Bound by interrogative physics: A review of Stacey Balkun’s Lost City Museum

Lost City Museum
Stacey Balkun
ELJ Publications,  2016

Divided into two parts, Stacey Balkun’s Lost City Museum incorporates this division into what becomes an indispensible aesthetic whole, where seemingly unrelated images and moments—parties, mer-creatures, and museums (to name a few)—are bound by Balkun’s interrogative physics: Lost City Museum is a sensorium of motion, where conflict is produced less by contact with external force than with the inevitable, but sometimes mournful, necessity of a few hitches in our gait.

Balkun’s first poem, “Excavation Protest at Pompeii,” meditates on “plastered bones / centuries-trapped / in thermal baths,” the poem’s central and obvious tension between tourists’ gaze and disintegrated bodies belied by Balkun’s preoccupation with the causes and consequences of a speaker’s fascination with this rubble’s contemporary relevance. “Our ascension / interrupted / when the world found it, named us discovery,” Balkun concludes in a sustained conditional tense. This returns a reader to Elizabeth Bishop’s epigrammatic remark on the loss of “two cities, lovely ones…and, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.” “Pompeii,” itself a lost city, signals Balkun’s interest in curating relationships of negotiation between distances and scopes, the close and warm pressure of an audience — tourists? — addressed by a speaker “falling out of ways to say no.

“Rift” frames two central questions in Lost City Museum. Balkun writes:

…I’ll turn bride
at ocean’s edge, tide

sucking my ankle bones, gulping
breaths, clutching a damp pillowcase

against the pearl-slick of our sheets,
that almost-softness of a dull morning

torn apart without compass
or detachable fins. No tank of air.

In this new impossibility of respiration, what, perhaps, had respiration ever guaranteed? Can the body, in gradations of contortion, be said to be “in motion”? Gulping, airless, submerged like earlier Pompeian bodies, Balkun’s central argument comes into focus: “we fight for air,” she writes in “Night City,” but what if this fight, or this air, was itself the first lost city after and vaster which would fall our realms and rivers? “I’ve become a master of my own distraction,” an aggrieved speaker says mourning her father in “The Birthday Party.” I wish we would hear more poetry about the harm we do from the things we do not face and from all the questions to which we offer Instant Answers.

St. Thomas writes that prophetic vision is not a matting of “seeing clearly, but of seeing what is distant, hidden.” Balkun’s masterful distraction, in this way, is to me as much about rumbling with grief as having the courage to eschew the reckless luxury of certitude. This sight persists into “After the Wedding,” Balkun’s first poem from Part II, in which her underwater speakers contemplate life above: “…but I don’t know / what waits for us there, terra incognita / or Shangri-La…”

The final poems in Lost City Museum, beginning with “Redbird Reef, are concerned with how or why — in the aftermath of distraction — to re-frame experience as newly different:

We don’t have to name it

 

bereft or drowned.

 

Instead, call it                                                  new city,

 

an ecosystem on the hull

 

of an F train.

 

The new, or imaginatively regained, city and its “ecosystem on the hull” is the process of incorporating, or actualizing, an optics of newly exposed feelings in which, if not candidates for named cities and hopeful ecologies, bereavement and drowned are openly acknowledged. “Redbird Reef” presents a speaker integrating affective processes into the spacious acceptance of grace once resisted, or distracted from, now parallaxed from “an F train” to “landscape camouflaged / by coral / or skyscrapers,” and “ships return[ing] / to the bustling city, even if / some of us are lost / outside the grid, / alone on the darkened ocean floor.”

Lost City Museum is, essentially, a museum whose subjects reflexively and imaginatively peer over the proverbial glass and offer the ungentle reminder that, while we’ve been reminded countless times not to touch or take photographs, they have no qualms making us — or habits, ours, and the ways we go about producing both — the subjects of their own inquiry. “So much can overflow,” Balkun reminds in her final poem, “Atlantis.” Why do we arrogantly persist in assuming it shouldn’t?

Engram Wilkinson, originally from Birmingham, AL, graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature and creative writing. After graduation, he worked for a few months on a dairy farm in County Tipperary, Ireland; upon returning to New Orleans, he worked as a croissant-baker and youth football coach, among other things. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cobalt JournalAnomalousPress Street’s Room 220 and Wag’s Revue.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl 2016) and Lost City Museum (ELJ 2016). A Finalist for the 2016 Event Horizon Science Poetry Competition as well as the Center for Women Writer’s 2016 Rita Dove Award, her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Muzzle, THRUSH, Bayou, and others. A 2015 Hambidge Fellow, Stacey served as Artist-in-Residence at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. She holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn.