This Is Not a Skyscraper
By Dean Kostos
Red Hen Press, 2015
144 pages, $18.24
Reviewed by Alex Vidiani
Dean Kostos’ This Is Not a Skyscraper is a feat of documentation depicting New York City, its denizens and dives, transitioning from scandal and death to sex and unmitigated freedom. In this collection, Kostos takes us on a subway tour transitioning from different locations throughout New York City, from alleys to penthouses. Beginning with a crime scene where 22-year-old immigrant Amadou Diallo was murdered by three police officers in 1999, Kostos whips the audience away to a series of side show routines, and then performs a final bow in the apartments of faded lovers. Between these scenes, Kostos expertly sifts through the contents of the city, subverting expectations along the way. Just as Magritte claimed that his painting of a pipe was merely a representation, Kostos convinces his audience to look at what they can’t see and to leave any baggage at the title page, “I can’t/ see the taxi/ slicing through the street…the cab’s/ yellow/ reflects/ into the puddles/ between cars. It’s how I/ imagine spirit: scrawling flame,/ unseen.” There is something almost sacred about these minute details, something sensual and holy underneath the city’s grime. He shows his audience these ethereal planes of a city both eroticized and genuinely erotic.
In order to avoid being overly sensual and running the risk of an overly-sexed narrative, Kostos incorporates a fair degree of intellectualism throughout. Kostos seemlessly blends these two elements together as evidenced in “Hermaphrodite,” “Reading/ Francois Villon…I hear wails, bells, drums…Incense-ghosts rise/ from the shrine. A yin-yang/ symbol perched above a bronze book:/ HERMA.” This is not to say that Kostos is entering the realm of over-stimulation in either regard, erotic or intellectual. He is merely influenced by the various muses in the collection like Villon, who in many ways inhabit the city in the same manner that Kostos does, and the tangible citizens from all backgrounds such as the hermaphroditic dancer. These influences, though sometimes subtle, give this portrait of the city more depth, so that the window of each building is visible and open to the reader if they look closely enough.
In a place filled with cynicism and remorse, Kostos seems to plead for absolution, if not for himself then for the city itself, “I decant lost decades/ through subway grates, await/ alchemic renewal, transmute/ the inability to love/ into love. I pour the cup./ I spill it.” The city becomes almost Christ-like, filled with love and passion but crucified all the same, though instead of blood, the city bleeds “through its/ music: jazz from/ saxophones…like slow, dark oil from the depths of subways.” This city as not only lived in, Kostos asserts, but itself living and somehow through the pain and ecstasy taking place on its streets, it is absolved. This true, redemptive portrait of the city, that almost holy American icon, is most easily seen in the beauty of Kostos’ language, his unexaggerated embellishments. The language and strong wit thrive in these poems. From descriptions of a carousel in Central Park, “necks arch & swallow/ Flame-&-leaf patterns, entwined with thorns,” to naming male genitalia, “At the Whitney: a wire self-portrait by Calder,/ his name coiled into phallus,” Kostos is not afraid to exercise both. However, some of this beauty and cleverness is lost against the more mundane, conversational elements of some of the poems. Instead of being raw, husky voices or urgent calls for attention to an injustice, some moments run the risk of being expository and ultimately distracting from the greater narrative at large. This aside, the narrative structure itself takes the reader through so many back-alleys and underground tunnels that it maintains a sense of eagerness to see even more fantastic sights and exhibitions that Kostos presents.
It eventually becomes clear that this collection is a stage set against the backdrop of NYC. Kostos, then, becomes a performer just like those in the play around him: the sword swallower and scorpion cowboy, even a deceased porn star. “This Is Not a Skyscraper” is an epitaph not only for this both crucified and worshipped city but also for those wandering its shady or gaudy corridors, asking the living one final question, “are we…fixated on wanting/ to last…to/ chisel into sandstone’s/ implacable monument: ‘I/ was here?’” Beneath the mascara and mortician’s tarps, New York is above all else a monument, to which Kostos leaves it up to the reader to decide what this monument’s purpose really is. Whatever the case, this bleeding but still quite alive city is invariably beautiful, asking merely for your attention, “Soaked in darkness/ & bastard-amber/ light…Sprechgesang/ imprints dark air, consonants/ carving vowels from a wound.”