Fence Books, 2009
182 pp. full color, 9"x11"
Reviewed by Lucy Ives
Lake Antiquity is a large and very nice kingdom adjacent to but not nearby where you live. Ruled by a proto-fascist space lord from the year 3016, it resembles nothing so much as nineteenth-century London. At the shores of its eponymous lake, view such floral marvels as the talking “Navel Orange Tree” (see page 10) and cheery “Fungo Adulto” with characteristic red cap (page 33), as well as decorative bouquets and twining flourishes too numerous to mention. Thrill to the sight of live muppets dozing amidst Roman ruins (pages 61, 185), as flocks of massive disembodied heads float blithely across the horizon (pages 54, 70, 84, 86, 105, 120, 122, 142, 153, 182, 184)! The nearly unspeakable beauty of the people of this land is matched only by the glory of their ancestral songs, many of which are included here for the first time in painstaking and effective translation. Just take a listen to one excerpt:
“Quatrième Partie. Fourth Part”
What does O.K. mean? What is a cinematograph? do Chinese books begin?
How long is the “Span of Life”? What is the Seeing Eye? What is a poncho?
What is our national sport?
What are milk teeth?
Who wrote “Black Beauty”?
Who was “goddess of the chase”?
What is the color of a live lobster?
What is the abbreviation of noon?
Of what metal are needles made?
What is a marionette?
What is meant by anti-clockwise?
In what play do we find Wendy?
Or, as it appears on the page:
More than an artifact among others, this verse is the gleaming funereal mask of one all-but-lost civilization—and, yet, gentle reader, there is even more. Did I mention the technology? It’s gadgets and gears and billion-lire space probes galore in the land of Lake Antiquity (every page)! Why, you can barely walk across the street without tripping over some Victorian scientist or kindly sports celebrity who can’t wait to explain to you the intricacies of fissile atoms or sex customs amongst the Pruni Amygdali, a certain genus of fruit-bearing tree. Indeed, with frothy weather systems to spare and profound respect for the post-industrial parade event, Lake Antiquity is sure to delight and amaze even the most jaded connoisseur of print ephemera. To the more naïve it is certain to present nothing less than a watershed moment in the history of collage arts:
In the end, however, it must be said that the reader of this new lyric visual guide owes a great deal to its modest compiler, Brandon Downing, without whose semi-slavish devotion it would never have been possible to gauge the full extent of the development of culture around and within Lake Antiquity. Downing’s full-color illustrations verily burst with machismo, and the more than decade’s worth of anthropological research he has devoted to his study has clearly paid off in spades. Debunking once and for all the notion that canoes cannot be propelled into interstellar flight by the swift current at the top of a raging Canadian waterfall, Downing proves himself the eagle-eyed master of the twin spirits of inductive reasoning and intuitive montage. Not since David Macaulay’s 1979 monograph, Motel of the Mysteries (or, arguably, even Breton’s Nadja), has there been so triumphant a send-up of evangelical philosophy and the mores of the post-post-post-colonial encyclopedia. In many respects the elephant in the room of contemporary American poetry, Lake Antiquity deserves a spot on every coffee table and a place in the hearts of all would-be schoolgirls and major poets.
Lucy Ives is the author of the book-length poem Anamnesis (Slope Editions, 2009). A second collection, Essays, is forthcoming from Emergency Press in April, 2011.