REVIEW: Model of a City in Civil War by Adam Day


by Allison Donohue

Adam Day’s debut collection, Model of City in Civil War, encompasses a large cast of characters. As many as it seems a city can hold. The collection begins with a poem titled “Before the War” and from there proceeds into a war-torn, often winterized scene. The collection oscillates. Many poems are written from the perspective of a speaker in his own civil war; he confronts haunting questions of loss, death, and how time shifts, and how one must learn to shift with it somehow. Interspersed are poems about others: “The Insomniac,” “The Cow,” an eighty-year-old man in “He Speaks of Old Age,” and in “Combine” the following appear: Stalin, Tennessee Williams, God, Goya, Queen Anne. The faces are endless. In his collection, Day constantly turns outward as though to say: here is someone else; someone else, too, is suffering.

In “Water from the Same Source,” the speaker, jarred by a loss, returns to the world: “Going back out…I was reminded / how easy it is to forget the world / is inhabited mostly by others.” The “others” in these poems create the city in which Day’s speakers trudge. By turning outward, Day’s speakers look the other city patrons in the eye. This decision to look unlocks the most mysterious and compelling poems. “Sleeping with Uncle Lester” is a prime example. The speaker, having gone home with a woman the night previously, wakes up next to this woman’s Uncle Lester. The poem continues like so:

                        I woke with her uncle Lester
beside me, slack-chinned and thin, face
and neck a wash of white stubble
and the high turpentine of fetid sweat.
Lester’s wife died when their Chrysler
broke down as she hemorrhaged
from miscarriage. I got up
on my elbows; out the window
was the background of an otherwise
dull family photo…

The speaker goes on to describe the scene of the backyard. However, for just a moment, we are let into Lester’s troubles with no explanation as to how the speaker knows this information. Perhaps sleeping beside him suggests such intimate sharing; perhaps it is the detailed way the speaker has looked at and described Lester’s face. Either way, Lester’s sufferings are brought forth and he becomes one of the men walking Day’s city in civil war.

One of Day’s most compelling poems revolves around Mussolini. In “Diorama—Scarlet and Liver” there is violence, as expected. What interests one more though is the way the poem begins:

There is Mussolini in his tight,
                    rough-wood coffin,
shirtless on pine shavings. One eye opened. Swollen face
pancaked, his mouth a singed, lipless stretch.

To take a man who governed so many, so terribly and place him in the first lines of the poem in a coffin rewards Day’s preoccupation with perspective.

Yet, the ambition of Model of a City in Civil War exists largely in its commentary not on the wars between others but the wars we hold with ourselves. While Day does look outward, he is adept at turning his eye inward. These poems are where some of his most truthful and poignant lines reside. At the core of this collection is a sense of grappling. Day’s speakers confront what a war leaves behind. That is, the war of living life. It is called growing up, losing a parent, losing anyone and everyone who became close to us for a moment. This is fully realized in “Hiding Again in London”:

                    Months like this passed before I left for Stockholm

                    carrying the anonymous thing that we’ve always
known without having learned,
               that we’ll lose, that speaking into silence, our gods,
parent-ghosts, and lovers will not
                    hear us. Still, call after him. Awkwardly call this man

Day’s collection seems to say: there is a war; there has always been a war. Eventual and unavoidable, loss is returned to again and again. Model of a City in Civil War is dangerous; there is often a man “swinging his broom like a scythe,” there is a rusty nail “shocking the snow / with a faint russet pulse” and often there seems to be no hope (“Apprehended at a Distance,” “Snow in a Brick Courtyard”). Yet, at times there is waltzing. At times the speaker parts with a previous life saying: “I feel sure I won’t / find anyone, now. I’ve settled into that a bit. And I find myself / attracted more and more to pregnant women” and a moment later the speaker finishes, “and maybe I think this time I could get it right” (“Time Away”).

Adam Day’s honest debut is written with people in mind. His collection is crowded; people often throw elbows outside of the poems’ pages. It is like every city we’ve been in and in that way it is comforting. We have a guide who walks us through, yet our guide is equally alone and warring, claiming: “None of us is more alone / than another, and still no comfort / in it” (“Now and Forever”).

Buy it from Sarabande Books: $14.95

Allison Donohue grew up in Virginia. She holds an MA in Poetry from Texas Tech University. Currently, she’s an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cortland Review, The Minnesota Review, Hotel Amerika, and others. Her book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Collagist, and Connotation Press.

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