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City Zen

By (February 1, 2012) No Comment

How We Saved the City

By Kate Schapira
Stockport Flats, 2012

The Bounty: Four Addresses

By Kate Schapira
Noemi Press, 2011

“Hell is other people,” Sartre tells us, but as Donne rejoins, “no man is an island,” and it little profits us to pretend otherwise. Poetry, although it has suffered from transient (and wholly understandable) fads for lonely contemplations of daffodils and other unsociable subjects is also intimately concerned with how we live with each other – and with ourselves. These two subject animate Kate Schapira’s two newest books of poetry.

In the most recent collection, How We Saved The City, Schapira presents a multi-part rumination and exploration of urban planning, gentrification, and the class and race issues that accompany the rehabilitation of abandoned warehouses into gleaming boutiques selling fair-trade tea cozies. The ancient Greek polis means city; it also means citizens, and it is in citizens, and their small but genuine acts of civic participation, that Schapira locates the city’s salvation. In the book’s opening piece, “Prelude: Magical Urbanism,” the speaker, a white woman, tells of trying to put out a small fire she notices burning at the base of a municipal tree, and being joined by two black men who stop to help her:

How could I have reacted whitely while we were squatted down getting the last embers; their black stopping; a spare thought early at night; we dusted our hands off, a line in my head captured the little glows: The evening was alive with first responders, already turning it. Respective cities closed over us again.

Ranged against economic forces that “bulldoze in order to save,” these civic-minded acts seem tiny indeed, but for Schapira a city’s value is the interactions between its people, not in its buildings or its tax base. A city that promotes those interactions is a city that can be saved.

Strangely, despite the evident importance, to Schapira, of civic interactions, most of the poems in How We Saved the City describe neither the specific inhabitants of a city, or their relations with one another. This might be ascribed to Schapira’s governing style, which relies on undecorated, passively-voiced prose paragraphs. Her work is neither lyric in form nor conception. Schapira’s strengths, instead, are rhetorical – varied sentence length, sentence fragments, quotations, and movement among tenses in her compact paragraphs creates a sense of both urgency and accretion over time, as meaning layers itself from poem to poem. Their block-like structure also visually reinforces the sense of civic space, of building and rebuilding, that her work is so concerned with, as in this selection from “Safe as Houses,” in How We Saved the City:

The key on rent day sears the hand, the office cools me by name, I had over my math. Posters up for the New Urbanism, olive-and rust-colored friendly fire. Blades of fans that fall with a crash for no reason, or a rented wind. Apartment like paid silence; house, an alibi. Fewer lots, but less time.

The lack of over-arching characters or narrative seems a pity to me in light of the exceptional second section of the book, “The Love of Freak Millways and Tango Wax,” which is nothing but narrative, and enormously successful narrative at that. Written in a mixture of dialogue and descriptive paragraphs, the section follows the life and politics of two well-developed and tenderly handled characters, who take the form of urban activists-cum-squatters-cum-performance artists. The section sits uneasily amidst the other poems in the collection, displaying a wry humor that is missing elsewhere. It also puts on display Schapira’s rare talent for dialogue. Freak and Tango’s discussions – while, alas, a bit lengthy for quotation – are so natural and so revealing that I wish they were not limited to this single section, but used as a chorus throughout the book.

This second section is also the only one – excepting the prelude and postlude pieces – that really makes any attempt at showing how citizens can save the city through their interactions. Freak and Tango, “publicly committed to living a gender-free life,” and to bringing utopia to a New England town by way of increasingly outré performance pieces, escape ridiculousness by the seriousness with which they take their duty to treat each other with kindness, as full human beings, and by the sincerity with which they attempt to impress their fellow citizens with the interdependence of everyone in a community.

Most of the book’s other, comparatively uninhabited sections evince Schapira’s interest in the ethics of urban planning and historic preservation, asking whether those disciplines mostly serve the economic interests of the upper class, rather than a community as a whole. In the long poem “The National Pity Museum,” she asks us to “peel back the mercantile vision” of repurposing and rehabilitating old factories, schools, and other places of work:

    More than the living, the spirits of the dead have been cliché and useful…

Not their homes but their places of work subjects of the past,
Syrup accumulation and heavy pieces sliding past one another,
Cleaned, unaffordable, and redistributed.

Shop floors and offices are transformed into condos that the people who once worked there could never pay to inhabit. Is it the architecture of the old cigar factory that needs to be preserved, or the way of life that it once supported?  Is it “cool” to live in a rehabilitated warehouse, or is it deeply invasive and disrespectful?

