Although the poems in Alex Dimitrov’s new collection Together and by Ourselves are not explicitly epistolary, they bear the ethos and style of a prolonged correspondence. Our speaker has lived in Los Angeles and New York City, and he is writing to and from those cities to people who inhabited those cities alongside him; to people he loved and lost there and elsewhere; and to himself, of course. Writing to the self, reckoning with the self as the self on paper, is also a matter of confiding in the pages—not unlike the way a poet confides in his readers. The poet is by himself yet, likewise, not alone.
Most of Dimitrov’s poems range from one to several pages—standard letter-lengths—and the few brief poems: well, those bear the luminous cast of postcards: small, vivid, literary capsules that break open and expand under the reader’s gaze.
When, after all, do we best inhabit the paradox of “together and by ourselves”? When we are traveling solo but surrounded by fellow travelers, I muse, climbing apologetically over two people—strangers to me and to each other—then hunkering down in the window seat of the plane. I have Dimitrov’s book in my hand, a pen in my teeth. It’s morning in Miami, and I am Ohio-bound.
Early in the book, and just after take-off, I encounter a postcard capsule called “Today.” Three lines:
Today in your hours above the earth
you have questions
that won’t trouble you inside it.
I’m startled by the way this poem reaches up from the page and tugs at my shirtfront. “Above the earth,” looking down on the world from this ekstatic vantage, it’s true: I am more aware of my mortality, my vulnerabilities and tragic flaws. Despite every possible manifestation of loss on the ground, in flight I feel most aware of distance, temporality, the helpless parts of being human. Perhaps you do, too? And I wonder if Dimitrov—traveling from LA to NYC, or vice versa—wrote this poem with his tray table down, between bouts of turbulence and flashes of the Fasten Seatbelt sign.
I put my tray table down. I order a coffee with two creams, which always feels more ceremonial in the sky. Next, I start marking all the questions in Dimitrov’s book, the ones that trouble us/me/him—that capture the way we/me/he feel(s) everything more acutely in flight and by extension, in other places of limbo. Provocative questions. Interstitial questions: “Is it lucky to live or embarrassing?”; “If I could return anything while I’m here, / where would I look for who wants it?”; “Who wouldn’t let you in if you knocked on his door? / And who wouldn’t cry with you / in a parking lot outside any American mall?”
As I’m reading, I’m also marveling at Dimitrov’s map-making here, his tracing of simultaneous geographies of self and space, introspection and conversation, every body (singular) and everybody (plural) in motion, moving in right and wrong directions at once—life itself an inevitable collision course, humans the crash test dummies. At one point, I write in my margin: There is no X marks the spot for treasure here. The map is the treasure. Which is another way of saying: this book is the bounty; these poems are the gold.
I’m validated, too, by moments like this one, moments that echo the perfect lyric concision of the “Today” poem:
What I mean, where I went; we’re all missing.
You’ll understand if I write it all like a postcard.
It’s difficult to see the world from the world.
This book itself, even if read on the ground, becomes an exercise in elevation, ekstasis—stepping outside your present reality in order to peer within.
Somewhere around the fulcrum of the collection, which I’m tracing to a poem called “All the Way Up I Took Myself,” I begin to realize that our speaker is now proffering tentative and well-earned answers to some of the earlier questions posed. Look at this tender moment of correspondence between the speaker and reader here:
Did I tell you? I finally made it
to the Empire State, that building,
all the way up is where I took myself.
It’s wild I know, but everyone I love
I saw below, like figurines.
And then, on the next page, in the next poem, this declarative: “The best reason to live is that there is no reason to live.” As “Lucky” and / or “embarrassing” as life may be, these qualities of life are not the point. And reason is not the answer. The best reason to live isn’t “reason” but something else: Passion? Curiosity? A morbid yet perfectly understandable desire to see how our own story ends?
In the poem called “Some New Thing,” from which this bold declarative derives, Dimitrov also starts to summon other voices. He’s considering how “Conrad said, let the train take you anywhere, / pass all the old stops. I let the train take me anywhere, / I pass all the old stops.” He takes other writers’ advice. Perhaps we should take his? What are poems after all but another way of paying it (a kind of knowing) forward? “The best reason to paint is that there is no reason to paint. / Keith Haring wrote that.” Now we realize that the first line of this poem is actually an adaptation of another artist’s insight: “The best reason to live is that there is no reason to live.” I want to summon all my students onto this plane and hold up this page and say, “Look at how emulation isn’t imitating so much as it is absorbing and adapting.” When we emulate, we don’t copy; we enhance and expand.
My students would recognize Wallace Stevens shadowing this poem as Dimitrov’s speaker urges:
Let’s be in a Sunday morning
with no complacencies of the peignoir,
no late coffee or oranges.
“Emulation is a conversation between artists,” I want to say, “in which only one of the conversants is actually there—yet paradoxically, both are present.” In other words, emulation is another form of the title paradox: together and by ourselves.
