University of Southern Indiana

Damnatio Memoriae

Damnatio Memoriae - Book coverDamnatio Memoriae

There is a wonderful effect halfway through Michael Meyerhofer's Brick Road Poetry Prize winning new collection where a description of emotional vertigo in the narrative of one poem (“In the Men’s Locker Room at the YMCA”) resolves and suddenly reverberates beyond the individual poem and through the whole collection up to this point and sets up the tone to what follows. There are indeed exceptional individual poems on display here but Meyerhofer's fourth collection stands out in its cohesive narrative structure, one exhibiting thematic and symbolic patterns that repeat and reference in small ways throughout the book. In this way, small epiphanies don't sound out just once on page but chime out through the entire text.

Damnatio Memoraie is first obsessed with the weight of history pressing down on modern, personal moments—how it both comforts and crushes every moment of a life. The result of this is that a sense of universality is built from the first poem on so that even the most intimate, absurd, or troubling revelations are relatable to the reader. In the titular poem, the speaker says that "I want to believe that we are all / just rough drafts of the same assignment." Later, in "Skandha," this idea is expanded slightly into "the origami of your theory / that we are all the same person, / born from stencils but with different scars." This shared shape of humanity is a vital assumption in Meyerhofer's work and why it can be so potent. These two lines, from the first two poems of the first chapter of this collection (“Flowstones") also show the structural patterning that shapes this book.

From stating in these early poems that, while specific details may change between readers, certain concepts are universally shared or they are lost, this theory is tested and warped in poems like "The Original Swastika," which bides its time discussing the reoccurrence, and positive associations, of this ancient symbol while the blot of Nazism sits between the reader and the poem, unacknowledged until a chilling reference to "black snow on the hoods of German sedans" at the end. Trusting the shared cultural response to Nazi symbolism but not directly applying it creates a rising sense of tension that isn't in the text of the poem itself. The reader’s relationship with history participates with the poem. The "Flowstones" section of Damnatio Memoraie defines the role of history in modern life by testing the boundaries and strange intersections of ideas where we may not have looked. “Yggdrasil” stands out by balancing Norse Worldtree against more modern superstitions of luck and pregnancy and then showing them through the lens of quantum physics. “Post grads” imagines that class of journeyman educators as masterless samurai, holding to an ancient code of honor, and a taste in beer, well above their place in society. At times, as in “Ode to the Boxing Clapboard,” these associations may stack up too deeply and too randomly on their own. When aided by association with the rhythms and structures of the collection, however, they feel less cluttered.

The second chapter, “Stalagmites,” becomes the strongest portion of the book by building on the proven weight of history and focusing on one occurrence: the death of Meyerhofer’s mother. Here, his narrative strengths take command. No one poem deals with the death in close details but, in combination, the story is told in seventeen pieces. These disassociated fragments start thirteen years after her death, reach back to her illness, move past the day of her death and otherwise flit through time and association to moments that speak in subtler ways on Meyerhofer’s relationships with women, lovers, and maternal figures. “For Tanya, Whose Fate Remains Unknown” deals with Meyerhofer’s sense of paternal guilt and growing unease over the condition of the daughter of whoever the panicked old woman on his voice mail intended to call. Tanya’s story is an unresolved mystery but its arrival scrapes against old scars. Similarly, “Husband for a Day” creates a moment of beauty out of the grunt and strain of a friend’s Lamaze class, finding “love,” or something like it, as much in the moment as in the palpable sense of absence. Even more oblique, “Before Rilke Was a Man” recasts the German poet as a maternal, American Indian squaw and finds comfort in this misunderstood, heroic creation. This section could easily be, by its confessional nature, sentimental and precious; however, Meyerhofer avoids this by varying the emotional affect of the poems, bringing out the anger of one, the sarcasm of another, and by being simply funny at times. When his teenage understanding of women comes up hard against his grandfather’s over a shared viewing of the 1980s sword-and-sorcery film, Red Sonja, “all those Italian girls in chain mail blouses,” the lost mother haunts their political and cultural divide. It should be painful except that there is a sense of how ridiculous and frustrating it is to have to respond to the death even during bad escapist fantasies. As in the first chapter, these tonal and thematic associations build until the release of “In the Men’s Locker Room at the YMCA,” which serves as a climax to the narrative up to this point but also crackles with earned emotional heft. In it, the poet describes the mixed pleasure and shame of glancing at a young girl and her father changing in the public locker room not out of prurient interest but because doing so awakens the memory of “bathing / in the friendly shade of a woman” and remembering just once what it felt like to be “never lonely, / and swollen with love for the world.” In these closing lines, this poem becomes about the repression of these emotions of loss in the sixteen previous ones.

“Divine Prepositions,” the fourth chapter, follows suit. Its poems connect through an evolving discussion of poetry and other small, subtle acts of shared communication. Individually, some of the strongest poems of the collection are found here. However, while they themselves are charged with the themes of the earlier chapters (“Mother’s Day,” for example, deals with the thrill of breaking the traditions of grief in the face of, and in honor of, his mother’s passing), they don’t have the same level of intertextual communication that the earlier chapters do. This takes away nothing from the best poems of this section—“Affirmative Action” and its depiction of the “strained toothy kindness” of modern race relations might be the strongest and most quietly insightful poem in the collection—but it does create an artificial sense that the book peaked early. This sense is accentuated by the third chapter’s unifying element being more formal than thematic; while Meyerhofer uses the prose poem style in interesting and sometimes experimental ways, this part of the collection loses some of the narrative thrust the first half so benefits from.

Rather than expecting Damnatio Memoriae to be a continuous, non-sequential narrative; it is fairer to say that the four chapters tell their own narratives in their own styles. On those grounds, this collection is a success. However, there is a sense that Michael Meyerhofer has the capacity to commit his grand narrative structures to his fine poetic moments in way that can broaden the scope of the modern poetry collection and that he almost fully succeeds here.

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