George Washington
Adam Fitzgerald
Liveright, $25.95 (cloth)

Adam Fitzgerald’s quizzical second book of poems opens boldly into a puzzle. In a poem entitled “The Lordly Hudson,” the book’s first lines read: “After my family died there was a replacement family / I lost my dog but soon a replacement one arrived / in tassel bow the color of goose stuffing and liver. // My replacement house followed after the real one / was blown apart.”  We are off to such a hurtling start—so many deaths already—there is hardly time to notice how the mind now eddies over the open questions: How could there be a replacement family? What can be replaced, and how? What is replacement, anyway?

This question stays alive for the entire volume, ricocheting Fitzgerald’s poems forward. In a world of mass synthetic production, the word replace often seems to mean to duplicate—to replace one black sweater with another, one Starbucks with the next, one suburb with a different one, or perhaps even one family with another, making (after Tolstoy) a world of so many happy families, all alike. Yet Fitzgerald’s is not a book of happy families, or even a world where likeness, identities, or identical things ever sit easily with one another. If many synthetically reproduced objects run through it, there is also a fair amount of irreplaceable sadness—the loss of a father, of a childhood that took place in a bygone era, the loss of time itself. These losses are themselves ordinary, but they are each felt, as Tolstoy put it, in its own way. Fitzgerald’s poems are each forged in explosive, particular syntax—each poem formed in some original, idiosyncratic shape.

Indeed, Fitzgerald’s poems deflect their losses off a world that churns through memories and objects at an ever-faster pace, heaping obsolescence upon obsolescence. In Fitzgerald’s disposable present, trying to memorialize anything at all seems questionable, perhaps outdated. Baudelaire was once able to capture a certain modern conception of loss by having a poem declaim “The old Paris is gone—the form of a city / changes faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal.” From the vantage of 175 years later, the nostalgia of mourning a city seems dignified by the fact that a lost city, however shattered and unrecoverable, at least bears the gravitas of human grief.

What does it mean to mourn things that were always mass-produced, always meant to be thrown away?

But what does it mean to come unmoored or mourn among things that were always mass-produced, always meant to be thrown away? Fitzgerald cobbles his poems from the detritus of a suburban childhood, as if rummaging through a New Jersey landfill poised exactly at the sedimentary depth of 1992. “Goodbye, Blockbuster Video! Farewell to the Monopoly Man!” cries one poem, and another, “Time After Time” sets itself to the rhyme scheme of Cyndi Lauper’s famous song: “I wander in windows soft as Sour Patch. No rewind.” Another poem, “Oregon Trail,” revisits an early computer game that simulated pioneering. The poem re-enters that childhood fantasy, with its imaginary provisions and its real SPACE BARS. Even from the short distance of twenty years, the poem is already part archaeology, part micro-alienation: both the form of computing and the access to an untroubled fantasy of “playing pioneer” have moved irrevocably on.

Fitzgerald’s litanies for the disposable might come off as themselves synthetic, or perhaps merely sarcastic, if they didn’t also feel deftly, sadly emblematic, and in a curious and pleasant way, earnest—if these poems weren’t so haunted by the figure of a unique, irreplaceable person somewhere within or just beyond them. Fitzgerald seems like a GenX flaneur, swirling back past the creation of Lord & Taylor and into the creation of Leaves of Grass, before zooming forward again to the construction of the Walt Whitman Shops (a very real and very ordinary Long Island shopping center). Poems whir past the blurry totem of George Washington himself, who is unsettlingly misremembered, almost un-remember-able—we are always, as Fitzgerald puts it, “wondering what his face will be.” Yet as poems unbury lost shipments of VHS tapes and list remade movies, Fitzgerald pits the loss of even these things against what Baudelaire might have called “the heart of a mortal.” Fitzgerald too is looking for a face. The unrecoverable particulars of his life are hidden in a landfill with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and merchandise from strip malls. Fitzgerald’s poems keep trying to locate real grief inside a material culture that defies it.

Counterintuitively, as Fitzgerald builds poem after poem out of freezer doors and Trapper Keepers—or, as he puts it, “the flat spacey wherewithal of disconnected items”—his poems also achieve a sense of lyric realness or genuine encounter, a feeling of trying to recover from loss, and of allowing us to come-to-know. This feeling is both surprising and hard won, because Fitzgerald’s disconnectedness is most frequently embodied in sentences that strain syntax against sense: “I want a second act. What can I say but this was my second act. / Must wrangle a look-see. The sigh revenging its timely laziness // in the ruffled strut of an accusing pillow.” The reader cannot unpack these images straightforwardly—the act of making meaning is honored in the breach—but we can glimpse, in midst of it, or seem to glimpse, something that feels surprisingly real.

