Imperial Nostalgias

Imperial Nostalgias

Joshua Edwards
Ugly Duckling Presse (2013) 
96 pages; $15

Reviewed by J. Fossenbell

My introduction to Imperial Nostalgias came at a dark industrial club in Boston when Joshua Edwards got on stage, opened his quaintly small book, and spent several minutes describing, one by one, a series of photographs found in the section “Valley of Unrest.” Paraphrasing: Page 29: a dog that looks headless because its dark head is turned back against its dark body. A dead rat in the lower corner of the image. Page 31: a wing of a plane: This was me leaving , he told us, me being able to physically transcend—the ultimate evidence of being outsider, of being privileged. Now, as I sit with the book, his impromptu photographic reading still shapes my vision, and I am forced to consider the risk of primacy of any personal narrative, the danger inherent in attaching myself to any one telling—my own or someone else’s version of truth. I assume this is no accident, as translation and representation float in and out of the boundaries of Edwards’s book: experiences in an alien world, “which / reminds me of home without associations.” In this book, photographs and poems open and close like a series of window frames that invite and impose: here, see this instead of that. Here, know this—and remember how little you really know.

Imperial Nostalgias grew out of experiences Edwards had while in France, Mexico, and China. Two parables—“The Traveler” and “The Outsider”—start the collection by immediately signaling his concern with these (non-)positions and the anxious questioning that accompanies them: by what mechanism or mythology does (or should) an outsider gain power to interfere? What “perpetual hunger” drives the proverbial traveler to float in, issue advice or prophecy to the people of a given place, speak “the names of their most precious ancestors,” and float out again? “On a journey I become my questions,” Edwards writes. He circles back to these questions again and again and doesn’t let himself-as-speaker off the hook, despite his persistent (though wry) romanticization of his own sepia-toned disorientation, his privileged stuckness in a saga starring himself.

The saga leads us across borders and into moments of alternate banality and impending harm. “Welcome to our province. / Violence always starts on the inside,” Edwards sloganizes in the section “Departures,” a sequence of untitled sestets that traverse travel-journal lyric, allegory, and aphorism. Voices in this series are suspect and suspicious, and tones simultaneously self-deprecating and sincere. “I fell in love with pain I thought was cute.” Personal pain, like nostalgia, explodes into a political force. “To create actual violence out / of diplomatic anger requires an / indulgence to the spirit of pity / and the monument of pain.” In this section, too, and in the remainder of the book, Edwards picks at the seams that join knowledge and action: “If I knew all the facts, I would most likely / never open my mouth.”

The center section lends the book its title—a phrase Edwards credits to César Vallejo’s Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds). Here the voices found in the previous section continue to spin out in more distinct, titled pieces. Some verge on the flavor of folk song (“State of the Union”), while others are essaylike (“The Heart Is on the Left Side”). The mundane travel narrative gets morphed into almost biblically prophetic language in moments that continue to point to a certain reckless absurdity inherent in travel: “The sightseers know what they are seeing, for it is written / on the signs.” Yet the impulse to go from place to place, to see and record, remains a natural if not pure or noble one, and grants Edwards his own occasion for making the collection: “You want to paint the world / you were born into …”

Emotionally, the world of this book is neither a frontier to be explored nor an already-conquered empire. Yet it is also both of those things. A poignant desire that signifies doubly as personal romance and political eroticism—the yearning of a world-weary figure to touch the strange world (the strange other) and be hurt by it.

The labyrinth of another’s
understanding can be so painful, it may
carry with it the risk of myth and provoke
the unsuccess of which it warns.

Then a gesture of hope, of genesis made of this erotic interaction: “At their best, two people may // destroy certain barricades and / … set out toward / a place that wasn’t there before.” If people stand in for groups, parties, nations, then we find something verging on a diplomatic statement of faith. Because

A lover’s fine sense of crises is never
far from the body nor from culture—
melancholy lust of the human world.

Riffling through this series of frames, I get this unsettling feeling that I don’t know whether I’m looking into or out of them. This is what being a traveler (and a reader of poetry) feels like: we start at the end of something—by leaving—and end up somewhere else by the time we get back to the end. In this uncanny trick, there is no beginning and we never arrive, only flip through a series of “unreliable algorithms … known as poems.” Let’s call them departures, Edwards suggests. “I have lost my way / and now call disorientation paradise.”

The I here is precisely the figure of an Imperial brand of longing, and while Edwards points to, frames, and interrogates the assumptions that come with such a legacy, that I stubbornly remains at the center. Paradise, in this intimate, gaping world, is limited: “a museum visit at the end / of a long vacation.” Dodging overt moral obligation but holding to some deeper insistence on personal responsibility, Edwards’s “cold eternity of pleasure” leaves me wondering how comfortably any of us can remain comfortable in our skewed knowledge of the world.

J. Fossenbell got her BA in English Secondary Education at Colorado State University in 2004 and will finish her MFA in poetry at the University of Minnesota in Spring 2014, after which she will climb into a mossy burrow for one year. Her poetry, essays, and other writings have appeared or are coming out soon in Midway Journal, Moonshot Magazine, Whole Beast Rag, ILK Journal, Radioactive Moat, Cerise Press, and others. She co-edited Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi, an anthology of Hanoi-based international writers, and co-translated The Human Field, a poetry collection by Tran Quang Quy.