mystery, of rough edges and sweet dreams. “My ideal city,” she writes, “has a wish list written on the back / of an envelope scrap, an ATM slip.” As the world gets louder, it is tempting to want pure silence, “mute things” that will allow for clearer thoughts and uninterrupted dreams. But Meitner is proof that poetry does not need to be written in a library or a forest or even a quiet corner of the subway. Perhaps the “ideal cities” are the ones with poets like Erika Meitner, who find beauty and serendipity amidst the hum of daily life.