The word “real” seems to require scare quotes. The last line of George Washington’s last poem calls for “a kind of distance,” and Fitzgerald seems to keep trying to maintain a distance that would hold any too-easy “real” at bay. Fitzgerald satirizes the artificial, but he is also keenly aware that the poem exists to create an artifice that makes his own losses distant, less personal. These poems satirize the synthetic, the artificially replaceable, but they are also deeply enmeshed in and enamored with the artifice that is language, particularly as embodied in the highly synthetic possibilities of poetic form. As he moves, Fitzgerald creates a Rauschenbergian mashup of lyric possibility. Sometimes his human incantation seems forcibly overwhelmed, as in the poem “White Noise,” a loud fast jumble whose speaker seems to be a hybrid of autocorrect and an eleven-year-old boy: “THIS IS WHERE THE SERPENT HIDES / WHITE ELECTION NERF GUN USA / SUPERSOAKERS BY THE BUTTLOADS.” Other times, Fitzgerald plays with the more familiar forms of the lament, as in “Our Lady of South Dakota,” which becomes a latter day Whitmanian roadtrip:

Our Lady of Allen, South Dakota, be with us.
Our Lady of turquoise towers and water pumps,
of dry barbiturate skies barreling o’er granaries,
bucolic at the continental pole of inaccessibility.

Our Lady of Brundage and Wounded Knee,
pray for us. Average family income 2,300 USD.

The dialogue between the deeply felt and its expression in the high artifice of the poem enables this book’s most surprising artfulness. Like Marianne Moore, who called for poetry to be like an imaginary garden with real toads in it, Fitzgerald offers up highly synthetic language studded with real grief.

One may never be able to have a “replacement family,” but another kind of replacement for lost experience is art itself, the ars longa that takes the place of the vita brevis, the written artifact that stands in imperfectly for whatever the real once was. Art, the replacement vessel, becomes the vehicle through which we come to see or know anything at all. Yet how does art replace experience? What does it stand in for? Does it recreate or does it erase what it stands in for?

Just as George Washington plays with the notion of replacement in its subject matter, it also explores and plays with “replacement” by repeating itself. The book contains not one but two poems titled “George Washington”—the second a joking understudy and exegesis of the first, and also of the book as a whole. The first “George Washington,” the book’s fifth poem, is addressed to a mysterious you. Like many of Fitzgerald’s poems, it is syntactically jarring, pleasantly unusual. He manages to string a series of partially representational sentences together, while also depicting, as if through a fast-moving vehicle, the cluttered suburban landscape of New Jersey. The mythic figure of George Washington is nominally present though fuzzy, a figurehead within the blur: “A maw orchard, windless in the mind, / boomed electronic lifts. I spied you at the prow of some sensation,” and later, “O stream, ring your years. Handsome tubers, go ahead and wig out.” The images of orchard, wig, and prow recall classic—hackneyed—George Washington tropes. But Fitzgerald appropriates them oddly, smashing up the orchard with mysterious lifts, glancing off the wig. The poem takes the cliché, digests it, and extrudes it into something blurry and strange.

In keeping with the off kilter and strange, the book concludes with a second “George Washington,” an act of hilarious bravura that begins: “I don’t remember exactly when I wrote ‘George Washington’ / I’m sure it was in the spring of 2013 traveling / Greyhound upstate to visit Joe and his newborn. / The poem flowed haphazardly then, breaking down / the page in random lines.” Fitzgerald slows his zooming lists of signifiers to offer a fair meta-description of what his book-length project has just been: “‘Americana’ / its symbols transformed through 21st-century idioms. / From Whitman and the Mississippi to shopping malls / and the inhuman quantum physics of the internet.” In Fitzgerald’s own words, he has “been exploring how estranging / these ubiquitous, half-forgotten tokens are today.” Harnessing the language of the grant application proves to be humorously accurate. What does it mean to forget, and to remember? Elsewhere, Fitzgerald claims offhandedly: “[t]hat so few of the particulars / in my mind aren’t interchangeable somehow proves / poetry is memory.”

Even crafted as wry jokes, these questions resonate. What does it mean to remember and how do we do it? How do we remember the present when so much of what we remember is designed to disappear? This constellation of questions operates at the scale of the body, the mind, art, and the nation. Fitzgerald is looking hard for answers. In the second “George Washington,” he weaves the concept of hyperfocal distance into comments on national character and boys he has loved: “the length beyond / which objects turn sharp, lens focused at infinity.” This practice calls to mind the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who used this technique to take pictures of architectural icons. By focusing the camera on infinity, Sugimoto captures familiar buildings at odd angles, blurred at upending vantages. Looking at them, it is hard to ascertain where the observing body might be standing. One has a sense of fuzzy but familiar shapes entering the body raw and undigested, as if elemental ingredients of a dream, the formative Mobius of the imagination. This strange experience of disembodiment seems, in the end, to call us back both to the body and to the physical process of vision, the very materiality from which we construct the dream.

Like Sugimoto, Fitzgerald’s poems simulate hyperfocal distance. His hyperreal, onrushing language upends us, seeming to blur both memory and landscape. But paradoxically reminding us to locate the body and our tendrilling selves within the grids of space and speech, his poems also call us back to something that feels remarkably like the self.