Mathias Svalina has emerged as one of the leading contemporary practitioners of the visionary prose poem. On the heels of his first full-length collection, Destruction Myth, comes this improbably titled feast. Each of the forty-four narracts, or prose vignettes, begins "I started this one business that...." In the hands of anyone less gifted, this device could quickly come to seem gimmicky (it is), even cloying (it's not), but as in his first collection, Svalina makes the conceit a vehicle for imaginative discovery. "I started this one business that installed padlocks in clouds," Svalina writes. "I started this one business that takes Americans on tours of their own neighborhoods." "I started this one business that builds skyscrapers in your likeness." Each short piece unfolds on its own surprising terms. Over time, what accrues is a somewhat rueful, gently astonishing take on contemporary American life. "I started this one business that allowed children to remain children for their entire lives," reads one narract in its entirety. "I started this one business that provides catering for your moments of sudden, unexpected revelation & epiphany," begins another. "We are discreet, I assure you."
—G. C. Waldrep
The poem "Cement Truck," from this collection, Hoagland's fourth, opens with the line, "I wanted to get the cement truck into this poem." Then the poem spools itself out from that premise, riffing wildly on the image of the cement truck and ending with a contemplation of the poet's desire "to get the world into the poem / and the poem into the world."
And get the world into his work, he does. Hoagland's poems in his newest collection display his trademark humor while remaining absolutely serious in their political, social, and personal convictions. His poems excavate such topics as racism, fraught gender relations, and the degradation of individuals in a culture in which everything and everyone is potentially a commodity. "Even serenity can become something horrible / cif you make a commercial out of it," he writes. In lines like these and others, Hoagland is merciless, wielding wit like a scalpel.
No one, not even and especially not the poet-speaker, is safe as Hoagland takes us on a tour of the ugliest parts of human nature—intolerance, jealousy, vanity, and pride. But just when you think that critique might be what the poems are after, Hoagland again surprises. His belief in the possibility of tenderness, that "place ... reserved for human suffering," underscores the collection.
We have a way of making a freak of Las Vegas. What happens there—more suicides each year than in any other city in America, more smoking, more DUIs, more dropouts, more bankrupcies, more foreclosures, divorces, unemployment—stays there. That is, if we even acknowledge that it happens at all. As Ron Flud, then-coroner of Las Vegas, confides to John D'Agata, "The whole cultural psychology of this city is obsessed with convincing ourselves that this is a place of leisure, that no one can get hurt here."
About A Mountain refuses readers the luxury of slogans and in so doing D'Agata sculpts a beautiful, sorrowful anecdote to boosterism. It's tempting to call the book a portrait of the city of Las Vegas—the jacket copy says as much—but that language is inadequate on many levels, the first being the phrase "the city of Las Vegas," which might let us dismiss what we see there as more freakery, and which suggests a narrow scope for a book whose central inquiry concerns the future of all life on Earth.
Another inadequacy would be the word "portrait," which suggests something lifelike, realistic, and likely narrative. D'Agata's mode is closer to collage, a lyrical mosaic assembled from tiles like Edward Abbey, Edvard Munch, Harry Reid, geologic time, the origins and future of language, the corporatization of public education, suicide and suicide-prevention hotlines, atomic tourism, and a delicate reproduction of the final moments before a teenage boy—a boy D'Agata will come to fixate upon—throws himself off Bob Stupak's Stratosphere Tower. To its haunting final moments this is a book about our inevitable and inevitably fruitless search for meaning in destruction.
D'Agata has a particular knack for penetrating to the emotional core of man and place with repetition, the imagistic inverts of radioactive half-life. The Stratosphere is one mountain which echoes throughout the book; the other is the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, in Nye County, Nevada, a "squat bulge in the middle of the desert, essentially just debris from a bigger, stronger mountain that erupted millions of years ago and hurled its broken pieces into piles across the earth." Any mindful or honest exploration of the issue of nuclear waste storage eventually mutates into a vertiginous admission of the undeniable insignificance of humans on the scale of geologic time.
The only project that better renders this staggering, usually unfathomable smallness than About A Mountain is Danish director Michael Madsen's film Into Eternity, a disquieting and meditative documentary about Finland's version of Yucca Mountain, the gargantuan subterranean complex called Onkalo (Finnish for "hiding place"). Both Madsen and D'Agata challenge our own environmental and existential solipsism with works of art bleak and necessary.
—Claire Vaye Watkins
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