THE STATES by CRAIG FOLTZNICHOLAS GRIDER Reviews
The States, Vols. 1 and 2 with poems by Craig Foltz in a postcard-book project with photographs designed and edited by Ellie Ga. Photographers: William Gillespie, Justin Ulmer, Martin Bland, Sabra Cox, Kristina Del Pino, Simona Schneider, Florence Neal, Jon Ciliberto, Stephen Mead, Christa HOlka, Don Goede, Lyn Lifshin, Shelton Walsmith, Marie Kazalia, Rebekah Travis, Lara Khalil, Tracy Lee Carroll, Jennifer Stahl, Barbara Henning, Jade Doskow, David McConeghy, Jared Zimmerman, Alice Arnold, Robert Matson, Mary Wrenn, Julia Marta Clapp, Tina Burton, Jim Simandl, Philip Metres, Chris Hampton, Hayley Barker, Thomas Ciufo, Meredyth Sparks, Shannon Shaper, Renae Morehead, Ryn Gargulinski, Robert S. Dunn, Jen Hofer, David Gatten, Jerilyn Myran, Shara Shisheboran, Courtney Fischer, ARiana Smart Truman, Tod Seelie, David W. Lee, Katherine McDowell, Mike Mahaffie, Willile Baronet, Karen Lillis, Paul Yoo, Justin Simonsen and Elizabeth Willis.
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006)
There’s a lot to be said about the poems in this book project, though the poems themselves almost get buried under the structural and design tropes that dominate the book. The States is a book of fifty poems, one for each state, but it arrives in the form of six green-tinted accordion-folded and perforated “postcards” that imply a relation to the kitsch of the state or local postcard proudly trumpeting the landmarks or picturesque scenery of a given state. The postcard idea is an interesting one, but unfortunately it gets clouded by a few authorial and design choices that almost get in the way of the text itself. The first of these are the fifty photographs included in the book, one for each poem/state. The photographs themselves are a clever choice in that they (like the poems) work against a hazy idealized portrait of statehood in their refusal to adequately reference the states they’re supposed to relate to: most of the photos are of skies or clouds that could have been taken anywhere but are, allegedly, taken in each state by 50 photographers named on one of the non-poem postcards. The suggestive possibilities of this refusal get lost, however, in the uneven quality of the photos themselves (some of which look like vacation photos that never made to the family album/flickr site) and the decision to aestheticize the photos by desaturating them and tinting them all the same hue of camouflage green. You could probably argue that, because the photos are a function of the postcard conceit, the presentation is less important that the idea, but positioning the photos as something to be glanced at rather than studied under cuts their conceptual usefulness as part of the overall work. The photos nod toward the absurdity of separating land according to “state,” but because they’re not given the same kind of careful attention as the poems they end up just distracting from what’s at stake in the book, which is Foltz’s positioning of the poem as landscape in a way that unsettles the idea of “the landscape” in much the same way that Stein’s portraits interrogated the meaning of a “portrait” and the relationship of that concept to language.
The point I’m slowly approaching, here, is that the poems themselves do a lot of heavy lifting, and don’t necessarily need the photograph/postcard conceit; though the packaging is beautiful, and I’m all for experimenting with the form of a book, part of me would like to simply ignore the format and get to the meat and potatoes of Foltz’ lexical landscapes. Because I grew up in Wisconsin and I’m fascinated by the flat yet accurate idea non-Midwesterners have of what the Midwest must be like, I flipped to that poem first, and initially I was not enthused, confronted with what seemed like a list of “stuff people think of when they think of Wisconsin –
favre’s shovel pass is stuck in the drive.
separating during the threshing, he mutters.
Immediately following this, though, are a few great lines that demolish the idea of these poems as collections of factoids:
the frosting, if you’ll remember to smooth the
neighbors. the undocumented dreams of teenagers
and hayseed oil. piled with pillows and glass
noodles. lemongrass stalks. packers posters
line the bedroom.
There are a lot of great things to note here: first, there’s the sudden turn from a mostly normative use of verbs to the phrase “smooth the / neighbors.” Then there’s the ambiguity of the teenagers and hayseed oil line, in which hayseed oil could either be an agent with undocumented dreams or simply something else offered alongside a mention of teenagers. Finally, there’s the return of Wisconsin Culture in the form of the “packers poster” though small-P “packers” here is something loose and alien among glass noodles and lemongrass. Not to mention the fact that they line the bedroom, not your or his or her or my bedroom, presenting a kind of ur-Wisconsin Bedroom that shakes the poem loose of any responsibility for a specific point of view. This is where landscape writing comes in, again: the texts are rigorously non-narrative and non-invested with a subject position, allowing them to float through the subject of each state in a way far more sophisticated than the clouds on the back. From the same poem:
this is an answer and this
is an answer and this is an answer too.
There’s no referent for “this,” but that’s what’s exciting about these poems: their refusal to orient themselves from a particular subject position’s relationship to a particular landscape makes space for the poems to be landscapes themselves. “Wisconsin” and the other 49 poems aren’t fixed to their actual places any more than the clouds pictured on the reverse, so that rather than Wisconsin being a place where Brett Farve and lemongrass make contextual sense, they are Wisconsin—or at least they produce a “Wisconsin” somewhere between the actual place and its TVland identity. This is probably the best way I could think of trying to go about a project held together by statehood: get rid of the idea of “statehood” as a prior condition altogether.
I could go on and on like this for all the other states, but you get the general idea; in any case, if you’re looking for something akin to “landscape writing” that doesn’t fall into traps of local color or normative language, this is a good place to start.
Nicholas Grider currently lives in southern California.