Political Geography of the Imagination

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POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION WAR BIRD by David Gewanter Phoenix Poets: University of Chicago Press, 2009

Review by SeanEnright

HERE DOES THE IMAGInation live, and what are its politics?

In David Gewanter's poem, "American Incognito," a wounded Afghanistan veteran emails home to say, "As a state ... / Afghanistan is next to Mars." And in "Hamlet of Merano: The Lotus Eaters," Gewanter plays with the roles of tour guide and literary historian, knotting together a poem from strands of history and literature, even as he makes something new of the aggrandizing narcotic of the place itself. In both cases the reader can live in a verbal space greater than physical perception or emotional recognition, in the fires sparked by juxtaposition.

A town in the Alps between Italy and Germany, Merano is not only a geographic border, but also a cultural and historical one. Gewanter's poem is an extraordinary guide to a Merano not in any record, one that hides in imagination's untouchable shadow, ideal and replete. Pound wrote part of The Cantos in Merano; Kafka went there as a cure for tuberculosis ("even Kafka, scowling like Bogart / came to Merano once, for the waters"). This line about Kafka is a wondrous quoting of Casablanca that captures the film's droll irony, as Rick says to Captain Renault, "I came to Casablanca for the waters," and Renault replies, "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert," to which Rick replies, "I was misinformed."

In the poem's present tense, undergrad tourists ("the ox-eyed / girls of Appalachia College (study abroad) / stretch for the castle's champagne grapes, / or play hacky sack in short-shorts . . . / O to be a grape underfoot-") are subordinated to the history of the place. Gewanter summons the Lotus Eaters of Homer, Herodotus, and Tennyson, and the mystical plant that Homer's sailors eat, which kills their desire to return to the ship and keeps them locked in their dreams: "The eye sees what it remembers, / the imagination dreams its rut / is fresh, not tragicalcomical-historical . . . / Who, pocketing the chilly grapes, would not / name himself king here, / and forget who is king?"

We're used to reading political philosophy, history, and cultural objects as themselves first- that is, as definite "non-fiction" texts that revel in linearity and objectivity. Journalism lassoes a topic at best with a fine sprinkling of detail. Gewanter uses politics, history, and culture, but not objectively: he proclaims his poems; character or setting lead, and develop in tone from the set of a character's mouth, the suggestive atmosphere or shape of a landscape. His diction and associations trip us up and force us back to chaotic juxtapositions built within, or by, sentences; his syntax creates a history of his imagination, which we read as an imagining of our history.

In "1972: The Battery," the weather, adolescent political feelings, and sexual maturation ("the battery hums along the leg") conspire with the first hints of adult ennui in the American summer of the Cambodian incursion. Two high school boys, the "Billboard Bandits," are electrocuted during one of their pranks, and their school becomes a battleground. …