04 January 2012

Old News

Philadelphia-based writer Ryan Eckes's second book of poems, Old News, which Furniture Press Books released late in 2011, alternates between narrative pieces concerning the speaker's life in contemporary Philadelphia and appropriated text from the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Evening Bulletin printed during the early twentieth-century. After the collection's first two poems, the poet, in a brief paragraph, explains to some extent how the project came to fruition:
we tore up the rotten carpets and the mats underneath, which were stapled to the old pine floor from the days before carpets, and found newspapers from 1923 spread across the room...some 1923 in some 2007. (8)
From these newspapers-as-flooring, Eckes's travels through time to create a space within his book wherein he constructs an alternate, trans-temporal Philadelphia. A life-long resident of the city, the place, the author, and the speakers of these texts seem inextricably linked. In the poem "news is the old old," we begin to understand why:
alice notley said "more important than having
been born is your city, the scale upon which
your heart when you die will be weighed"
and then she said "i don't know if that's true
or not, i think about it a lot." me too. the
scale can hardly be trusted. it rusts out. (42)
For Eckes, Philadelphia becomes a "scale upon which / [his] heart...will be weighed"; but, given the fact that the "scale," his city, "rusts out," it "can hardly be trusted" to accurately measure the parameters of his "heart." This is not to say that it doesn't accurately measure his "heart," there is just no way of being sure one way or the other.

Such indeterminacy could be a source of anxiety, though, due to the fact that the rusted city is filled with racism:
                                                                                                              ah, the
subway, he says, well the subway's a little too dark for me if you
know what i mean. (14)
we wait and wait
he goes picking through garbage
along the curb and comes up with
a large rubber flashlight (39)
And heartache: "money's why we broke up, more or less" (53).

Could the collaged, newspaper material from 1923 be a way for Eckes and his poems to connect to a past Philadelphia so as to remember "a rich history"; to look back on a city that "fostered the birth of a nation, and through the years established an extraordinary record for political, cultural, and scientific firsts" (41), as as inset from the American Geographical Society's 1951 pamphlet series "Know Your America Program: Philadelphia" states?

Hardly. In fact, the newspaper material that the poet weaves into his collection contains stories of "a suicide attempt" (43), the mysterious disappearance of a mailman, "the sioux indian tribe" suing the United States for "practically three-quarters of a billion dollars / for lands and property taken / by the white man" (45), and a write-up of a "BRIDGE HERMIT STRANGELY KILLED" (30) just to name a few. The collages, indeed, allow the poet to time-travel, but time-travel for the sake of demonstrating the city-scale isn't just rusting out now, but rusted out long-ago. Far from a history rich with a tradition of political, economic, and cultural accomplishments, Old News presents Philadelphia as a "narrow street" filled with "a deep sadness" (55).

1 comment:

  1. I have a chap by Ryan Eckes that I reviewed for Grace B's class--it's really good also.