I turn the pages of this book like the corners of busy streets—those intimately anonymous spaces. Soon: another postcard-poem appears, “False Spring”; another conversation informed by emulation:
Forgive this brief message. It’s mostly to say this:
Rachel, I changed my hair, where I live,
changed the way I touch people…
but the balcony plant is still ugly and stubborn.
He will not be loved.
And you were in Paris, while you were in Paris,
everyone mistook him for something else—
even the season. His favorite.
So many people are here in this snug literary capsule: There’s our speaker of course, the author shadowing him, perhaps. There’s the reader, too—me and you and others who will pick up this book, who need it and don’t even know they do yet. (Maps. Because we all get lost sometimes.) And there’s William Carlos Williams who shadows this poem with an echo of his memo, “This is just to say.”
Rachel, the stated recipient of the postcard, seems to have gone away to Paris while the speaker remained behind in New York. I love the way this poem subverts our expectations of correspondence. The one who travels is typically the one who sends the postcard home. Has Rachel sent a postcard from Paris? I couldn’t say. But our speaker—who seems to wish she was there, in New York, with him—writes to say what has changed in the left-behind place. And what, of course, has not—that ugly, stubborn, balcony plant, which might be real and metaphorical at once. In the metaphor, we are all the plant that “will not be loved.” We are all susceptible to the promises and betrayals of a false spring.
As a reader, I’ve been thrilled before by recurring titles in poetry volumes (the many “Matins” and “Vespers” poems of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris spring instantly to mind), and by recurring words and lines that pepper the pages with familiar themes. But Together and by Ourselves presents a first for me. Late in the collection, I encounter a poem called “Tonight,” and I imagine a riff on the earlier poem, “Today”—a continuation of its content perhaps.
Instead, though the titles differ, I find the same early tercet with only the first word changed to mark the time of day:
Tonight in your hours above the earth
you have questions
that won’t trouble you inside it.
As a reader, I’ve come full circle in fifty pages. The poem reminds me that questions never really resolve, that insights only cast us back into deeper musings.
The more engaging I find a text, the more slowly I read it. The reading becomes a kind of plumbing. I cannot swim quickly through something that subsumes me, in which I am immersed completely. So I’m not really surprised that the captain has just instructed the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for arrival, the passengers to place their seats and tray tables in the full upright and locked position. I’m delighted instead by my synchronous turning to the last poem I will read before we touch down in Columbus. It’s called “People,” by whom I am surrounded outside and inside this volume, on this flight and in these pages:
On the plane from New York to California
the handsome men sit alone like the past.
I have so much to say to them but don’t
This is one of those poems where I can’t decide which lines are most meaningful to me, so I underline everything.
now somewhere in the middle of the country,
I want even the bad things to do over.
Me, too, I scribble in the vast Ohio margins.
And then, as I never could have planned, as seems too apocryphal to believe but nonetheless occurred, I read the words that serve as voiceover to my lived experience of the moment at hand:
The wheels coming down right before landing.
The wheels you can feel but don’t see.
And the people, how being with people,
has turned out to be, more or less, something like that.
I’m twenty-one pages away from the culmination of Dimitrov’s collection, but since it’s such a dense and recursive volume, I know I’ll have to flip back to the first page and read it all again. My beloved hasn’t finished her meetings for the day in Dublin, so I text her and say, I think I’m just going to wait for you at the airport.
Her reply: Could be an hour or more before I can get you.
I order a drink from the Starbuck’s called a London Fog. I find a soft vinyl seat in the near-empty terminal. That’s okay, I text back, I have a book with me.
There’s still a long poem at the end called “Days and Nights” that comprises the whole fifth section. It’s a letter to everyone and no one, of course. It’s a map to everywhere and nowhere, of course. I can’t wait—and yet I have waited—to read it.
In this poem, the speaker will say, “And yet all this happened so I’m trying to reach you / right here in the poem,” and I will want to shout, “You did! You have! You found me here in the Midwest at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.”
Like this speaker, I once lived on the West Coast. Now I live on the East Coast. But these maps aren’t only concerned with literal geographies. Which brings me to the matter of ellipses: There are so many ellipses in this book, and they never get on my nerves. They never feel like omissions, you see, or placeholders for something the author hasn’t finished. No, they feel like tangible objects—pebbles or breadcrumbs—the speaker has scattered to help me follow.
Eventually, I will reach the last page of this book and read it as if the words are meant precisely for me:
An hour in any one language is still just an hour
(it makes the drive longer).
“I go on loving you like water but…”
I go on loving you and going and.
I go on, I go on, I go up.
But of course the best literature always makes us feel as if the words were meant precisely for us:
Unreachable like a live wire in the sky.
We are Pacific, Atlantic, this north or south feeling.
Take the long way forever.
If you’re asking, if you still need to know,
it’s hardly time to go home.