Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Utopia Pipe Dream Memory

By Anna Gurton-Wachter

Reviewed By Patrick James Dunagan

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As noted in Publisher’s Weekly review of the 1999 reprint of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, “the day like the dream has everything in it.” Twenty years later, forty-one years after Mayer composed her masterpiece, Anna Gurton-Wacher’s Utopia Pipe Dream Memory continues in the lineage of Mayer’s groundbreaking book-length poem, exploring similarly epic terrain of “everything” grounded within a poetics of the personal.

Gurton-Wacher self-identifies as a woman, and her gender takes center stage as she unleashes her “utopian” vision celebrating her assumption of the poet mantle. A mantle which out of necessity she has wrangled for herself—“yes, you get it, I had to crown myself open”—imploding the status quo—“[…] I crowned myself / earthquake shatterer poetics king”—while facing down imposed limitations—“I / in my woman treasure futile form.”

Gurton-Wacher’s writing is hardly futile, however. It is ever-formidable. Her reach is as ambitious as it is forthright, “what anybody would do have done if it was possible then sure I wanted to do it.” Because why not. Gurton-Wacher joins the growing-vast company of women writers who, like Mayer, explore where writing goes when unleashed from expected norms. She announces the names of some women she sees as surrounding her upon the page:

Bhanu Kapil is here. Renee Gladman is here. Clarice Lispector is here. Rosmarie Waldrop, Maya Deren, Carla Harryman. All of us together are watching the lions split open, unseam, unreal, and shed into a new voice. Lion blood splattered all over us. I watch the event and I also look away. The hairs on my arm are spies resisting the interval. The quality of air is undetermined and is it so wrong that I want to take the stage?

At times their presence is quite visceral:

I am ready to receive the news through Hannah Wiener’s nipple. I listen for the thread.

Hannah Wiener’s tit is in my mouth.

Refusing to be confined by the limits of narrative genre and form, she nevertheless exploits the advantages thereby offered to tell her story of how she manages (or at times perhaps fails) to find her way to writing poetry: “above your head that would be great witches would talk to you without anybody pleased all gold explaining it fit so well I had to destroy the double precious eliminate all the space around a poem so it doesn’t seem great but it is.” The result makes for a challenging yet nonetheless quite inviting reading experience. This is writing where anything might happen.

Following Gurton-Wacher as she traverses poetic terrain others may have covered in part before but that she remarkably reimagines is a definite delight. For the reader unfamiliar with the above-named company her work interacts with, she drops in plenty of original hutzpah. All the while deadpanning her way to a takedown of poetry’s patriarchal clubhouse:

The poet says to me: “Remember the line of Virgil where a man hits a woman over the head with a lily flower and she shatters? Probably a metaphor.”

Ha ha ha. I smile and nod. A poet is always waiting for someone to offer sex up. For someone to redefine productivity. For someone to finally call out: “What is it that you really want you fucking creep?!”

I say, “Depends what is meant by shattering.”

“Or woman. Or flower.”

While these moments arrive couched within definite braggadocio, it is never too much and remains far from coming across as coy or otherwise unnecessarily distracting. Indeed, for those feeling too often bogged down by the pseudo-literary decorum and/or hottest trends bandied about within poetry circles, Gurton-Wacher manages to bring refreshingly direct assessments full of lively candor. Sometimes it’s close to intellectual stand-up—but not the quick, gimmicky, metrical sort of banter, say, of Charles Bernstein.

Gurton-Wacher is of a next generation of poets who have had enough of being bothered about old hang-ups with “the literary.” Announcing that now is the time to once again bring in everything the poem might yet hold within its juggling assemblage of spectacle and necessity. She sounds out a welcome to all readers, mixing fragments of everyday verbal exchanges (whether overheard, intercepted, answered, or simply made-up) with astute reckonings of where she’s been and where she may be headed. As she tells it, “I wanted to be a poet so I turned down Broome Street made a swift exit and maybe I’ll do it differently next time.” She also declares, “I tried to make something of what I had learned”—which without doubt she has done.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. He is author of The Duncan Era: One Poet’s Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). He recently assembled a portfolio honoring poet David Meltzer for Dispatches From The Poetry Wars. With Nicholas James Whittington and Marina Lazzara, he is editing an anthology of writings by alumni and faculty of the now-defunct Poetics Program at New College of California.