Book Review

The first section of Joshua Edwards’s Imperial Nostalgias consists of two prose poems, “The Traveler” and “The Outsider,” which are situated back-to-back on the same page, both visually and thematically ghosting through one another. “The Traveler” describes an unnamed man who arrives in an unnamed town, and, prophet-like, diagnoses a concealed “evil” in the town and then departs, “continuing down the same road he arrived on.” In “The Outsider,” a magician performs a trick using his audience’s collective imagination, which the audience finds entertaining only at first. Soon, they turn on the outsider, threatening to “cut his throat.” In a puff of smoke the magician disappears, leaving in his place a note that reads, “The next disaster is just around the corner.”

These initial poems, in the appropriately titled section “Two Parables,” present dual figures for the poet as a perpetual stranger, a truth-bringer (however fallible) fated to wander and report upon the state of the world. The speaker of these poems is himself a traveler; yet, unlike the “parable” figures, he questions as much (or more) than he answers:

Underway in a slightly foreign land,
I’m glad to have traveler’s air about me,
to be another streak of color exhilarated
and speeding up. Is life movement?
Or a target I’ll always be closing in on?
On a journey I become my questions.

To journey, here, is to participate in a kind of “uncertainty principle,” as to locate the self in one way is to obscure any other. The speaker is both magician/prophet and audience, somehow leaving the note behind for himself to find (quite the magic trick!), always anticipating the potential “just around the corner.” This collection is part magic, part physics: written mostly on a train journey across North America, these poems begin to form equations, spells for making art happen (if a poet and a train are traveling at the same speed, what does the imagination taste like?). And there is yet another variable, the “nostalgia” for a travel mode both deeply ingrained in “imperial” American history and almost completely superseded by the car, another form of environmental imperialism. Within this artistic calculation, the traveler “gladly” gives himself up to the whims of locomotion (“exhilarated / and speeding up”), passive as a beam of light under which the data unfurls. Leaving the comfort of the known (which, Edwards suggests, is unavailable to the poet anyway) brings out the nuances in the most basic elements—earth, air—rendering them not only “slightly foreign,” but virtually, and fruitfully, unknowable.

There is a problem, however, with this Romantic undertaking: the American frontier has long been closed, and worldwide there are very few outposts of the “undiscovered.” Even “the final frontier” seems to be shrinking rapidly. What one hopes is left—the landscape of the mind—may have been already co-opted, conquered:

Now I hear the Majjhima Patipada
promoted in my favorite beer commercial,
first aired at half-time during last year’s
Super Bowl, on a day like every day, a day
to say grace and give thanks for a brain
and the cans that I can crush against it.

But (thankfully) this is not merely another lamentation for the unscrupulousness of capitalism. The Majjhima Patipada, the Buddhist idea of The Middle Way, outlines a path through life that does not veer toward the extremes of pleasure or suffering. While the speaker would not go so far as to compare himself to the Buddha, his travels through varying geographies and cultures (in addition to North America, some of the poems in the book were written in China, Mexico, Germany, and Nicaragua) illuminate the paradoxes inherent in his own “imperial” culture, which leaves room for moments of both grace and brutishness. Occasionally this self-searching tips over into the excitably sophomoric: “What / are poets to do with the silence they put / their poems into?” or “I is a word / at rest, resting in the mind”; luckily, such lines are saved by the momentum of the overall conceit.

The paradox of the American outlook is examined visually in the second section of the book titled, “The Valley of Unrest.” This section contains no text at all; it is instead a series of photographs that are meant to be read in much the same way as the rest of the book. Arranged side by side, the photographs also work as pairings to create further meaning through contrast and association. While some of the pairings seem a bit simplistic—a many-branching tree next to an intricately patterned ceiling brings up little beyond the natural vs. the artificial—some are deeply haunting in their “slightly foreign” ambiguity: a blurry image of a dog on the right looks back across the page to a building that is barred by wooden doors and a corrugated metal roof. Even the typographical design of the book contributes to this meaning making, as title pages and other book matter display the same frame as these photographs, only empty.

Though at first these poems feel truncated or stymied (on purpose, it seems), upon a second and third reading they begin to broaden not across the page, but across other avenues still open to exploration for both poet and reader. Fittingly, the collection’s titular poem encapsulates not only the speaker’s journey, but the strange pilgrimage any reader of poetry undertakes:

They tried to prove,
through enterprise and art,
that a journey’s end exists
at the outset, as a darkened lamp
that tumbles back through
all the stages of its building
into a dream of light.

“Nostalgia” comes from the Greek for “return home” (nostos) and “pain” (algos); these poems  recall not only the blank page but the perfect idea of the blank page, recognizing with pain that the poem written upon it is only a “darkened,” flawed manifestation of the journey of the mind. Edwards has considered nostalgia in a very old sense, taking the epigraph to Imperial Nostalgias from none other than Lucretius’s 1st century B.C.E. poem “On the Nature of Things”: “The mind’s peculiar frenzy and / The oblivion of things that were.” This is a book of frenzy and oblivion. Take it with you when you go.

About the Reviewer

Rachel Abramowitz holds a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa; she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English language and literature at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Her essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in the Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The Oxonian Review, Jubilat, Pool, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She teaches English literature at Barnard College, where she is an adjunct professor.