by Donna Stonecipher (Shearsman Books, 2015); pbk £8.95 Review by Hamzah M. Hussain
Donna Stonecipher’s Model City is an evocative and thought-provoking collection; despite an at times formulaic structure and expression, each poem feels new and progressive. Over the course of seventy-two separate pieces, the collection answers the simple question: “What was it like?”. In spite of being deliberately ambiguous about what the “it” is (perhaps the experience of migrating to a model city), Stonecipher raises intrigue and draws the reader in . The collection’s carefully considered imagery and its elusive nature makes for absorbing reading.
Model City is as exact and planned as a Le Corbusier-type model city would be. It follows a rigid structure in which each separate poem – titled numerically and sequentially from ‘Model City ’ to ‘Model City ’ – contains a quatrain comprising of three lines each. Each stanza reads as a single sentence. Additionally, each poem contains a word or phrase repeated in various permutations from the first stanza to the last, giving the impression of a threaded mode of thinking. This gives each poem its own identity and thematic resonance:
… printed with either paintings or
photographs of snow-covered Alps.
it was like noticing that the Swiss chocolate bars with paintings of snow-
It was like reflecting that the paintings of the snow-covered Alps on the
…then picking out one with a
painting of snow-covered Alps on it- because you, after all, are also singular. (“Model City ”)
It seems that Model City serves as a large, extended metaphor which strives to describe the feeling of living in a model city. It does perhaps begs the question “What is a model city?” This is not explicitly stated in the collection but is a question which continually presents itself to the reader. Some suggested responses relate to architectural idolism or Utopian fantasy where everything has order, structure and purpose. Stonecipher suggests that such perfection does not always produce a comfortable or pleasurable way of life:
It was like thinking about the building that you call home as an exoskeleton
you do not in any sense own, unlike a snail’s exoskeleton…
…and remembering that even snails don’t own their own homes,
that one doesn’t even own one’s own skeleton.’ (“Model City ”)
Ideals emerge also as dystopic. Lines such as the above make Model City engaging; the beginning of one image or idea that gradually develops into another, or which progressively deepens, is a trait which regularly occurs in this collection.
Although the repetitive formula of all seventy-two poems might pall, I think this is fully intentionally for the effect Stonecipher sets out to achieve. Her poetic format and configuration is strongly reminiscent of the precision and structural awareness of an architect designing a building. In the same way that architecture must abide by certain rules and regulations but can still create a thing of beauty, Stonecipher, by constraining herself to engineer within her own parameters, forms beautiful language and ideas:
It was like looking at the faces on those skeletons and asking yourself why
skulls are always grinning like that…
…and realising we are always grinning like that, under our faces.
…there you are grinning, despite yourself, down at the book.(“Model City ”)
Model City’s form replicates its subject matter. Beneath the façade of the structure is a flow of complex and engaging concepts written in an accessible way and in a vivid manner.
Hamzah M. Hussain
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