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Friday, March 4, 2011

Travis Cebula's Under the Sky They Lit Cities reviewed by Nancy Stohlman

Travis Cebula
Under the Sky They Lit Cities
BlazeVOX Books, 2010
ISBN: 9781609640255
Paperback, 93 pages

Reviewed by Nancy Stohlman

In his debut full-length collection of poetry, Under the Sky They Lit Cities, Travis Cebula advises: “Everyone in the city should ride the bus at least once/viscosity of a community is best measured by that stick”. From the first poem in this collection to the last, you understand that the narrator’s relationship with “city” is not one of aloof pontifications, or distant idealisms/condemnations. No, traveling through the pages of this slim volume is akin to traversing a city on foot, an anthem both to decay and the resilient life that rises among debris.

In Cebula’s hands, ossified benches look like “driftwood” or the “staved bones of an orphan” and “tattered kids pranced like royalty/their flannel shirts dangled tuxedo tails.” In the poem “Agnostic” (and not all of the poems are named) he says: “Not intending to condemn, I have/demolished the beauty of boulevards.” He later laments, “Rampant cynicism seems to/overrun my faith in alleys as playgrounds.” But he avoids the allure of judgment or polemics. Like any intimate relationship, Cebula’s relationship with City is complex, exhilarating, tragic, hypocritical, and ever changing—he frames her smog, he frames her chess tables, he frames her snowbanks, he frames her railyards. Because Cebula resists the urge to pit urban against rural, to condemn or glorify the object of his obsessions, his complicated relationship with City gains more credibility, his poetry winding us through a landscape of tragic beauty. Even Cebula says, “Don’t even try to figure out which side I’m on. From a/practical standpoint/I promise judging this is a waste of time.”

I was halfway through his “Etude for Cities (as seen by the sky)” before I realized that he had omitted the letter ‘A’ from the entire sequence. But this is not just a poetic sleight of hand, a trick to show off Cebula’s virtuosity. No, the subtle ingenuity created with the absence of “A” in this sequence of 13 etudes leaves the poetry’s “E’s” and “I’s” gritty and hard, words become visceral, like the clinking of a steel mill or the screeching of rails, the tinkling of store bells and streets of commerce, brick factories, the pounding of iron—implicating the reader into the hardness of the city.

This nod to erasure make one wonder, too, what else Cebula might feels has gone missing? Certain themes emerge in the work: “Zoos are just parks now, with taller fences,” he says, and instantly an elephant at the zoo becomes a woman longing for escape: “Dull rage at beatings/that faded years ago--/her pacing tamps ellipses into dirt.” Cebula shyly admits that “I wouldn’t have the courage to stray from/lights that haunt my days as well as nights.” Is Cebula—and by proxy, the reader, too—a tormented, willing, addicted prisoner of City? Or urban scenes of Christmas: “Mistletoe with plastic berries and a red ribbon/in a cellophane pouch/nativity scenes set out on cardboard with green felt,” complete with Santa heads that nod fa-la-la-la-la. He would seem to be condemning the dichotomy of Christmas spirit among the pollution of the city, and yet he caresses a lamppost, “loving the feel of alloy under my fingertips.”

Toward the end of the book Cebula’s narrator mumbles a mantra: “I believe in the tiptoeing heron/thin legs of willow sticks/knobbly knees and all/I believe in the creosote that drips/liquid, sticky in the sun Oh/ let me believe, too in the/stumbling, the shuffling people/on the sidewalks.” Perhaps Cebula’s narrator, myopic and enmeshed, doesn’t realize that his poetry has indeed become a hymn to those shuffling people, those abandoned steel rails and brick factories, those old prospectors rolling dice, that concrete river, foaming like a shaken can of Coors. For to write about such a landscape with such intimacy and complexity reveals Cebula’s true love even as he seems to deny it. Only the reader, with a reader’s generous distance, can see the real Cebula, framed against those streets, a tormented lover, longing both for escape and also for those dirty arms to wrap him forever in her dilapidated beauty, her gritty, poignant love.

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Nancy Stohlman’s novel, Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2009), was recently nominated for a Colorado Book Award. Her other books include Live From Palestine (South End Press, 2003) and Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (FF>>Press, 2010), the latest in an annual series of flash fiction released by Fast Forward Press, which Stohlman also co-founded. She’s currently on the writing faculty at Arapahoe Community College and the Community College of Denver. She’s hoping all this writing business will eventually make her enough money to pursue her real dream of becoming a pirate.