“Signs of the Real”
In her debut collection of poems, A Model Year, Gina Myers has found a way to hold onto the images and the earnestness of our very first poems—the ones doodled in notebook margins and recited in smoky coffee shops—while swerving her lines in directions that cast a new cadence onto the telling of a young adult life. Reading A Model Year, we’re reminded that contemporary poetry, as heady and languagey as it often is, could use a lot more stuff—pavement, coffee, grocery lists—documenting the material world off which all of these linguistic acts are bouncing. In taut, matter-of-fact lines and forceful meditations on everyday objects, A Model Year repositions “no ideas but in things” deep inside domestic space. Myers’ variation on William Carlos Williams–
so much depends on the leak in the
—makes us laugh as it reminds us of the irony of the book’s title. A Model Year is full of the less-than-ideal: apartment glitches gone unrepaired, deaths in the family, crappy jobs, winter bleakness, breakups, and homesickness. This is a Michigan book and a New York book, and Myers speaker often feels herself in both at once, in the leaky Brooklyn apartment as well as the other landscape evoked by her title, hollowed-out Detroit with a broken-down Ford on the side of the road. “Everywhere I move becomes a ghost town,” the speaker remarks at one point, but poetry—“[t]he forward motion in my chest & stomach”—always rushes in to fill the gap and cast light on the wreckage: “This testament to a year, a document / of your travels. Something to fill the space.”
The candor and immediacy of A Model Year, and its attention to material texture and culture, are partially a legacy of the New York School: Myers has the painterly sense of Barbara Guest or James Schuyler, the ability to render “every pothole / & bargain shopper” both particular and universal, so that the quotidian grows luminous as it stays ordinary, or even dirty and broken. In this way, the idea of a model year becomes something hopeful, too—a small built thing, a poem as diorama, streetscape, or dollhouse. As she builds urban and domestic tableaux, filling each page with bodegas, birdfeeders, and picture frame,s poetry becomes a way for Myers to feel her way through the things of the world, rendering them meaningful through arrangement, as a visual artist might place compositional elements. Once frozen, these scenes radiate longing, as in these lines from “Brazen Youth”:
The imagined lives of forties on rooftops
& fingernails flecked with silver
spray paint. As if a photograph could catch
it all or catch anything at all.
I’d be tempted to call Myers’ understanding of words-as-objects and objects-as-words an emphasis on the materiality of language if Myers hadn’t offered a better way to put it, elegant in its simplicity, as so many images in A Model Year are: “My magazine rack securing my place in the world. / The shelves of books a sign of the real.” Language, by virtue of being contained in a book, becomes, instead of an escape or flight of fancy, an element of the palpable world, as much as a hotel room or beer bottle. And like those “imagined lives of forties on rooftops,” the phrases and moods Myers lifts from her books gain a new reality as in A Model Year.
A devoted elegist throughout A Model Year, Myers knows that the simple act of placing a real object in a poem becomes an elegiac act, one that evokes that thing upon each reading while marking its disappearance in the real world. In the elegists of the micro (Williams, Berrigan) and macro (Kafka, Rilke), Myers finds solace and poetic company. Their words, too, become the stuff of this world. More traditional elegies for family members, such as “Travel Notes,” fuse lament, love, and Ted Berrigan:
Dear Andy, hello. It is 7:15 p.m.
I opened a beer & my brother is asleep
in the hotel room. Today has felt like two days
& tomorrow it will be forgotten amidst flights & errands.
There are at least two breakups in the book, one with a city and one with a person, and at times Myers conflates them purposefully: sorrow becomes undifferentiated, one big city-love complex to be mourned: “As if I could give someone // a city. As if you’d ever want / what I have to offer,” she writes in “Love Poem to Someone I Do Not Love.” A master of “the art of losing,” to steal Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase, Myers knows that the divisions between people are places aren’t clear-cut, and sometimes saying goodbye to a former love means saying goodbye to a city at the same time.
The long title poem is Myers’ tour de force and, fittingly, the book’s point of departure. Its ten pages suggest a final goodbye in a book full of them. Goodbye to the finely-chiseled poem, the one that fixes objects in order to mourn them; hello to the possibility of the new:
I am trying to step
outside the body, for the body to push forward, always.
To take a command & go without injury. As if
following orders were as easy as brushing your teeth
or any domestic thing. To make a space for one’s self.
Myers ends A Model Year with an ontological cliffhanger: who will this speaker become now that, as she writes on the final page, “[t]he shattering of everything has become a way / of life”? She won’t be as young or vulnerable, surely, though the images of dissatisfied youth in this debut feel satisfyingly true in their angst, confusion, and relentless mundanity. Portraits like these are too often edited out of first books of poetry, perhaps out of fear that sophisticated style and vignettes of young adulthood can’t mesh. How many bildungsromane depict these moments; how few fine books of poems? In A Model Year, we encounter a speaker who documents her drift through the melancholy objects of youth, and ultimately finds the will to push forward into adulthood, in a process that resembles a rise from the ashes more than a linear progression forward. I’m grateful for Myers’ candor and her eye, and I’m left curious to see what she’ll say hello to after all of these goodbyes.
Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost, 2009). She’s a founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books and PhD student in English at Rutgers University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she now lives in Brooklyn.