Poor Little Poughkeepsie

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The affection Joshua Harmon has for Poughkeepsie is the kind one might have for an alcoholic uncle or an abusive neighbor who occasionally tells good stories. The only love here is tough, the product of circumstance rather than choice.

“If you’re not part of the problem, / you’re part of the lengthening / tragedy.” So opens Joshua Harmon’s second book of poetry, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, winner of the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize. Part love song, part ethnography, part cry for help, this book places its readers at the center of a small city in the Hudson Valley where “autistic rain stutters” and “father and son / rebuild… the house they / crowbarred for kindling last year.” Survival here is an ongoing failure, and what glamour there is stems from calamity, as when “creosote ignites in the chimney” and residents “gather… in the street under the splendor of fire-truck lights.” Ripe with the poverty of a “garage-sale / economy,” Spleen is an intimate tour of one man’s relationship with a city where he’d rather not live.

If this sounds oppressive, that’s because it is. The affection Joshua Harmon has for Poughkeepsie is the kind one might have for an alcoholic uncle or an abusive neighbor who occasionally tells good stories. The only love here is tough, the product of circumstance rather than choice. “I lived in one place,” Harmon writes, “and then I lived / in another until I came / to Poughkeepsie.” But such fatalism doesn’t deprive this book of tremendous beauty. Despair is projected onto the landscape in a stark combination of abstract and concrete detail. In one poem, “fugitive self-interest” and “reheated coffee” find themselves side by side. In another, Harmon imagines “rebuilding the city / from a hatchback filled / with day-old loaves and all / the appropriate resentments.”

Like a gawker at a traffic accident, Harmon is spellbound by daily horrors, and it’s in the meticulous accumulation of visual detail that a relentless topography emerges. His poem “Poughkeepsiad” is a six-page inventory of depravity where “a girl hid[es] under her bed for hours / thinks it’s going to end / but it never ends.” Relief, or the specter of relief, finally comes from the extraordinarily mundane: “In the T.J. Maxx plaza there is a new tenant, / and in the sunlit parking lot the brilliant / windshields of cars whelm / the occupants of a Honda.” In a city where “five / dollars takes you anywhere… / except out of it,” even the smallest reprieve seems a blessing.

This harsh, post-industrial landscape is mitigated by gorgeous lyricism. Using a combination of prose poems and harshly enjambed verse, Harmon creates hypnotic rhythms and occasionally lapses into delightful sound play: “in lawful ground, last / leaf-lace, light of flat / screen.” The tension produced is tremendous. Harmon’s images paint Poughkeepsie as a sort of measured hell, while his lyricism betrays begrudged tenderness, an unwanted nostalgia.

The only complaint I had while reading was the unwavering hopelessness that characterizes the first half of the collection. “Can new tedium distract one / from tedium that already exists,” Harmon asks a third of the way in. This emotional standstill seems to come not from Harmon himself but from the claustrophobia of his hometown. “Can we just get rid of Poughkeepsie little by little?” he asks. Whether his despair colors the landscape gray, or the surrounding wasteland produces his depression is unclear. Either way, what I first interpreted as a failure to progress, came to feel like an honest portrayal of a city where winter extends into April and “memory is made of brick and concrete.”

Like Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, the collection to which Harmon owes his title, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie is not without comedy. Towards the end of the 48-page section, “Tableux Poughkeepsiens,” structured loosely around the passing seasons, winter ends and he exclaims, “O springtime foliage! …Where else might we find the most beautifully tuned car alarm?” Such wry juxtaposition of pastoral tropes and urban decay occur frequently. Eroticism is subverted in this assurance: “The man with a hand in your drawers in only checking for mice.” And nature rolls in like a sarcastic teenager when “The wind still says ‘As if….’”

Harmon’s melancholy portrait of Poughkeepsie is starkly beautiful, a masterpiece in which landscape functions as an extension of the narration’s despair. Exploring the darker aspects of the American landscape and the American psyche, Harmon engages a full arsenal of poetic craft. And while he’s firing bullets, “shoot[ing] everything you want to / remember,” he still employs tenderness. “Poor little Poughkeepsie, / alone without delusions, / as if two blocks of wood / were knocked together.”

Anya Groner's reviews can be found online at Bookslut and The Collagist. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals including Flat Man Crooked, Story South, Word Riot, and elsewhere. More from this author →