From the Confederacy to Ground Zero to the ruins of urban sprawl, [Utopia Minus] is a monument to collapse—itself a terrible art: “Gen. Sherman painted landscapes.” Sometimes, in the breakage of the human, nature returns: a loving catalog of trees and birds as well as shuttered franchise restaurants. Sometimes, when human relations break down, they create terrible yearning. Each type of war, in public space and private interaction, is given a new, evidentiary lament: “O Sunglass Hut, we hardly knew you!”
“What a wildly intelligent, learned poet Briante is, in this biography-autobiography of the American body and soul around 2010, witnessed (and lived) with such bite, understanding, and sorrow. Even as she calls us to watch with her over maybe ‘the end of another creature,’ something here is not-loneliness, for a little while, anyhow, for as long as she is looking at it: ‘How does a tree move when it is angry?/ I want to be angry like that.’” —Jean Valentine
“Utopia Minus is located in a recognizably American city (stripmall, Starbucks, chainlink) at a recognizable moment (the year of the Dixie cup, the year of the orange construction cone), yet it also contains the energy of all that has made that city—every brick, every leaf, every utterance, every poem. Susan Briante is a poet of fierce intelligence and passion, and these poems pulse with playfulness and moral outrage.” —Nick Flynn
“Kafka’s bureaucratic ephemera and Smithson’s grand earthworks morph in Susan Briante’s hands into these dance-like poems, complex and elegant architectures of gesture, a New Babylon of corridors between Texan birches and the strains of Lou Reed’s guitar. Briante is a detritus artist, a gleaner working in the banal of the contemporary world, molding the pieces she finds into vivid mosaics. In Utopia Minus Briante claims her lineage, mapped through dried out gutters in which real human bodies, somewhat uncomfortable but very much alive, float upon a raft made of reassembled bits of downcycled American cities, east mating with west, big colliding with small.” —Rachel Levitsky
A red woodpecker scales the live oak, while I sleep,
the phone ringsmakes its erasures:
a demolition construction
a dream in which I'm revising a list with my father—gone
the way of whole neighborhoods in the Bronx.
Robert Moses shrugs his concrete shoulders
Robert Moses, I say, drop the knife.
In the summer of 2001, I lived in the Bowery, took photographs
of police call boxes,
took the train through Newark, NJ: warehouse, community college, broadface
of the projects irregardless of choices. I was a lonely child, loved looking
at things no one would notice: Rahway, Linden, Elizabeth: the many-eyed,
bricked-up, gold-domed, on the platform waiting.
So far as we feel sympathy, we are not accomplices.
Thick rain and tree roots knuckle the sidewalk.
In Newark, NJ, the sidewalks were slate gray, dark as thunderheads
big bang big theory of charge/discharge.
As a child, I thought I could save my mother's life by stepping in front of her.
Copyright © 2011 by Susan Briante
“Susan Briante has a gift and an obsession with scale and the paradoxical within the modern ruins of American landscapes, yet her work is never pedantic. She expresses resistance, fascination and need for the material world and its mostly destructive yet complex relationship with nature.” Jeffery Berg reviewing Utopia Minus in The Poetry Project Newsletter October/November 2012
“These poems push against their margins, just as Briante pushes against the margins of her world and of herself. 'How does a tree move when it is angry?' she asks. 'I want to be angry like that.' Sometimes, yes, she is angry, but she is never moralizing. Hers is a cultivated anger, informed by sorrow and longing, by personal and cultural memory.” —from the review by Abby Travis in Rain Taxi Review of Books Online
“There’s something highly formal and very queer in Briante’s questions about bodies, their boundaries, histories, and connections...These are questions about the forms of bodies, of the self, of families, of connection, which become tied to the collection’s pervasive questions about the forms of landscape and memory and contemporary lyric. This is perhaps what Utopia Minus most documents: a sense not of abstract connection or continuity, exactly, but of everything actually touching everything else, a concerted contiguity: 'every day/ another source of heat expires, bones from another/ century' (81).” —from the review by Laura Trantham Smith in Galatea Ressurects 17.
