Review: On “Together and By Ourselves” by Alex Dimitrov (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)

 Copper Canyon Press, Alex Dimitrov.
Copper Canyon Press, Alex Dimitrov.

The test of modern painting, John Cage wrote in a leaflet on Robert Rauschenberg in 1953, was its ability to avoid being “destroyed by the action of shadows.” Referencing Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which debuted that October in New York, Cage meant to suggest that their avant-gardism lay in their receptivity—to the environment and the contemplations of the audience. The shadows on their monochromatic surfaces didn’t destroy the paintings. They affirmed them.

“And you. You, you, you / you can read these lines in any order / because I want to leave nothing out / and there’s nothing here,” Alex Dimitrov writes in “Some New Thing,” a poem in his second collection, Together and by Ourselves, published in April by Copper Canyon. Like Cage’s avant-gardism, the identical long stanzas of Dimitrov’s new poems behold a sensitivity to every aspect of experience. The poems are not concerned with the artifice of a singular narrative thrust; like interior monologue, their disconnected lines try to capture the mind’s entirety.

In the four years since Begging For It (“decidedly a young man’s book,” Publisher’s Weekly wrote), his differentiation of style evokes Louise Glück’s intense maturation between her debut book, Firstborn (1968), and second, The House on Marshland (1975). Dimitrov’s obsessions—loneliness, knowledge, intimacy, time—do mist his early work, but in Together and by Ourselves they are fully-throated, devastatingly apprehended, like a dialogue between lovers that finally reaches an apex:

Lucky or not, we were riding in cars through the seasons.
I read you Baudelaire. I have more memories than a thousand years.
And our skin began to look like a puzzle
despite lighting or pleasures (“Champagne”).

In five symmetrical acts, the arc of Dimitrov’s bicoastal book lifts like a plane from the earth. The Los Angeles poems, primarily in the book’s second section, exist like photographic negatives—not underdeveloped, but inverted, the speaker nearly vanishing: “In the morning our photos looked darker than us / and the subject we were was a gamble (I know)” (“Lindsay Lohan”). That isn’t to say they are not compelling or personal in their voyeuristic evocations of American celebrity and vice; they are: “Although it was beautiful, the dialogue revealed little about anyone else” (“Los Angeles, NY”). At their best, such as in “The Last Luxury, JFK, Jr.,” Dimitrov locates a place where “on the way there, somewhere between floors, no velocity could recover us.” But the New York poems, their social nocturnes, have the greatest auras. Perhaps because a sense of intimate finality infuses them: “People walked out through doors / and through letters, through looks across rooms, / gifts that gave nothing of what they withheld, / what they couldn’t give back” (“Out of Some Other Paradise”).

Dimitrov’s art is obsessed with people and what belongs to them: their memories, their intimacies, their exiles, and their material and nonmaterial things. His book spends itself in description: “The window open all day: rain on the white desk, wood floor, / that strange curve on the back of your head (only I knew),” he writes in the opening prologue poem (“You Were Blonde Once”). That parenthetical aside is crucial to the book’s emotional arc—with each page turned, Dimitrov’s speaker becomes more and more affected by the great errors of “people and how they described each other… / incomparable to the sea” (“Gentleman’s Hour”). Even language, the usage of which is revenge against meaninglessness, fails and limits. “This is what he looked like, you said to them, / handing over a photo […] / Nothing—not even the nothing— gets written by us” (“Biography”).

But the book doesn’t purely exist in this strata of longing and agitation. “There are minutes of peace,” Dimitrov writes in the title poem. There are minutes of amorous argument and defense:

The leaves. In their temporary dying,
give a rich background to people taking each other to bed.
Why would I give up the physical world?


My tongue, I have found, is warmer
than any sentence I’ve wanted to feel.
And what I have wanted, I should try to forget.
So I stay;
don’t you think so—where else would we go,
what is open this late?
I have waited all day just to see you.
In the darkest part of the water.
I see you in the darkest part of the water and swim (“A Living”).

The resounding pleasure of Dimitrov’s work locates itself at the intersections of distance and libertinism, of sensitivity and emotionalism. His ruinous lines are at once nonchalantly vague and strikingly specific: “When we met,” he writes, “you kept me up saying very few things” (“Together Alone”). The adjectives readily assemble themselves, but do little to replicate the unique and original experience of reading his work.

Together and by Ourselves ends with a long poem, “Days and Nights,” which functions as a kind of envoi. It is an extreme version of the book’s uninterrupted style, a graceful temporal movement of six pages, an assertion of a life on the page, which is what this book is. It was Sontag, who, in a television interview, said, “But if someone would say, ‘Oh, you can write this book, but you can’t publish it,’ well, you know, I’d want to cut my throat. Of course the book is for people. The book is meant to be shared.” These poems admiringly commit themselves to publicness but still, like any art, veil parts of themselves, and come from a place of necessity. As Dimitrov writes in “Alone Together”, “It cost me more than those evenings to see you; / more than a lifetime to see my own face.” Knowing oneself would logically precede being fully and unabashedly public; these poems revel in that work.

Nathan Blansett‘s poems appear in The Journal and New South. He is an undergraduate student at Emory University, and works as a gallery intern in Atlanta.

Nathan Blansett

Nathan Blansett's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal, Mead, and The Adroit Journal. He lives in Atlanta, where he is an undergraduate student in the creative writing program at Emory University.

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