Etruscan Press ($17.95)
by Daniela Gioseffi
American Amnesiac is Diane Raptosh’s fourth book of poetry, and very possibly her best. She attempts something quite unusual with this magnum opus—one long poem spoken in the persona of an older man suffering from amnesia. The book constitutes his stream of consciousness as he attempts to piece together who he is and what he’s experienced in his American life. His situation is laid bare on the first page of the book: “I . . . / woke in Civic Center Park three states away, four hundred bucks / stuffed in my right sleeve. My life has always been a flock of mishaps // waiting to take flight.”
A poignant and interesting saga follows, page after page, as the amnesiac travels through America in and out of his mind, commenting on the meaninglessness of his journey and the story of his life that only comes to him in bits and snatches of memory. It is a skillfully written journey through the American cultural landscape, as our “John Doe” becomes “a man missing a nation and a wife, strung up between a past / I may not want and a present in which I cannot make myself at ease.”
“John Doe,” as he prefers to call himself, thinks he may be anyone from a “Calvin J. Ex sous chef . . .” to a “Think-tanker in Singapore. Financial Consultant. Art historian. / Husband. Apprentice in P.R. NGO pundit.” His rambling thoughts carry us through seventy-two pages of his memories, snatches of speculations and ironic pronouncements that constitute a meandering critique of American culture. Yet this is a difficult conceit for the author to accomplish. Whoever John Doe is, he has a very developed vocabulary and knowledge of many things, and his observations are often witty or ironic to a fault—the reader cannot help but conflate the poet and this amnesiac persona.
Hints abound, however, that “suspension of disbelief” is the goal of this dramatic monologue. At one point, the author writes,
I am John Doe, no more modest than immodest. Whatever
is done to someone else comes back to me. I shake
my bangs equally at bombs and greed. But get a load of this: Gazump
is a process of which a price of land is raised higher
than the cost agreed on days before both parties sign their John
Hancocks. Through me surges much about the state of what is,
despite—or due to—amnesia. Prosopagnosia. Fugue.
Whatever this is. I can’t recall a thing I did for Sachs. I’ve forgotten
what herbs do. I don’t know my brother. I do not recognize
a world in which the claws of leopard crabs have turned
to oil clubs . . .
Neither do we recognize this world in which we are caught in our own delusions and jumbled recollections that boggle the brain into a uniquely American amnesia. Ultimately, that is the point of this stirring saga.