Rather than slap a coat of paint and some picture windows into those old buildings, Schapira posits that a city’s planners might leave them to their decay. Alternatively, the train depot or factory could be transformed into a museum: “It would be nice if after a certain time/[it] could be made public/transient, nonprofit/like a museum exhibit.” But that still leaves us with a structure divorced from the laboring lives for which it was built: “Museums believe in their attempts to make order of profusion, return nothing to use/but are graceful.”

Schapira posits that the most graceful thing of all would be to bring the factory back to its original ordered profusion as a place of productive work. This stance romanticizes labor to the point of strain – I’m sure there are many former factory laborers who might tell you that a large and destructive fire would be too good for their erstwhile places of employ (I certainly feel no affection for any number of office parks where I have eked out my days). But even conceding the nobility of productive labor, is there any productive work left? If the way of life that led people to build a city is gone, what are the city and its people to do?

Schapira’s work on decay and renewal in the public sphere is mainly descriptive, rather than prescriptive, a momento mori for public space. Nonetheless, she has specific ideas as to what will not save the city, and what will. In the poem “Safe as Houses,” she writes, “The belief that ownership will save the city…it’s like saying that slow dreamlike boats piloted by mimes will.” One cannot have a city made entirely of rich people who own six-bedroom houses on two-acre lots. Class and race are dividers across which the inhabitants of a city must be encouraged to reach; urban planning that focuses on gentrification to the exclusion of all else leads to the type of neighborhoods of which Schapira writes: “There’s a lot of diversity here, a job lot of resentment,” as rents are raised to the point where diversity, the “rich fabric” that speculative builders sold to the incoming yuppies, can no longer be sustained.

How We Saved the City contains thought-provoking work, but it also strikes me as uneven.  As noted, the most vibrant and best-written section, “The Love of Freak Millways and Tango Wax,” is worlds apart in tone and execution from the other sections. As a whole, the book feels like a series of chapbooks loosely gathered around the theme of urban living and its ethics, rather than a unified work. Nothing of the kind could be said of Schapira’s other recent book, The Bounty: Four Addresses. Tightly and masterfully written, its four sections harmonize perfectly into a brief but extremely powerful and nuanced exploration of the individual citizen’s – the individual person’s – interrelatedness and connection with every other person in the world.

Here, the city acts as continuous “opportunities for treating others as real.” Composed of groups of prose paragraphs, the book addresses four different types of person – a stranger, a stranger, a violent person, the self.  Each section, with respect to its particular addressee, asks, How do I (can I) treat every single person I encounter as a whole person, as ‘real’ in the sense of having value or non-value not simply in their relation to me, but for themselves? How do I extend this compassion, or appreciation of the “bounty” in everyone, to everyone?

The word “bounty,” as used throughout in Schapira’s book, is clearly related to the inherent value of every person.  But it is not a fixed quantity. The bounty — “an extreme form of taking notice” — flows: “Not just the bounty, but where the bounty is tending.” In English, “bounty” can mean two things – goodness or generosity in general (“Let us thank God for his bounty”) and a price – usually associated with capture or death (“there’s a bounty on his head”). Schapira engages with both meanings, although she clearly rejects, as a type of violence, the idea of measuring people’s worth in economic terms. Speaking of recognizing the completeness of others’ humanity, she writes, “some days it’s easy money … some days you earn it.” Elsewhere, of sweatshop workers, “Bounty recedes. Their low, low price reduced.”

In their concern for “recognition” (a word Schapira uses repeatedly) of others’ reality, these poems strike me as essentially Buddhist. Not the ecstasies of Ginsberg, or the spare, unpeopled lines of Gary Snyder, but a poetry of Buddhist practice. Not just how should I live, but how do I? And what are the distances between should and do? I have no idea whether Schapira herself is a Buddhist, and I concede that any number of philosophies or religions might bring about the same insights. Nonetheless, the Budhhist practice of creating and maintaining compassion towards others requires, as its premise, the recognition of their full equality with yourself (and conversely, of your full equality, as a human, with others).

Seen through this lens, the book proceeds to address, arguably in order of difficulty, types of people for whom one must develop compassion, or, in the book’s terms, “recognition” of individual, complete “bounty.”  First, a stranger. To “recognize” a stranger, in the sense of feeling his or her full humanity, might seem difficult, but the very fleetingness of the interaction opens up a space for contemplation: we do not know each other, but we are all here together, going to work, on the same streets, at the same time: “Each life with its coordinates is future and hidden including mine you mutter including mine.” And yet all strangers are seeking to impress their reality upon you, to remind you, through their self-presentation, of their presence and humanity. Speaking of a strange woman on the bus, Schapira writes:

See through her white earlobes: broad stride of rouge, her periodic reach to smooth, fake pearl, fine silver chain, barbell above her neck turn. I’m telling you because you may not notice, even one sitting in front of you, even all she’s done for you, the gauges and hermitic ink she hopes you’ll see first. Form a sense of her. All that work to prove.

“You do damage,” the most difficult section of the book, contemplates what it means to “recognize” – to fully accept– the humanity of violent persons. I read Schapira as positing that violence originates from the perception that one is not being treated as real; violence is a response to this, a method of forcing others to make that connection and recognition. Violence, however, requires treating others as less than human, and so reenacts the problem it attempts to solve. “One reality appears to touch another briefly on the slick arm, but as you swing the barrel around it vanishes.” In Schapira’s vision, we run a serious danger by treating violent people as though they were monsters with whom we need to not attempt to sympathize – when you say “Those people over the mountains . . . they’re not really people,” you bring home the truth in the statement “{n}ot all damage comes through ignorance. Some of it comes through you.”

A society that does not want to face the humanity of its damage-dealing members perpetuates both violence and injustice by refusing responsibility. It also encourages violent individuals to make excuses for themselves: “If no one knows you did it, it was done, abuse removed to passing…Something else, if no one stops you.” Absolution by societal indifference is a farce, a burial of “the bounty you can’t collect.” There is no simple solution to this state of affairs but a first step is for individuals to recognize the capacity for violence in all selves: “Have I become you, {the damage dealer}? I don’t just have to imagine you.”

Schapira concludes The Bounty: Four Addresses with a section addressing the self, that topsy-turvy place where good intentions and poor habits collide: “Everything I touch with this hand turns to gold; with this, I too deal damage.” For every adherent of every method for being a better person, the challenge is to keep it up despite daily lapses. “Every night I get to sleep congratulating myself on my future perfect life of salutations. Every morning I say the day’s first damning thing.” When one treats oneself as more real than others, it becomes impossible “to do enough” to make up for it, and “the sweet voice I started with disappears because we’re in part our bodies’ softness on an armature of guilt and shame.” Schapira speaks with real insight of the convert’s difficulties – after the first enthusiasms – of living a practice that seems beyond living up to.  The secret, she implies, is in recognizing that you aren’t alone, that all humans are interdependent: “My other sister mends our father’s coat, each sleeve seamed differently. We deduce piecework by two or more real people.”

The Bounty: Four Addresses deploys, to consistently good effect, the rhetorical rhythms that guide the most successful poems in How We Saved the City. Take, for example, this poem from the second section of the book, addressing a sister:

As kids we loved to ascertain. Little toys unwound into a mess: it’s better if you can’t put knowledge back, picked out in glitter and threat, oozy justification. By encountering, we open. The price acknowledgement, not lightly spoken.

Further, the poems in each of the addresses are uniformly conceived and executed, allowing meaning to develop slowly but surely over the book as a whole, with a deepening emotional awareness and intellectual seriousness. The concepts of knowledge and price, and the threat inherent in awareness, as introduced in the poem quoted above, for example, are mirrored and enlarged upon in the third section, addressing one who does damage:

If no one else is real you don’t need a reason, its back to your back. The price the same; your head the sea; the thing you lose. Wrapped around the wristbone you weren’t born with, skeins of dead hair. The standard for deciding becomes other, the particularity of meeting vanishes. How do you know which move, unless you mean it, aims, preaches, wounds? By watching accident.

Reading her two books in concert, I’m tempted to term Schapira’s approach “utopian realism.” She believes that we can treat each other better – in kinder, more ethical ways, — and that we can create communities that encourage such improved interactions.  At the same time, she acknowledges, unlike her characters Freak and Tango, that we are unlikely to get there by means of panda masks and glow-in the-dark paint. There are many forces – particularly economic ones – that interfere with improvement on both a personal and a civic level. But just as Freak and Tango persevere in their knowledge that “utopia is what people think,” the fact that perfect human beings and perfect communities haven’t existed yet is no reason to give up entirely. The lack of assurance creates its own opportunities. Where “nothing is the way we already imagine it . . . we have to imagine what has never been, can speak about it with hope instead of certainty.” I hope she’s right.

Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly. She lives in Washington, DC, where she co-curates the In Your Ear reading series at the DC Arts Center. Her first book, Applies to Oranges, is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.