The Small Anything City by Cynthia Arrieu-King
(Winner of the 2006 National Poetry Chapbook Prize from Dream Horse Press, Aptos, CA, 2007)
In the title poem in Cynthia Arrieu-King's The Small Anything City, the speaker tells us that the "small anything city" is "anything you / ever lost." In this chapbook, which is Arrieu-King's first published collection, we find lost people and lost objects as they briefly surface in the speaker's memory. Often, what’s recalled of losses and failures are a few crystalline images in which the speaker locates associated emotions. The language used to convey these images and associations is precise, restrained, and instructed by silence.
The poems are often quite personal in their associations; in "Target Pistol and Man," for instance, the speaker is reminded of her dead father while looking at a self-portrait (titled “Target Pistol and Man”) by Alex Colville. There is a shift mid-way through the poem, where, following the only stanza break, the speaker connects elements of the painting to her own life:
The expression of Scotch Alex’s waist, wrists, and head poised
like my Chinese father’s.
Such associations blur the boundary between representation and “real,” as in "People are Tiny in Paintings of China." In this poem, the speaker observes that in a painting of a mountain, "It is hard to tell water and pigment from air and flesh." The mountain becomes real as the speaker considers the dangers posed to people on a real mountain: "Riding too fast down a real mountain, / a truck of shale risks a spill / next to a crowd of lean people..." In this poem and elsewhere, the omission of narrative details creates the spooky silence that often follows catastrophe. "They say the mountain is slow and full of snow. / And can hide almost anything," the speaker concludes in "People are Tiny." What has the mountain hidden? What has the speaker hidden from herself? The poems in The Small Anything City are oblique and suggestive in order to deal with the emotional complexities of events.
One of the book's motifs that I find interesting is the tension between the objective and subjective (or another way of saying this, between the “real” and the representation, as in "Target Pistol and Man" and "People are Tiny"). We see this tension in the book's first poem, "Albino Aubade," where subjects' attempts to express emotions are obfuscated by impersonal forces--
love doves, my mother begged. Father nodded,
a bizarre Morse code
of dots on his tie. The facts of the wind
rewrote the notes they slipped each other.
--before the subjects themselves are obliterated by the death of the speaker's father: "The bleach of him spilled on grief / and aftermath: She forgot the lines of her dresses. I fell / formless into taxes."
The poem closes with the kind of image that appears elsewhere in the book, crystalline even while dissolving:
A strawberry inlaid with tiny diamonds went pink,
then into mist.
There was less. The sky rose up again,
though nothing instructed it to.
Throughout "Albino Aubade," human lives are dissolving into objects, which finally also dissolve: nods become a code of dots become the seeds of a strawberry that goes "into mist." We see such dissolution throughout the book. As the boundary between subject and object breaks down, the structures of several of the poems ("Albino Aubade" being one) also dissolve by becoming more fragmentary, so that the reader observes an initially prose-like structure with a speaker whose identity is not in question break into more fragmented verse wherein it seems even the speaker’s identity is effaced.
Something Arrieu-King does well is to imbue objects and the landscape with an emotional resonance without symbolism, anthropomorphism, or didactic description. She is an adept writer of interior landscapes, of the subtle processes of their construction and of the difficulty of their inhabitation. In the title poem, Arrieu-King juxtaposes the exterior neatness achieved by rational thought with the wildness of the subconscious, the following lines bringing to mind Plato via Clark Coolidge:
The brain trimming it back letting it all grow wild rooted
as in the ideal cave, the back of a long dank cave.
Once in a while I'll go to another city and reach for the phone
trying to call my father--
Many of Arrieu-King’s poems go to bleak places, but they often get there by way of humor. For instance, "Welcome to Your Wish List, Tomohiko Nakao" is quick and funny in its speculative leaps, beginning:
I grip the helm of my imaginary speedboat cutting the clean Pacific
thinking of you behind me in Japan, Tomohiko Nakao,
ass being packed into a Kyoto subway car, late as hell,
my crucial and unmet friend
choking down pristine rice
where you could not possibly be, since
you were just here in my damned library seat
trying to buy a book on-line.
The poem ends more sedately, and, disappointingly, becomes a bit preachy:
Whatever you added to your wish-list
cannot possibly eclipse
what you really need,
what you actually longed for
on your grey ride home from this cement building.
This distinctly pessimistic voice is perhaps the only departure from the epigraph from Unsuii, Rule of St. Benedict, which begins The Small Anything City and describes many of its poems: "They have come through the test of the desert. They have passed beyond optimism, pessimism, and mysticism. Being so, they are like clouds and water."
Generally, the speaker's tone is not preachy but wry, humorous, even guarded, often leaving the reader to figure out what has happened. We see this in the book's final poem, "April 17, 1998; Or, The News," which begins,
My sweetheart has a way of telling a joke,
a story, springs it on me,
in his letters. He writes HAHAHA
and the HAHAHA ends up funnier
than the joke it modifies.
Quietly, four stanzas later the "sweetheart" of the first stanza becomes "my friend / who writes me HAHAHA in letters of what has happened to him..." It is left to the reader to decide why this change from “sweetheart” to “friend.”
Before reading The Small Anything City, I had been reading recent poetry by Arrieu-King in poetry journals. The Small Anything City is a strong first book, and Arrieu-King only builds on its strengths in her more recent poems. I am excited to read a full-length collection by this poet.
Evelyn has published fiction and poetry here and there online and in print. Evelyn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on her blog.