Monday, November 12, 2018



The Cosmopolitan by Donna Stonecipher
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)

Author, poet, translator and critic Donna Stonecipher grew up in Seattle and Tehran and lived in Prague from 1994 to 1998. She graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in 2001 and completed her PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Georgia. She now lives in Berlin. Her publications include The Reservoir (University of Georgia Press, 2002); Souvenir de Constantinople (Instance Press, 2007), Model City (Shearsman, 2015) and Prose Poetry and the City—an extended essay exploring the prose poem (Parlor Press, 2017). The Cosmopolitan, published in 2008, was selected by John Yau for the National Poetry Series.
The Cosmopolitan consists of a sequence of 22 prose poems which Stonecipher calls “inlays” —a term borrowed from the traditional crafts of weaving, wood inlay, embroidery and metalwork, being a design, pattern or piece of material such as wood, gold, or silver that has been inlaid into the surface of an object. In a note to the reader, the author says that the poems were written while she was thinking about “my generation’s relationship to quotation and collage.” The idea for the book came to her after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s furniture collection and an encounter in another museum with one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

In The Cosmopolitan, Stonecipher takes texts from books that she was reading at the time and places them among her own texts as an “inlay” on the surface of the paper. These embodied texts come from works as diverse as The Trial by Franz Kafka, Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss and The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin.

The whole idea of the inlay permeates this book, from the collage on the cover by Jiří Kolář to the numerous ways in which Stonecipher interprets or defines the word “inlay” in her texts. This is especially made apparent through the idea of enclosure: mention is made of the insides of flowers, a picture enclosed in a locket and crickets in cages. Other descriptions of what could pass for a type of inlay include a face on a photograph, reflections on water and snow-covered mountains on a paper placemat.  Her use of words such as “tunnels,” “mazes,” “pockets,” “umbels,” “corollas,” and “cupolas” convey the idea of some kind of receptacle into which something else can be placed.  The location is sometimes a museum or an art gallery, places that house or enclose objects of beauty.

Stonecipher’s symmetry is particularly interesting. Every paragraph of prose takes up the space of either three or four lines, mostly four. There are repetitions of groups of words that convey a satisfying feel for balance when voiced inwardly or aloud, for example:

from Inlay 3:

[6] London has its Rothko, and Paris has its Rothko. New York has its Rothko, and Des Moines has its Rothko. Tokyo has its Rothko, and Berlin has its Rothko. Venice has its Rothko, and Geneva has its Rothko. After walking among imperial fountains she felt that if she opened her mouth a jet of water would suddenly come spurting out.

from Inlay 7:

[7] The silent majority stared hard at the vocal minority. More and more, there were eyes closing as velvet curtains descended upon screens. More and more, there were hands turning on electric lights in the daytime. More and more there were cosmopolitans carefully examining tropical flowers in the dark.

[10] He travelled to France but he didn’t see any existentialists. He travelled to Italy but he didn’t see dolce far niente. He travelled to China but he didn’t see any panda bears. He travelled to California but he didn’t see a single surfer. Nevertheless his shell collection, with every vacation, grew.

from Inlay 8:

[1] He was born in Kaya, Burkina Faso, but now he’s living abroad. She was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but now she’s living abroad. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, but now she’s living abroad. He was born in Vancouver, Washington, but now he’s living abroad.

from Inlay 22:

[9] We bought china in China. We bought cognac in Cognac. You bought turquoise in Turkey, and I bought an afghan in Afghanistan. I bought india ink in India and you bought an Indiaman in India. But nowhere did we relinquish any little of ourselves.

Like “the historian who had a rage for order” Stonecipher also has a penchant for palindromes.

Allied with symmetry, architecture is another recurrent theme. Indeed, Inlay 11 carries a quotation from the writings of the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid: “Architecture is really about well-being”.

In Inlay 11 [2] Stonecipher writes:

The formal garden was a fitting antidote to the disarray growing in her own mind. Wasn’t symmetry a “natural” phenomenon, as natural as a replica, as a graph? He had always thought we’d be happier like snails, coiled up tightly inside spiral shells.

Later, in the same prose sequence at [7] comes this revelation:

Blue pencil poised, she kept forgetting that there are no right angles in nature.

Early on in the book, in Inlay 2 [9] Stonecipher states

The citizen has ideas about the architect, but the architect has ideas about the citizen. The architect needs the citizens to people the plaza. But do the citizens need the architect? Yes, for the architect tells the citizens precisely how far they are willing to trust modernity – and precisely how far they are not.

Throughout the book, everything transmogrifies into something else. Who will remember our cities as they once were? Cities sink without trace.  Their names change, the “voices” change, the architecture changes, buildings burn down and are rebuilt. In some sections, these observations extend to wider issues such as the decline of nation states. At times there is a sense that the past was a more beautiful place.

Stonecipher is herself a true cosmopolitan. In this respect, it is fitting that she should be the author of this book where the content ranges effortlessly through a number of different locations from Venice to Tokyo, New York to Paris and many other places in-between.

In The Cosmopolitan, all the “voices” are anonymous and it is impossible, other than by gender or profession, to distinguish one from another. This leaves the reader with a sense of detachment and disconnectedness. It is for this reason that I am not fully convinced that these prose poems, beautiful though they are in themselves, add up to a satisfactory whole. Throughout my reading of the book, I was looking for a point of focus and I could not find one. Aside from that, it is Stonecipher’s phrasing, her recurring patterns of imagery and the attention to detail with regard to symmetry that makes this book such a joy to read.
Full credit should be given to the staff at Coffee House Press for the way in which they have accommodated Stonecipher’s long lines and set out each poem on the page.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).