After spending some time with Joshua Edwards’s Imperial Nostalgias, it’s clear that not all who wander are lost. His second full-length collection takes the reader on a trek through the fields of France, Mexico’s ruin-flecked chaparral, and the mountains of China while wrestling with themes such as place, belongingness, identity, and one’s moral obligation as a global citizen. The speaker in Edwards’s book is self-effacing, awe-struck, and although just passing through, offers the reader more than just a sort of “wish you were here” set of post cards. Equal parts travelogue and philosophical primer, Imperial Nostalgias celebrates the curiosity and triumph of the human spirit above all else.
Edwards opens with two parables: “The Traveler,” who has “spent his life in perpetual hunger,” and The Outsider, who “stuck the real up into the imaginary.” This of course begs the question, as the poet himself is both traveler and outsider, can he write with authority and authentically about places and people he experiences so ephemerally? Is he qualified to pass the sorts of judgments he does? Are any of us? How do we spend our lives in perpetual hunger? Should we hunger, and if so, for what? This book continues to ask the big existential questions, continues to make moral and ethical demands from its reader. This book wants its reader to be a better, more enlightened, culturally sensitive and aware human being.
Interestingly, the collection begins with the section “Departures,” in which the speaker navigates France’s “worn-out farmlands,” seedy hotels, and high art museums accompanied only by his books, his words, and his daydreams. Why “end” a collection at its outset, especially if, according to Edwards, “travel is an enemy to ends”? What is the speaker departing from? In an attempt to clarify what “departures” means to him, Edwards writes:
I have formulated a new type of
resistance, against my own ignorance;
I transplant my mind a few times a day,
replacing it with unreliable
algorithms aimed at solving problems,
known as poems. I call them departures.
France has morphed into something “indelicate and ugly,” where even the exhibits at the Musee de Beaux Arts examine a kind of boredom and loneliness that remind him of “home without associations.” These feelings of alienation and world-weariness manifest as he passes through buildings on the brink of condemnation and hotels where guests urinate in the sink. The speaker is restless, sleep-deprived, and “annoyed” by the moon and the constellations in the night sky, which are usually unflinching constants for those traversing unfamiliar terrain. Rather than bring peace or give guidance, the stars further alienate the speaker from the self he describes as “nothing if not fictive.”
Although the speaker claims not to understand nature or how a writer can “insert it into a creed,” Edwards manages to pull this off quite nicely as he undercuts the “incommensurable peace” of the French landscape with imagery of cows for the slaughter, “derelict” sailboats, lakeside condos, and billboards for sports cars. Edwards’s provincial France is one infused with American consumerism where “violence starts on the inside.”
The next section, “Imperial Nostalgias,” is mainly commentary on the speaker’s time spent traveling and working in various post-imperial, post-colonial countries. Of course, with poems such as “State of the Union” which “The song of our green-eyed family/is a song about the bread we bake,” we are experiencing these countries through the filtered gaze of the American male Caucasian. It’s impossible for the speaker to rid himself of his Americana. He recognizes his privilege with a kind of humbled shame and is cognizant of the limitations his position as an interloper might place on his legitimacy to speak so bluntly. In “Cromwell or the King,” Edwards touches on this guilt of the white colonizer as he laments, “The nation’s/ring of war regains renown: crowns,/new necks, and talent for violating/weakness.” The speaker feels “wrongheaded and obsequious” as an outsider, yet in “Guests,” also admits when American friends come to visit, they all:
celebrate landscape, deride technology,
and try to keep other foreigners
out of our photographs, except for
the ones meant to show
how much stranger than us
other foreigners must be
There are also many pieces in the collection that give the reader a welcome break from all the world-weariness. Poems such as “Romance” and “Sketch for a Treatise on Eros” deal with “To be in a relationship/could mean to be a whole world discrete,/and that’s the danger” and “A description of love could be/people making decisions together/and the beautiful danger of that.”
Edwards dazzles with moments of expert lyrical beauty with masterful lines like, “I recollect all the times I feel in love with pain I thought was cute,” and “life is terrible enough without swans.” In “The Heart is on the Left Side,” he gives us this exquisite bit of ars poetica:
languages are essentially alike,
then softness or firmness is a matter
of tissues in which blood takes a clausal
complement. Taste for etymology,
however, comes from the poetry of
crucial decision making, fruit in one
hand and broad-bladed knife in the other
At one point in the poems, the speaker posits:
Almost all criticism
is like traveling by train, then saying
you’ve seen the world. Everyone knows that all
you’ve seen is the shit around the tracks.
Percy Shelley once famously asserted that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and Joshua Edwards has accepted this duty with a gentle humility. Edwards hasn’t just shown us the shit around the tracks. He’s taken us off the beaten path, illuminated both the derelict and the divine, and calls on us all to better the world we inhabit.