by Scott Russell Morris
My wife and I moved to Astana, Kazakhstan, three years ago, living there for a year while we taught at a Kazakh high school. From the largest window in our sixteenth-floor apartment, we could look out over the undeveloped edge of the capitol city where a large, globular building—which I affectionately referred to as the Death Star—was slowly taking shape, and beyond that, the glass pyramid Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, beyond that, the glittering new mosque and a set of buildings the ex-pat community called the Dog Bed and the Water Dish, beyond that, the old Soviet-style apartments. On the opposite side of the building, if we looked out from the stairwell’s windows, we could see the new apartment buildings under construction. The next block over from us, an excavation, started before we arrived and still digging when we left, was rumored to be preparations for what would be the tallest building in Central Asia. And just beyond that, the heart of Kazakhstan’s new capital city, a mirage of sparkling business and residential buildings, tall skyscrapers—some wavy, some glassy, some stony—all clashing against each other for flashiness. Malls and restaurants and businesses and fancy hotels next to the ambassadors’ houses. A tall, surreal tree with a golden egg, Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the Washington Monument, gleamed in the middle of it all, colored lights on it at night.
But most of these buildings were empty, the apartments built for show more than occupancy, the idea of a capitol more than the function of one, the president’s dream of what his legacy will be, but not yet accomplished. Beyond the glittering façade are crumbling apartments with exposed wires. The actual residents of the city live in the old Soviet heart, where buildings are short, square, uniform, and functional, where the mall’s wares are affordable and necessary.
I couldn’t help but think of all these empty buildings glittering in the Siberian sun and wind as I opened Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, a poetic exploration of other such cities, cities built with a plan or a dream that is unattainable.
Model City starts with a question: “What was it like?”. After which, we get 72 poems, all of them titled “Model City,” each poem containing four prose poem stanzas, every stanza beginning with “It was like…” And then each stanza takes you to a dreamlike world of empty hotel rooms and architects without buildings to build:
It was like the young architect sitting at her window looking out for hours at the city skyline and making lists of which buildings are beautiful and which are sublime.
The repetition of the uncertainty—tell us what it was like without telling us what it actually was, without telling us exactly what it is at all—creates a dreamy world as you move from poem to poem. While we know from the afterward that Stonecipher based many of her poems on Berlin and many others on the planned communities throughout the world, we don’t learn that in the poems themselves, and instead are left wondering if we’re looking at real cities, imagined cities, or imagined cities overlaid on the real ones. There are, in the words themselves, cities “composed solely of expensive emptinesses”. The language itself continually loops back on itself, so that in any given poem, each stanza contains many of the same words, as though the words became a way to see the through the façades their own emptiness. These emptinesses and looping rhythms only add to the dreaminess that the descriptions themselves create, emptinesses which draw attention not just to all the unused hotel rooms in the model cities, but also the strangeness of words.
It was like the citizen knowing that home is a construction exposing our constructedness; he chose the most beautiful language and tried to disappear into its declinations.
The world of Model City reminds me very much of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though Stonecipher’s poems are less grounded in fancy and more in actual possibility—though often, possibilities unmet—and her observations are not of the supernatural, but of the oddly quotidian: for example, a city full of ad spaces that only advertise their own availability, shops where everything is free, the fleeting pleasure of an apartment with a sunrise view blocked by an empty hotel, an architect inspired by ocean waves. We do not have real cities in her work, we have model cities, city ideals. Factual, but not actual, cities.
The genius of her work lies in that strange boundary between what was imagined and what is actual, it was something was like, not what it actually was. While her book took me back to Kazakhstan, it will take other readers elsewhere. Readers, immersed as they will be in the beautiful, expensive emptinesses and abstractions of Stonecipher’s language, will no doubt be reminded of their own model cities, their own travels, their own moments running up against emptinesses.
Buy it at Shearsman Books. $16.
Scott Russell Morris is a student at Texas Tech University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is at work on a memoir of food and travel. His essays have recently appeared in Brevity, Proximity, Assay, and Stone Voices.