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Alicia Mountain

To call the poet Alex Dimitrov an heir of Baudelaire does not do his concerns with isolation and urban experience justice in their own right. Dimitrov’s expansive 2017 collection, Together and by Ourselves, moves through seasons and lifetimes, cities that I recognize as much by feel as by name, and relationships that I have also felt, even if I don’t have a name for them. Dimitrov’s work exists in a world where we correspond in emails without subjects, where we sleep with our cell phones in bed like companions. However, despite the hallmarks of his modern era, Dimitrov’s work is linked to Baudelaire through more than the lines of translated French that he quotes. Dimitrov and Baudelaire share a poetic landscape wherein they wrestle with the isolation of lived experience.

This shared terrain was made clear to me while reading Walter Benjamin’s essay “Some Motifs on Baudelaire” from the 1955 collection Illuminations. I would read Benjamin in the evenings for my academic life, fall asleep, and then wake up to Dimitrov’s Together and by Ourselves, which I read for morning inspiration before sitting to write my own poems. In the dream-time between these readings, swirling nocturnal Benjamin would settle in my mind like sparkling snow globe sediment falling into place. In the morning, I would read Dimitrov with an unexplained sense that I had been given a study guide. Each poem in Together and by Ourselves spoke to its moment, but also glinted in the illuminating way that reminds one how light can be measured in years across time.

When Benjamin writes about Baudelaire, frequently he could just as easily be writing about Dimitrov, for whom “the lyric poet with a halo is [also] antiquated” (Benjamin 192). In fact, Dimitrov frequently takes Benjamin’s analyses of Baudelaire a step further, ripening the critic’s metaphors for a 2017 audience. In Together and by Ourselves, rather than encountering the mid-19th century shock of a struck match, we indulge in Dimitrov’s recurring drags on a lit cigarette. For Dimitrov, traffic is less “a series of shocks and collisions” (Benjamin 174-175) because we ride through cities isolated in cabs or diver’s seats, “Speeding Down the FDR” or “Speeding Down PCH” (Dimitrov 43-45). A Dimitrov poem is rarely a meditation on one experience or a discreet moment, but is instead a collage of many experiences overlaid.

One of my intentions in applying fragments of Benjamin’s criticism (and a bit of his essay style) to Dimitrov is to situate both the contemporary poet and the world about which he writes within a literary legacy of lyricism that denies temporal definition. Dimitrov shows that many of the interests of lyric poetry remain the same: a desire to be seen and, in that seeing, to be known; the intersection of subjectivity and public life; experience lived and experience remembered. In the sections that follow, I will first provide an overview, and then study more closely, some motifs in Dimitrov that catch Benjamin’s light. Of course, these glimpses are not at all exhaustive. On the contrary, I intend this essay as a starting point from which readers will begin to build their own Dimitrov reading guides. With any luck, he will provide us many more volumes to study.[1]

 

I: On Some Shared Motifs

When the speaker in Dimitrov’s Together and by Ourselves reads Baudelaire in the poem “Champagne,” they[2] read to a distinctly intimate you, one with whom they share not only a line from Baudelaire’s “Spleen,” but also a moment of shared embodied perception. Dimitrov writes, “I read you Baudelaire. I have more memories than a thousand years. / And our skin began to look like a puzzle / despite lighting or pleasures” (13). Within three lines, Dimitrov offers as many ways of seeing—reading from a page of French poetry, memories seen in the crowded mind’s eye of Baudelaire, and the look of one’s own body and that of another in light or pleasure. Here, as in much of his collection, Dimitrov addresses private moments of seeing, being seen, and consciously or unconsciously forming memory. Just as often, Dimitrov’s work considers communal, ceremonial, or historical moments seen in public—marriages, celebrations, holidays, even the failure of perception that brought about John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s death: “spatial disorientation occurs when you don’t refer to your instruments / and begin to believe the whatever inside you” (31). Together and by Ourselves moves between the public and private spaces of the speaker’s urban life as well as the public and private space of the poem on the page. Much like Baudelaire’s poet, “exiled on earth amid the shouting crowds,” (whom Dimitrov invokes in his poem, “The 25th Hour,”) Dimitrov’s speaker is at once isolated, alive in the world, and wanting to be kept company by the reader who gazes upon his page. “Every book is a book, is a thing that you feel by yourself. / You are here. I am alone in this poem,” he writes in the first poem of the collection, “You Were Blond Once.” With Dimitrov’s speaker we are, in fact, together and by ourselves.

