In a rare 1966 radio interview in which he discussed “These Lacustrine Cities” in great detail, John Ashbery said “We must draw the line between obscurity and incomprehensibility. I firmly believe that poetry must communicate. It’s true that some of my poems are obscure, but this may be because I feel that one can communicate more things more directly, obscurely—at least at certain times—than directly.” While reading Trey Sager’s chapbook O New York, this idea of obscurity and its value came to mind many times, because just as much as Sager’s poems are obscure, are they also brilliantly systematic and intensely provocative.
O New York is divided into 4 sections. While the first section is introduced by the book title itself, the second is entitled “The Agreement,” the third “The Economy,” and the fourth “The Member.” These section titles and their edifice are pivotal, not only as applied to the poems they introduce, but as archetype of the mechanism that operates beneath the very fascia of this book. Separately, these sections are self-contained limbs of consideration—digits of surveillance and response. Collectively, this book is a body, a schema, a technical “how-to” manual. How-to see place. How-to see relationship. How-to see condition. How-to see individual:
The above excerpt is extracted from the full-length poem that solely comprises the first section of the book. Sager’s formulaic slant nimbly mingles with the unskinned vulnerability which ripples throughout the speakers voice. The salient complexity lies both within the lines themselves, which are heavily enjambed and almost entirely without signifying punctuation; as well as their content, sparsely packed with metropolitan inference, tender address, and obscure reverie. This maneuvering of figure and feeling elicits a host of meanings, and continuously forces the reader to direct and re-direct their attention toward the poem—which shifts course frequently without hint or hesitation, and resolutely thrusts forward without so much as a water break.
Much like its totem city, O New York can feel congested and overwhelming when one first arrives (especially if you are a closet introvert like me.) Accordingly, Sager aptly provides his reader with a warning which reads just as ominous as “swim at your own risk.” Contrary to the preceding section, “The Agreement” contains this one, very succinct poem. While remaining true to Sager’s veiled aesthetic, one can discern a clear, even terse, message—however uncomfortable things are about to get, the reader is culpable in the discomfort:
This poem instigates a sizeable degree of self-examination; one cannot help but magnify the fourth line “You agree.” While this poem functions as a near-ironic disclaimer of sorts, it also succeeds in drawing the reader into its municipal ecosystem at just the right moment—were it to happen any sooner, we would be spooked; were it to happen any later, we would be screwed—because the subsequent section, “The Economy,” is a whole new scaffold of intricate heads-or-tails making.
As if delivered through morse code, the sequence of obfuscated clicks in this poem require keen attention and discernment. Just as one idea builds momentum a new idea intercedes. Just as soon as that idea pushes forward, it too is usurped and taken elsewhere. The three pages of this poem can feel crazy making, like being stuck on a crowded subway car, or trying frantically to hail a cab only to have each one swiped upon approach. The best thing a reader can do in the midst of this poem is embrace the traffic. Grab on, be a part of it, honk your horn if you must but whatever you do, don’t pull off the street. The mobbing will be just as bad when you try again and it will be ten times worse attempting to merge back in:
Brenda Hillman, one of my most inspiring professors at Saint Mary’s College, once told me that “every good poet is a mathematician.” This notion ping-ponged about my mind as I noticed the particulars of syntax and form in O New York. “The Economy,” in particular, requires an absolute willingness to participate on the part of the reader. One must regard and respond to the poem’s concerns, persisting when the poem beckons, pausing when a line is drawn. In reading through this paradigm, the poems skin becomes transparent: “the money needs a body…the word you I understand the least…I want to handle being with conditions…every time to time I sense how little I have saved…your voice reflects a future of a blue & less penetrable earth…decisions amount to statements in the system we joke about…the imagination is the one address the country cannot send us…this is this again…”.
These poems resonate just as polemical as they do surrealist. While the conscious is a lively and thriving presence here, the unconscious leaps are undeniable as the stream of thoughts move fluidly through both cognitive and cavernous mental landscapes. Allusions to economical and societal cognitions are made clear, as is the management of monetary structure deeply intertwined with the effectual grieving of personal connection, or lack thereof. This paves the way for the book’s final section, “The Member”:
“The Member” contains three discernibly separate poems that operate as a syndicate, much like the overarching skeleton of the book, the first lines of which are direct addresses to the poem itself: “Hello poem,” “Thank you poem,” and Good-bye poem.” Similar in line and form to the title poem, “The Member” is without doubt the most personal and available. Close to confessional, the reader will feel the great and tangible power in the speaker’s admission of quarantine, loss, and confusion.
The notable shift to this disrobed tone gives way to an unrestrained approach to the “you.” In a solemn plea, the speaker reveals himself as the feral, dismayed product of the city, the agreement, and the economy. In this final section, the originating obscurity has lifted. There is no point in masking the reality. W, X and Y have happened…and now, here is Z:
Much like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” these lines shout off the page of the violation in consumerism, the confusion in consumption, and the often painful stirring that comes with awareness. O New York is a work of nerve, distress, and engagement. By the time one has made their way through the buildings, the cars, the lights, the sounds, the masses, the book has become a byzantine city centre and the reader one of its civilians. When approaching this book, be prepared to pump the brakes a bit. These poems are not to be rushed through and probably are not best suited for “light reading” just before bed. They are however highly cerebral and inspiring—constantly challenging the reader to let go of how they think they “should” read a poem, and in turn, let go of how they “should” see their environs and within such, themselves. This book is one of intimacy, albeit cryptically so. I highly recommend reading O New York (as well as Sager’s other online chapbook with Ugly Duckling Presse Dear Failures) to those who are interested in seeing what happens when the lights burn out, sound depletes stability, and the strictures of a city—a person—become permeable.
O New York is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Melissa Burke is a poet living in San Francisco, finishing her MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a Poetry Editor and Social Media staff member at Omnidawn Publishing, as well as an Education & Children’s Events Assistant at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.