“This second book by Briante (Pioneers in the Study of Motion) is rooted in an interrogation of the built landscape and backyards of capitalism, a panorama in which birds still fly but are as inexorably drawn to the lights of the local metroplex as is the traffic. Hers is a charged mode of perception rife with a political implication that does not exclude emotional directness nor wry humor ('Oh Sunglass Hut we hardly knew you!'). Despite reoccurring fragments from the poet's daily life, it is perspective that aspires to the anthropological, and the well-attuned observations of the culture's detritus seem to prove the notion, elucidated by Robert Smithson in the epigraph, that rather than being built on the grounds of ruins, the sub-divisions and strip malls of the late century and beyond are themselves the original ruins, without history, decaying even as we occupy them. Though the poems are often associative rather than linear ('Gen. Sherman Painted Landscapes. God sends swans into a storm'), the book as a whole retains a high level of about-ness. The writings of Smithson, civil war photography, and Melville's journals all feature directly, as do studies on urbanism, politics, and late capitalism (Zizek and Naomi Klien). The risk of a collection so visibly buttressed by its own interests and stance toward the external world is that the poetry itself may come to seem merely a vehicle for them. For the most part, however, this book finds an urgent language for the world in which we live.” —Publishers Weekly
“Susan Briante has written a bold second collection that tackles issues plaguing the American landscape and, even more urgently, the American people. Utopia Minus challenges notions of industrial and social progress in emboldened poems, fearlessly examining the plight of current American culture and even addressing the wars in the Middle East.” —from the review by Alyce Bensel in New Pages.
I was born in Newark, NJ, the winter after the riots. Sometimes I imagine my pregnant mother that summer sitting at her kitchen table, listening to news on the radio, while the city sparked and burned. In December of my birth, Robert Smithson published “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.”
My family followed the tide of white flight to a split-level in the suburbs. But almost every week for much of my childhood we’d visit my grandparents on Newark’s Highland Ave. We did not know how to speak the Spanish of the neighborhood kids. We were not allowed to play off of the porch. We learned very quickly that we were half a generation and a 20-minute car ride from the inner city’s working class. Somewhere there’s an equation for the debt that formed.
The first poem that referenced a world I could recognize was Nikki Giovanni’s “Song for New-Ark.” I stole a beat-up copy of Sound and Sense and an anthology called Twentieth Century Poetry from a storage closet in my high school. The latter had a “groovy” manipulated image of a vase or gourd in red and magenta on the cover and black white photographs throughout. It also had Robert Creeley and Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones) within its pages. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note was another first love. Years later I found out that my mom went to high school with Amiri Baraka. And I found those other New Jersey poets who would inspire me: Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg, Smithson.
In all our discussions about poetry, class comes up very infrequently. Now more than ever, we need to articulate our place in this flailing system. Claiming working class roots isn’t about claiming victimhood. The view to roof-top air conditioning units from my office at a public university is still a view from the heights. But we need to understand both our privilege and lack in order forge the compassion and community we’ll need to survive in a world of potentially dwindling resources and waning national power.
Here’s where the poem comes into play. I harbor no illusions about poetry’s ability to feed the hungry or sway an election. And yet the lyric is a space of thoughtful speculation, a call for action or witnessing, a place where imagining can become an act of deep sympathy, where we might recognize connections and complicities.
An Author's Statement as a Series of Sites
“All language becomes an alphabet of sites, or it becomes what we will call the air terminal between Fort Worth and Dallas.” —Robert Smithson
NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor: I grew up in suburban New Jersey, took the train into New York City: Rahway, Linden, Elizabeth, warehouse, factory, cathedrals of brick and broken glass, cars abandoned under the overpass. I’ve always had a predilection toward the half-built as well as the crumbling. Forget the statues of bayonet-bearing soldiers, other monuments punctuate our landscape, tell stories cut with shift whistle.
Intel Building, Austin, Texas: This proposed ten-story building begun in 2000 became a high-water mark for the dot.com boom on the banks of Town Lake. It was abandoned at six stories in 2001, demolished in 2007. Before it went down, a dance troupe staged a performance in which dancers floated down the building’s skeleton on riggings. They looked like suicide angels. Robert Smithson calls these “ruins in reverse” or “the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before.”
South Tower’s Façade, Ground Zero: America is land without ruins, the famous memorialist declared as the World Trade Center site was sanitized. Now they are building a new ruin to remember it by. But Atlanta had its ruins; Richmond had them. A century later, the Bronx had block after gutted block. Remember General Sherman, remember Robert Moses. What we forget defines us as much as what we commemorate.
Relics of the Great Recession (Various Locations): When the Great Recession hit, we stopped building, but the half-made and foreclosed remain. They map our monumental mistakes. Before the ruins of downtown Detroit, photographer Camilo José Vergara: “After all, large fields in Pennsylvania have been set aside to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg. Why not secure the blocks with the tallest and most notable structures….and transform the space into a memorial to our throwaway cities?” Look around you. How many monuments can you make?
Austin and Dallas (Various Locations): While I was writing this book, I was also building a relationship. Brick by brick. In blasts and booms and teardowns. I’m happy to report we’re still standing, mostly plumb. You’ll find some of that demolition/construction in these pages as well.