Citizens of Ordinary Time
by Benjamin Goluboff and Mark Luebbers
Urban Farmhouse Press, 2023
Reviewed by Zachary Martin
A review of Citizens of Ordinary Time by Benjamin Goluboff and Mark Luebbers.
In Namwali Serpell’s “The Banality of Empathy,” an essay from 2019 in the New York Review of Books, she interrogates the idea that literature inherently engenders empathy. “The empathy model of art,” Serpell writes, “can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it…It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.” Or, as she puts it more bluntly: “[Art] simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it.”
Art as a machine for making empathy has been a difficult position for me to shake entirely, as I imagine it also is for Benjamin Goluboff and Mark Luebbers, collaborating authors on a new poetry collection, Citizens of Ordinary Time (Urban Farmhouse Press). The collection consists of “speculative biographical poems,” which the authors define in their introduction as “narrative verse in which imaginary events are written into the life of a historically verifiable person.”
While most of the poems eschew the first-person, nearly all require suppositions about their subjects’ inner lives and a handful are indeed persona poems. Whereas most such poetry collections explore the life of a single person—the authors cite Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon and Maurice Manning’s Railsplitter as exemplars, though Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke and Campbell McGrath’s Shannon also come to mind as recent examples—Goluboff and Luebbers explore a panoply of historical figures. The result is a collection that explores the ideology of speculative biographical verse itself.
The authors survey ten separate (or joined, in the case of the photographers and lovers Gerda Taro and Robert Capa) subjects, as disparate as socialite and painter Florine Stettheimer and Confederate General James Longstreet. Each figure gets about half a dozen poems. With figures male (Larry Walters) and female (Iris Tree); Black (jazz musician Mary Lou Williams) and white (jazz musician Bill Evans); from the nineteenth century (Longstreet and American mystic Jones Very) and from the twentieth century (all the others), Serpell’s arguments about using art to inhabit others were never far from my mind as I read.
It helps her case that I find her argument completely in keeping with another essay, which I find entirely persuasive and to which I also keep returning, Ben Lerner’s “On Disliking Poetry,” from 2015 in the London Review of Books. “A poem is always a record of failure,” Lerner writes. Paraphrasing the critic Albert Grossman, he explains the failure thusly: “You’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms”—the finite terms being the limitations of this paltry thing we call language. Importantly, however, Lerner does not call—as Socrates and Plato did, and perhaps as Serpell would suggest—for curtailments to poets and poetry. I rather take his essay to be a paean to the Sisyphean task—which Goluboff and Luebbers take up in this collection with applomb—of continuing to attempt to bridge the gulf between mine and thine, even as the epistemic logic of Serpell’s argument lingers.
In their introduction, Goluboff and Luebbers offer a number of rationalizations for why-these-figures-in-particular, including an attraction to “lives in the arts” and “taboo subjects.” That suggests we might do well to reconsider how we categorize some of these figures. Longstreet, for instance, is presented as much as a young actor or retired, rural man of letters as a military figure:
…Othello was the first of the plays
to go up in Magruder’s folly,
and we might number it
among the moving accidents
of flood and field
occasioned by the Mexican war
that James Longstreet and Ulysses Grant
both auditioned for the role of Desdemona.
These poems are filled with literal and lyrical both-ness. In “He Makes a Simile,” Goluboff and Luebbers ask if Larry Walters—who, in 1982, went aloft over San Diego in a folding chair tethered to helium balloons—can be considered both deeply disturbed (he would later kill himself) and a kind of poet or aerial performance artist:
From fifteen thousand feet
The Los Angeles River,
captive in its concrete aqueduct,
looked like the slot
in a model car raceway
or a crease scored ruler-straight
down the gray urban page.
…Larry was so pleased
with the conceit and with his authorship of it,
he forgot for a moment that he had escaped.
The authors’ describe their collaborative process as a kind of sport, with “volleys” and “rallies” back and forth until a force nearly “telepathic” tells them they’ve finished a poem, but discussing process as pastime or as electrical impulses moving through the ether does a disservice to their results. It should be said that, while the collection as a whole is polyvocal, individual poems are not; when the authors speak, they speak with one voice. Goluboff and Luebbers have also clearly done deep research on these figures and have uncovered crucial moments—voltas, really—that likely inscribed themselves on these historical figures, though it’s that mere “likely” that makes me uneasy.
In their introduction, the authors define their portfolio as “[making] music from the data of our subjects’ lives even as they amend, extend, or redirect the narrative of those lives,” which might actually be the most taboo aspect of the collection. These amendments, extensions, and redirections, specifically with this agglomeration of biographical subjects, are relevant to the conversation around the empathy model of art. “We would like to claim that these poems begin with facts about our subjects and end with truths,” write the authors, but how does this claim butt up against issues of positionality and representation? Does speculative biographical poetry simulate or stimulate empathy?
I don’t believe this collection has a ready answer to that complicated question, but I do believe these authors are aware of the waters into which they’re wading. Goluboff and Luebbers have chosen as their subjects artists, especially photographers, who are enmeshed in questions about perspective and framing. As such, these poems inevitably contain passages that gesture toward the inherent subjectivity of human experience and the inadequacy of art to fully capture it. “[A]esthetic experience was a wanting of what never could be had,” they write in “She Smokes Hashish, 1916,” about artist and ingenue Iris Tree. The authors’ (and subjects’) reach exceeds their grasp; they are aware of the impossibility for it to be otherwise, no more so than in the collection’s first-person persona poems—
I will set up shop by the river,
please my fool wish to frame
some instances of its flow.
I will subscribe to that fiction…
—and all the loneliness and sorrow that can follow from this impossibility:
Thus my hope,
and anthem, thus
—forgive the term—
Like the intensifier,
too, it must be said,
I am quite alone.
I have no plural form.
The risks run both ways. To never attempt to roll that boulder to the top of the hill hazards a kind of epistemological dereliction, bordering on moral failure. To make the attempt risks reducing, flattening, misrepresenting, stereotyping the experience of others. Goluboff and Luebbers risk the latter, succeed in expanding my sense of these historical figures, and make me feel a little less alone. In their sensitive and evocative treatment of their subjects, they convince me to continue to believe—for now—that art can still be one of humanity’s most powerful tools for engendering empathy.