Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)
by Stephen Whitaker
Poet, translator, and correspondent for The Believer Ian Dreiblatt plumbs the American dystopia in his new collection, forget thee. With equally sharp satire and earnest longing, Dreiblatt’s speakers wander a cultural wasteland so cluttered with inherited ideas, distractions, and intoxicants that all meaning is lost in the waist-high flotsam and jetsam flooding New York, the internet, and the hearts and minds of the people. Dreiblatt samples poetry, music, and academic ephemera as he conjures figures of the ancient world to deconstruct language and synthesize meaning in the white noise of the now.
Dreiblatt’s voice balances tenderness and intimacy with satire and wit throughout the volume. Its warmth engenders trust in the narrator-speaker, the unnamed protagonist of this mini-epic, which at times echoes Dante’s Inferno or Homer’s Odyssey. Descending into the underworld, addressing a loved and unnamed you, Dreiblatt is both siren and herald, prophet and harbinger of violence to come—violence that is echoed in the historical quips of the characters with whom the speaker interacts.
In “dunjalûce,” the opening sequence, the speaker unpacks the idea that language is a violent, active oppressor, and as forget thee unfolds, we see how language, words, and meaning are suffused with power: “in turkish saray means palace a word the northern slavs of / russia twisted mockingly to mean shack and the southern / slavs of bosnia borrowed for their capital.” These lines explore how language is subverted to oppress, a colonizing force felt throughout the world. But language is not just employed by forces of political power; when exploited like currency by western corporate culture, it can become devalued as well. As Dreiblatt writes:
when the eclipse finally
comes we’re so fatigued by
public speech that we’re
ready to believe there is
no eclipse, just a conversation
about an eclipse that
we have to be trapped in for
it to have meaning.
In many ways, forget thee is about reclaiming meaning as much as it is about questioning meaning or making meaning (or culture or history or civilization). The speaker explores bubble worlds, worlds that often rub up against other bubble worlds, causing cultural friction: “hey world there’s no definition of violence we all agree on//or can untangle from a more basic idea of what living is.” And the poems continually circle back to the question: how does one make meaning when our culture is flooded with meaning?
To answer this question, Dreiblatt conjures up ancient historical figures and deities, recalling the necromancers of Gulliver’s Travels who conjured ancient minds and personalities to learn from them. In these exchanges, humor arises from the “soundbites” of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and forgotten gods and goddesses, among others. All the while, Dreiblatt also samples other writers and employs repeating motifs and phrases, which in turn act as a chorus of sorts, harmonizing as the poet ponders the end of civilization. The ideals expressed from history both contrast and harmonize with the now.
In a conversation with the Egyptian sky god Hathor, the speaker exclaims, “I want another kind / of language, I say, houses / have eyes and I don’t / understand how anything / means anything at all—.” Meaning shifts as language changes and evolves, and power often shifts with language. Who understands shifting power better than the old gods, the old tyrants, and the old one percent? Later in forget thee, Thoth, the Egyptian God of wisdom, expresses his horror concerning how knowledge in the age of technological wonders is concealed in writing, an act of wilful ignorance. Writing, in Thoth’s eyes, is a “gift you / didn’t survive.”
And what does Dreiblatt find as he navigates the modern underworld, our dystopian U.S.A.? At the end of forget thee, in “postscripts,” the speaker chooses to be hopeful, looking back to Occupy Wall Street as that hope’s wellspring. Dreiblatt’s poems are ultimately cautiously optimistic about the future, a future where people share their feelings in subway tunnels, free of the oppression of divisive cultural noise:
ever hand you find is
for holding. believe the
news it happened. every
body will help you some
people are very kind.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
see each other
we’re all just crying
to know how late it is &
that we too are like all
This is a freedom dependent on community, making community where no community exists. Ultimately, forget thee represents a necessity in a world where meaning shifts depending on socio-economics and geography, where it is inherited and subverted and oppressed, and where language and ideas are weaponized against neighbors and strangers alike.