Reviewed by Justin Goodman
Line Study of a Motel Clerk
by Allison Pitinii Davis
Paperback: 87 pages, February 28, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1936097135
One can easily imagine blind Tiresias reciting the future like the past to an already guilty Oedipus. Poetry, in a way, has always been such an act of belated prophecy. But whatever predictive powers one might want to take from poetry today, it is probably the case that the prophesy of poetry is not foresight. Instead, it is a clear-eyed vision of the present. Which is why it’s as reassuring as sad that it’s again become relevant in America to ask about poetic accountability–never having become irrelevant. So steps in Allison Pitinii Davis who, in an article for The Missouri Review, invoked a grassroots spirit of Rust Belt writers “put[ting] forth some kind of complicated, collective accuracy” of the region. More importantly, an attempt to create poetry of and for people (think localized poets like Chicago’s Carl Sandburg or New York’s Charles Reznikoff). For we have lost sense of our world and need to restore it to ourselves: this is the spirit of Davis’ first full poetry collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk.
As with Oedipus, Davis finds herself returning to her history to uncover the mystery of her place and time. Line Study becomes not just a mere study in depth–the art origin of the phrase–but a study of poetic lines, lineage, and, most importantly, that lineage’s labor on factory lines. These ideas culminate in stratified layers of personal history; In “At the Laundry After” (“There was money to be made on the line”), in “A Conversation with America About Small Businesses” (“The line is a threat…/The politicized space between the pen and the line”), and in the relevantly titled “Inheritance” (“Reznikoff’s parents made hats. His lines are tight/as his parents’ stitching”). Davis’ collection accrues lines. While this wanting to seem too cohesive can be overbearing at times, it is an impressive feat for a first collection to be so unilateral and precise. Especially since the award-winning chapbook where most of these poems originally appeared, Poppy Seeds, had no such singular articulation.
But it seems that, for Davis, singular articulation is also a concern. In the same way lines become an ethereal concept spread thinly across the collection, there’s also several other words that are intended be overflowing with subtext by the end of Line Study. These words include weather, which is described as “the last employer in Youngstown,” and keys, which are the uncertain pivotal image of the titular motel clerk–The narrator’s grandfather and then father. Much like how we look at the strata of the earth and see one clod of dirt, it is impossible to separate the individual poems from the collection as a whole without making the individual poem devoid of their power. While this is a poetically potent idea regarding a theory of poetry as collective mobilization and cohesion, it makes the collection less tangible and its poems less singular. With Line Study being a “complicated love argument to the culture that made me who I am” (to quote the previously mentioned essay in the Missouri Review), this invokes the perennial challenge of the activist poets: how can I beautifully articulate my ideas in poetry without being the elitist I am leveling accusations against?
In the most powerful of ways, soft-spoken, Davis finds a rough solution in the Beats and the Russian Futurists. Both groups were historical and revolutionary poetic movements attempting to alter the social landscape through art. Allen Ginsberg, the archetypal Beat poet, finds his Howl winked at in “The Motel Clerk Has Heard It Before”: “the best minds left running/overnight, run ragged through/the airwaves” seems an homage to “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” In “Greetings,” the epigraph directly references the Russian Futurist Mayakovsky, later imitating his bombast with the fantastically Futurist line “the love of the future/is the love of projection!” While Line Study does not have the consistent lyricism of Mayakovsky or Ginsberg, there is a steely clarity that is the hallmark of concentrated poetic politics bursting outward. A work which gives up nothing and still retains its relatability and intelligence.
Such a spirit has never been lost–as Davis’ historical and poetical allusions can attest to–and might be found in engaging our own histories and projected futures. It’s as close to a promise as Davis’ first collection is willing to make. But the past, present, and future tells us this is the past, present, and future of poetry anyway. As the contemporary poet/author Ben Lerner quotes of the 19th-century theorist Walter Benjamin:
The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
Art, in this messy overlayering, produces “some kind of complicated, collective accuracy.” Like the best works, Line Study gives a sense of speaking to the present as if to the future. “Because the ones who wrote today’s edition,” as Davis writes in the titular and final poem, “have already written tomorrow’s.” Should we all be so lucky to actually hear Tiresias speak.
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.