In “Some Motifs on Baudelaire” Benjamin’s consideration of the intersection of both intimate and public perception is useful in a reading of Dimitrov. Benjamin paraphrases Proust when he states, “where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past” (159). He goes on to describe how ritual, festival, and ceremony enact the melding of an individual and a collective past. Benjamin also notes Bergson’s philosophical work on memory and explains, “experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective experience as well as private life. It is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data” (157). Dimitrov’s collection documents the festival and ceremony—his titles include “July Fourth,” “New Year,” “End of Summer,” and “Birthday.” Yet, the images and moments in Together and by Ourselves seem to be as much if not more concerned with an accumulation of unremarkable data:

 

It’s the bright nights we remember,

those that live outside the hours

like a show in early summer, or a vision at the Garden;

knowing nothing of our narrative. (40)

 

In Dimitrov’s work, the nights themselves know nothing of the narrative, but readers witness the convergence of memory as these discreet snapshots accumulate into a narrative that we can know, that we can see.

The recurring motif of cameras and picture-making in Together and by Ourselves serves to unify the above themes of seeing/looking, memory formation, and ceremony/ritual. Dimitrov’s speaker uses photographs to document moments, to mark the passage of time, to bear witness, to see and be seen. The photograph is a trace of experience. Dimitrov’s speaker photographs casually, developing private moments into marked events to which one can return. With the private yet documentary ritual of looking through or into the camera, this speaker looks for and at Benjaminian experience.

 

II: “Deadly, in Daguerreotypy”

Together and by Ourselves begins with photographs as a way of seeing (and recording the seeing of) experiences. The first lines of “You Were Blond Once,” the first poem in the book, are “I have a photograph… / when I describe it, you’ll know” (Dimitrov 3, ellipsis included in the original). Halfway through the poem, Dimitrov builds upon this opening with the lines “I have a photograph of you… / when we ate an orange in bed” (3), which introduces the you who is gazed upon, as well as the sensory information of eating an orange in bed. Sticky juice, the smell of citrus, the texture of rind and pith, the experiential indulgence of food in sheets, the you—none of this can be wholly captured in the speaker’s photograph. The signifying photo fails in the ways that all signifiers do, and yet the fact of the photograph reveals that the speaker is looking to frame this sensory experience, to enter it into the record of a life lived. The final two lines of “You Were Blond Once” further develop the recurring “I have a photograph” phrase and place the recorded experience within time, but they do so ambiguously. Dimitrov writes, “It wasn’t that long ago. / I have a photograph of you from that day…” (4). As the recurring line develops, it becomes incantatory: “I have a photograph…” “I have a photograph of you…” “I have a photograph of you from that day…” The repetition of this incantation alludes to Benjamin’s notion of photographic mechanical reproduction, but Dimitrov does not surrender aura as a victim of this reproduction. Instead the incantation of image-making (memory-making, poem-making) is its own ritual, its own self-conscious ceremony. For Dimitrov, looking is not a means to an end, but is an experience itself.

In “Some Motifs on Baudelaire,” Benjamin explains “what was inevitably felt to be inhuman, one might say even deadly, in daguerreotypy was the (prolonged) looking into the camera, since the camera records our likeness without returning our gaze” (187-188). In Baudelaire’s time, this was very much true. The mechanics of twin-lens reflex cameras meant that a photographer would stand with their gaze down into the camera body rather than up through a viewfinder. Both the person viewed and the person viewing looked into the jealous black box of the camera. Technology necessitating long exposure times made this unreturned gazing a “prolonged” experience.

The mechanical event of photography is no longer a concern in Dimitrov’s world. Rather than preparing to sit for a long exposure, posing in Together and by Ourselves gestures toward trying to know someone, trying to really see them. Dimitrov begins “The 25th Hour,” with another photographed experience when he writes, “Before I took his picture I asked Matthew / to think of one thing he couldn’t refuse. / He returned a phone call. I took his picture” (19). Preparations for making this photograph circle around essentializing Matthew’s desire— another intangible element that the photograph cannot signify, but one which becomes part of the speaker’s looking experience. Within Dimitrov and Baudelaire’s shared landscape of isolation, it is particularly poignant that the phone call Matthew can’t refuse takes his attention away from the speaker; instead of the photographic subject having his likeness recorded without his gaze returned, here the speaker gazes through the camera upon Matthew, whose attention is elsewhere.

