A Review of John Chavez's City of Slow Dissolve

City of Slow Dissolve by John Chavez
University of New Mexico Press, 2012 (64 pages)
ISBN: 978-0826352453


In a Blogspot post dated 15 October 2012, Joshua Ware, poet and (former) Ph.D. peer to John Chávez, pulls a quote from Deleuze and Guatarri's A Thousand Plateaus to address "subjectification." Ware paraphrases:

[T]here is an enunciation issued from a point of subjectification (i.e. an assemblage) that conveys a statement containing subjects, all three of which are locked in a complex and reciprocal relationship that produces a series of affective responses. As one travels down this continuous line of enunciation, the next subject of the statement sweeps away the previous subject of the statement, producing any always becoming identity that resists the solidity and stagnation of ontology.

Ware goes on to elaborate "subjectification," as it pertains to poetry:

[F]rom the poet (i.e. the point of subjectification) emanates a poem (i.e. subject of enunciation) that contains a continuous series of identities (i.e. subjects of the statement), which follow along a line and sweep each other away, one after the other.
To adhere to such an aesthetic, Ware says elsewhere (still quoting D&G), the poet "must continually move "through and between...mixtures" that contain "conflicting process [sic], relations, and transformations." To do so, then, a radically different type of text would need to be produced."

. . .

In the Abstract of his own dissertation (an earlier version of the book under review, which I promise we'll get to, pronto) Chávez, Ph.D., puts it this way:

City of Slow Dissolve examines identity, displacement, and construction of the self. Beginning with the persona's root location of Colorado Springs, Colorado, moving to Detroit, Michigan and concluding with Las Cruces, New Mexico, the speaker of the included poems articulates the complexities of lived emotion. of the critical evaluation of one's surroundings, and of the fractures of the self as the result of elected displacement in the service of personal advancement. It is with this in mind that these poems avoid thematizing what it means to be a Latin@ living in the United States today.
"Elected displacement," indeed. Before submitting his thesis manuscript, Chávez had moved from his hometown of Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, majored in English at CSU, earned an M.A. from Central Michigan, took an M.F.A. from New Mexico State, then finished said doctorate in Philosophy (one year before Ware) at the U. of Nebraska-Lincoln. As of this writing, Chávez teaches at Dixie State in St. George, Utah. The combined population of these relatively small urban centers at the time Chávez presented his dissertation totaled 1,036,037, equal to a city not quite half the size of Houston. So it strikes one as curious that Chávez chose "the city" as the central figure for his first full-length collection of poetry.


"THE CITY," Chávez writes, "is a system of pulleys & wheels wintered shut. THE SELF is a cinder of waste, a brooding & feckless meadow." Chávez is less interested in actual urban areas, with their mass of inhabitants, their Frank O'Haras and Carl Sandburgs, than he is in the constellation of narratives it carries. His speakers see the self and city as sites of intersecting desires, constructs of perpetual motion that dissolve and reconstitute themselves ad infinitum, shaping and shedding identities, passing from one into another. The book opens with "On Subjectivation (after Michel Foucault)," but quickly finds its form, shifting focus from explicitly cerebral epigraphic citations to vibrant, sophisticated lyrics. Chávez favors acoustically fine-tuned couplets and multipartite prose poems, the latter serving to tether the collection. "The City Asleep in His Throat (I)" takes its title from a line in García Lorca's "Qasida of One Wounded by Water," in which a speaker encounters a child agonized by an injury heavy with Christian symbolism, the boy "crowned with frost," his "heart pierced / by the dark awl of water." Chávez builds on this religious latticework, elaborating Lorca's abundantly rich images:

This hour a boy's body is a garden of stones & nettles is a birdhouse hung on a dying aspen is an ant made of coconut wood & rock is a causeway lined with verisimilar flowers & a thimble of pathogens is a tremor of stars in the autumn machinery. This hour is a Godless Megachurch is a cistula of avenues & shining glass is reinventing the voice in lithium blue is a café a shore of green toads & floating garbage is a nation of incarcerated eidolons & a bed of frozen pansies. (14)
The poem's running syntax and breathless enumeration of natural and artificial space resists fixity, complicating the relationship between body, identity, and speaking self. It is the refraction of asphalt and glass that (re)defines the voice. It is not an entirely new thing created from nothing; the self undergoes a figurative transformation in time.

Which is not to say that Chávez disregards literal, physical migration altogether. City of Slow Dissolve comprises three sections: Acacia Park, Mill Pond, and Burn Lake, after public spaces located in Colorado Springs, Mt. Pleasant, and Las Cruces, respectively. It's obviously no accident these sites coincide with the poet's actual, lived places of residence. "Journal at Belle Isle" refers to an island located in the Detroit River, converted for civilian enjoyment. The poem begins with the speaker in reflection:

Most days I find myself thinking I want to live
when I have nothing better to do—

opened to the moon shot at jagged angles
to the city unfastening in the palm of God

opened to a murmur of air
to snow falling in silent phrases
It continues like this, each couplet accruing items to which the speaker longs to remain open and receptive, like a two-way radio or switchboard. The poem's last stanzas close the Mill Pond section with final meditation on Mt. Pleasant:

opened to the machinery of Belle Isle

to myself unfastening in the palm of God
opened to already—becoming—

uncounterfeitable—becoming—stars in the city's
fallow and faded sky (32)
The "fallow and faded sky" recalls the "brooding and feckless meadow" of the self, as both ravel and unravel in the palm of God. The "machinery of Belle Isle" also revisits the "autumn machinery" aforementioned, such that the nature of commingled earth and artifice emerges as a theme. (Elsewhere, we get the "accidental machinery of birds".) Throughout, Chávez excels at parceling out this theme with striking intimacy: his speakers admire "scarlet flax budding in a rusted Radio Flyer," and admit to needing support, "but not the way a stormed Box Elder torn / from its roots is dirt-tethered & bedded to earth." These lyrics allow Chávez to avoid outright thematization and instead ground the book's concern with subjectification in the natural world. These are the book's finest passages.

But of course, the colonized mind, with its social constructs and political baggage, never really leaves us. And so, Chávez returns to "The City Asleep in His Throat" toward the end of the book, this time to prime us for arrival in Las Cruces. This final section includes also the relatively long poem, "Letters to My Father." Here, the speaker confronts both an internal preoccupation with signs and signifiers, as well as the inheritance of a heritage from an external source:

Always you insist on the signifiers that body you. You conflate the torn
down history, the multiple, but today:

There is a hell growing in your hands, from which you've woven—noun to
body, verb to throat—another self rain-stained & shivering

In your tenth-floor apartment. Out there, the city migrates, the city with
its ailments, always in your mind, resides you. (40)
The recipient of this epistolary correspondence could be 1) a literal, human father; 2) a metaphysical Father figure; 3) a projection of the speaker's self; 4) some combination of all of the above. I'm inclined to believe it's all of the above, since it's only appropriate for this book to dilate into greater possibility as it approaches closure.

If, as Chávez suggests, City of Slow Dissolve, "attempts to reshape the notion of what constitutes poetry's articulation of ethnic identity in the United States today," it does so in ways that Juan Felipe Herrera has called "groundbreaking," "the melding of artistic beauty and critical thought in the form of a poem," as Joshua Ware says. And, on May 29th 2013, during what must have been a lovely ceremony in New York's late evening spring, City of Slow Dissolve took gold at the annual Independent Publisher Book Awards, no small honor, indeed.

Diego Báez writes regularly for Whole Beast Rag and Booklist. Poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared most recently in Kweli, Hobart, and The Review of Higher Education. He lives and teaches in Chicago.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761