Model City by Donna Stonecipher
Shearsman Books, 2015; 94 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Donna Stonecipher’s Model City (Shearsman, 2015) is bookended by a question and its answer. The question, signaled by a page devoted to a large, bold “Q:” is set between two other pages that precede the poems. The page that follows the “Q:” asks the question: “What was it like?” The page that precedes it offers the epigraph: “We are waiting for a form of town planning that will give us freedom,” from Le Corbusier’s 1929 book, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning.
As the question reaches for an antecedent, it might gesture at the title of the book to ask, “what was the model city like?” which might mean “what was it like before it changed?” or “what was it like as a model before it was adapted to fit the needs of real places?” It might also gesture at the epigraph, reaching back to ask Le Corbusier, “what was the waiting like?”
The book is made up of 72 poems, each titled “Model City,” and numbered 1-72. Each is four stanzas of three long, enjambed lines, each stanza beginning with “it was like,” a set of attempts at the question, none of which are the answer. The answer is the place and time of the book’s gestation and composition, “Berlin and elsewhere / 2010-2014,” which appears alone on a page following a large, bold “A:” at the end of the book.
In the poems, the speaker goes to visit places and people, rents and sits in rooms and apartments, and sees, avoids, and leads tourists and tours. She lies in bed and thinks about the city, which is many cities, and mainly Berlin, and no city in particular. She spends lots of time in high-rise buildings. Their scale is upsetting to her. New high rises that go up are mostly hotels. The poems are concerned with looking at and thinking about cities but also with moving through them, walking or driving. The speaker worries about the future of the city, and thinks often of restaurants, stores and buildings that had been in cities she knew, names held by streets in other times.
The poems are obsessed with the temporary. The hotel is the figure of the “permanent temporary,” a way a city can become that makes it impossible to maintain a sense of place or self there over time. The second stanza of “Model City ” reads:
It was like watching the snow slowly powder over the construction site
across the street, which will one day be a hotel, the snow filling in the space
temporarily where one day there will be permanent temporariness. (31)
The hotel is such an anxiety because it’s a feature of the unplanned city, a city motivated by late capitalist private enterprise, rather than by design that privileges the aesthetic or social function of the city as a whole. Furthermore, the “permanent temporary” is upsetting for a speaker whose sense of her own life is bound up in her sense of the city.
The negotiation of how ideas of the self and ideas of the city coexist leads the speaker to many representations of cities, model cities built and unbuilt, but also photographs and the interior space of museums. In “Model City ” the speaker goes to see an exhibition entitled “The Unbuilt City,” and realizes, there, the contradictions implicit in her feelings about urban futurity. The third stanza of the poem reads:
It was like taking note of a resistance in yourself to the futuristic, the
futuresque, the future – while not denying a certain nostalgia for antiquated
visions of the world of tomorrow. (42)
The poems are interested in negotiating places that exist, but also in asking whether there can be an alternate futurity of Le Corbusier’s waiting. Can there be a model city of the future, a planned city, an idea of urban space that does not populate the speaker with a vacancy like so many empty hotel rooms? In “Model City ” she tells herself why she rented an apartment that resembles a hotel room, “because it felt like the right measure of you to your life” (49). In the following stanza, hotel and self make up one unified form:
It was like thinking about the nights you walked through the city feeling
threatened by the rampantly multiplying hotel rooms, as if vacancy were a
disease invading the city’s – and therefore your – interior. (49)
Questions of “the real” become the focus of several of the poems, where hotels make the city less real over time, and where tourists may visit a city without ever experiencing a “real” version of it. A “‘free store,’ where nothing / costs anything” disappears and “the street may now return to the real” (58). Sepia photographs of Alhambra make the speaker feel so much calmer than “the real Alhambra, with its real greenery so green, so real” (32). The speaker walks through perfume clouds in a department store, which makes it smell like a store in another city, and she wishes she could “distinguish the synthetic musk / from the real musk, the real myrrh” (36). A group of American tourists stops before World War II-vintage bullet holes in a building in a European city, “trembling at this unexpected apparition of / evidence – that history is real” (54).
Model City sets out a project for itself to negotiate the real and the imagined in cities, the self and the plan and the street, the antiquated and the futuristic, within the repetition of a single, concise form. The book is brilliant in its summation of all that a city is and how difficult it is to reconcile its disparate forms, built and unbuilt, affect and infrastructure. I wish it were required reading for anyone thinking about becoming a city planner. I wish, too, for it to arrive in the hands of anyone curious about how who we are is bound up in where we live. Model City demonstrates that these curiosities are themselves tangled in what a given city was, what a model city was before it became distilled in built places, and what anyone once might have wished and waited for a city to become.