Benjamin notes that this failure to return one’s gaze was not just inhuman, but potentially “deadly.” This fatality does not shock Dimitrov; in fact his speaker nearly convinces themself that the isolation of the unreturned gaze can canonize the lonely:

 

…the gaze

can’t be read—even looking into the camera is dying.

Why fight it. If you die enough times

you become your own saint. (45)

 

Again, the ritual, ceremonial, and spiritual coalesce with the personal—this is not a public sainthood, but a private canon composed of the self. Though Dimitrov writes that “looking into the camera is dying” he still gives the reader and the speaker his blessing to go ahead and be looked at, to look into the mechanism that can “photograph your soul” (43). By positioning his speaker at times in front of the camera as it’s subject, and at times behind it, taking photographs, Dimitrov allows the speaker to switch roles—taking and offering, being gazed upon and being ignored, desiring and being desired, living and killing and dying and canonizing. Encompassing these many aspects of lived experience, the photographic metaphor labors to drop a rope that can pull the speaker out of their isolation. If “looking into the camera is dying,” that must mean we are alive.

 

III: “The Remoteness Which a Glance Has to Overcome”

The isolation in Together and by Ourselves has to do with an existential and personal bearing witness. The motif of cameras a photography stands on its own as an image, but also functions as a device to frame Dimitrov’s deeper work around the human desire to be seen, recognized, understood—that is to say, the human desire to be known. When Dimitrov writes “how in front of the cameras / it was as if he was seen all the time / for the first time” (91)[3], the cameras are a mechanism through which to relate the feeling of inaugural recognition.

Even without ambivalent cameras, Dimitrov’s work still exhibits an anxiety around this recognition. While his speaker can see themself “in mirrors and small in this suffering. / This is never enough” (52). The speaker continues, “of course I’m still here / waiting for you to look at me” (52). When Dimitrov’s speaker is seen, they do not trust the gaze of the other. In the poem, “The Standard” they say “I need you to check your eyes / and make sure you’re seeing this clearly / when you’re seeing me often” (29).  Dimitrov knows that the gaze can be dangerous in re-inscribing isolation. In “American Money” he writes, “the wrong kind of gazing can halt conversation” (36). In Dimitrov’s work, “people disappear. / And go looking for a place to be looked at” (14). The gaze that is so craved is also something to be doubted, especially by a speaker who has such strong desire to be seen through the obscuring fog of isolation, a fog in which people do disappear when they go looking to be looked at.

 

IV: “Look at Us in Return”

Where can the speaker in Together and by Ourselves be seen by the gaze that overcomes this remoteness of the soul?  Where do they stand most plainly in view? I believe it is in the poems themselves. Dimitrov does more in his poems than just describe scenes, more than frame them through a viewfinder; he does more than collage personal ritual and public ceremony into experience, and more even than trace seasons to “assemble[] the days of remembrance into a spiritual year” (Benjamin 183). Dimitrov collapses the distance between the speaker’s words and the speaker’s world[4], making them one in the same. Dimitrov’s speaker, plaintive and defeated and persistent, tells us, “I’m trying to reach you / right here in the poem. / Smoking too many cigarettes, writing very few lines” (Dimitrov 92). The speaker is almost literally right here in the text, on the page—plain to see.

Returning to the poem “The Past Remembers You Differently,” we see Dimitrov merging the real-world experience of seeking with the dynamics of poetics. He writes, “I swallowed some part of the evening / then left and went looking / and looking is where I can follow the plot” (Dimitrov 52). Here, the act of looking makes sense of things, it charts a course, but it also places reader and speaker within a literary field or a poetic domain. Boundaries blur between the world of the text and the lived experience of an evening. Similarly, in “Out of Some Other Paradise” Dimitrov writes, “I saw you, as if in the middle of a sentence, / snow: your new evening clothes” (51). In this poem, which reckons with abandonment and lovers walking out on each other, the image of snow as clothing calls to mind white space on a page, and the absence and isolation implied therein. If the you is a word in the middle of a sentence, that you has much less narrative meaning when set apart from the rest of their line. The white space/snow clothes pull them out of their meaning-making surroundings. By describing lived experience through the language of poetics, Dimitrov positions reading/writing as another mode of looking, of seeing, and perhaps of being known.

