Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie

Joshua Harmon
University of Akron Press


“The automatic garage-door opener / lifts on a prospect of Poughkeepsie,” and Joshua Harmon’s tender, disturbing catalogue of “the secret / city inside the more obvious one” has, like a recession, already set into motion its “insufferable inching towards wreckage.”    

Indeed, reading Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie is like listening to Songs: Ohia in an abandoned garage filled with broken couches. Snow is falling and there’s a fire in a rusted oil drum from the backyard. A vine grown through a crack in the cinder block wall is dead and bleached white. From out of the power lines there’s a voice: “[I]f you’re not part of the problem, / you’re part of the lengthening / tragedy,” and between the pile of empty beer cans and the other rubble of a post-industrial life there is enough room to be home, and to love it, and to forsake it. 

Reimagining Baudelaire’s turbulent investigation of the horrific transformations of mid-19th century Paris, Harmon sets his syntactical abilities on Poughkeepsie, a failing town on the Hudson River that was once a burgeoning center of culture, industry, and politics that is, like so much of the American landscape, a crumbling, rusting visage of its former self. Everywhere we go in these poems, the town, the people, and the landscape carry the physical and emotional scars of their decaying fate, a bleakness that is smelted to the particulars of its existence. Hope is hard to come by as “an autistic rain stutters over Poughkeepsie” where “the sky is pink over a block of derelict homes in the city / where I can’t look at you alone.” And there is music in Poughkeepsie, and Harmon makes us listen:

            …the noise of beauty,
            noise of the bullet the cop blasts into the heart
            of the traffic-struck doe kicking limply
            beside the road, broken stalks
            and broken legs in headlights now busted

The human and the nonhuman have literally collided, violence has become a casual response to questions no one can answer, and the myth of what it means to be from a town like Poughkeepsie has been dismantled with “another boombox sermon” as “imaginary / municipalities of strip mall treelines get knocked over / with a front-end loader.” Harmon spares nothing, and his grief, and Poughkeepsie’s grief, are made new in his language, which is frightening: “the girl hiding beneath her bed for hours / thinks it’s going to end / but it never ends.”

In dialogue with Baudelaire, who was appalled by the intensification of the inhuman forces of modernization, especially by its effects on the poor, Harmon is witness to the shocking aftereffects of what it means to forget that we are human, and that our ability to ruin the environment and ourselves can so easily escape our control. Through Harmon’s precise, charged enjambments and attention to syntax, these poems blur class, nature, language, technology, and the remnants of mercy into a post-pastoral fight for survival.

            …progress’s ordinary commerce
            gets stranded in this town’s vacancies

            and intervening scraps: so noise
            becomes intently irregular, skittering

            windwardly amid the working
            class shrubberies and filtering
            maple leaves of a garage-sale
            economy: the non-negotiable

            vocal inflections and muttered
            curses of father and son

            rebuilding the house they
            crowbarred for kindling last year

That Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie oscillates between meditative prose blocks, fiercely enjambed lyrics, and unbroken, longer poems is another testament to Harmon’s control over language and content. Throughout these poems, a divergent, untranslatable language emerges from the structures of Poughkeepsie via “the mumble of traffic” and “the passive voice / [that] speaks on our winds and in the humming / of our truck tires,” resulting in poems that are a kind of “textual weeping.” Indeed, Poughkeepsie inhabits the language of these poems in many ways: “From a nest inside the illuminated O on a strip mall’s façade, a starling watches too.”

Amid such syntactical despair, these poems are still able to resurrect a buried optimism unique to lost places like Poughkeepsie. Even the image of “a feral kitten licking coconut milk / cans left unrinsed in the recycling bin” carries a buoyant kind of hopefulness. It’s surprising when Harmon writes that “[t]he greatest poverty is not to live / in Poughkeepsie,” but it’s clear there is strength to be found in such brokenness, that the future is still there, empty as it may seem.

            how long till you succumb
            to the accidental nature
            of nature, your own nature, spaces
            to fill in later

But not everyone will make it out: “the ritual mourners of Poughkeepsie / find the rock-salt path home.” For a little while, Harmon makes it worth it to follow them, to show their faces, so much like yours. 

--Nick Sturm

Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. Winner of the 2011 AWP Intro Journals Award, his reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Coldfront, H_NGM_N, The Laurel Review, On the Seawall, and Whiskey Island. His first book-length editorial venture, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, was published by the University of Akron Press in January 2011.

Also by Nick Sturm:

Review of The Grief Performance by Emily Kendal Frey

Review of Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder

“You stick a line from a B52s song into the middle of everything”:
A Conversation with David Dodd Lee