Dimitrov makes the mechanics of poetry into a lived experience. His speaker uses this poetry as a way to understand and describe others, and also as a way to manifest their own desire to be seen. This is more than just following the plot. In the middle of “The Past Remembers You Differently” Dimitrov’s speaker declares, “I want to run through my life until I am a word. / This is the nineteenth line of the poem. / I am waiting for you to look at me” (Dimitrov 52). And, in fact, it is the nineteenth line of the poem—a countable fact. Because I can bear witness to this reality as a reader, because I can see it on the page with my own two eyes, then the eighteenth and twentieth lines of the poem become real to me too. I, therefore, take it as fact that the speaker can be a word. Simile and metaphor make all the difference here: not “until I’m like a word,” but “until I am a word.”

In the nineteenth line, I see the speaker seeing me see the line. Our gazes are meeting as I read. In the nineteenth line I make eye contact with the speaker through the page—they know that I am reading, and that I know that what I’m reading is intentional and true. “This is the nineteenth line of the poem.” It couldn’t be anywhere else. Thus, the twentieth line maintains eye contact. The speaker is waiting for me to look at them through the remoteness of the tiresome soul, and I do. The words of that line don’t change, though, even when I’ve read them over and over. I am looking at them and they are still perpetually waiting for me to look at them. Even when the speaker and I are together in the space of that line, we are by ourselves. Dimitrov knows this. The wanting to be seen doesn’t stop or change. It’s still there for you.

You—you reader, you reader of this very word, you direct address reader—I am going to tell you what to do. Open Together and by Ourselves so that it may look at you. “Perceive the aura of an object…with the ability to look at us in return” (Benjamin 188). There is someone inside these pages, someone on the twentieth line, waiting for you to look at them, too.

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Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, Shocken Books, 1977, pp. 155-200.

Dimitrov, Alex. Together and by Ourselves. Copper Canyon Press, 2017.

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[1] In a footnote to “Some Motifs on Baudelaire,” Benjamin quotes Kant on the subject of gambling: “‘On the boulevards it was customary to attribute everything to chance.’…For the bourgeoisie, even political events were apt to assume the form of occurrences at the gambling table” (198). Dimitrov’s collection is being published in a similar era—one wherein the populace seems to have little power over political events and elections. When faith is lost in the democratic process, the voting machine lever looks more like the slot machine lever. I note this in order to resist the power of chance in both politics and poetry. Of course, I don’t actually put my faith in luck to bring us another Dimitrov collection; it will come from the poet and his labor and his seeking. Likewise, I am dedicated to a political future that will put attributions to chance back in Benjamin’s past tense. In “The Last Luxury, JFK Jr.” Dimitrov writes, “These Americans. / They always button their coats when they see luck” (31). American that I am, I bundle up to go out in the cold against this notion of chance.

[2] I’ll use the gender-neutral pronoun “they” in reference to the speaker in Dimitrov’s poetry. If this is a challenge for you, reader, then keep trying.

[3] Notably, this line does not reveal who does the seeing, or who is behind the camera. Instead, the camera itself is the closest thing Dimitrov gives us to a gazer.

[4] One could argue that the poet also folds his own identity (that of Alex Dimitrov-poet) into the identity of the speaker and the identity of the poems, when the I ventures into self-aware meta-narrative poetics. I do not take the argument quite to this end, but I want to recognize potential fragility, ambivalence, and multiplicity in Dimitrov’s narrative I. This is an I who, at the very least, is a poet “right here in the poem. / Smoking too many cigarettes, writing very few lines” (Dimitrov 92). At times, the narrative I seems to be writing this very book.

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Alicia Mountain is the author of High Ground Coward, winner of the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming). A queer poet in the PhD program at the University of Denver, her work can be found in Guernica, jubilat, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Sixth Finch and elsewhere. Mountain earned her MFA at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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