It was like seeing a fox one day right in the middle of the city – a real fox, not a taxidermied fox, nor a fox logo, nor a foxy person that one might want to sleep with.
It was like stopping and staring at the fox, along with all the other people walking down the street, all stopped in their tracks and staring in astonishment at the fox.
It was like watching the real, soft, cinnamon-colored fox, the only object moving in the landscape, moving silkily along the overgrown median, darting glances over at the people standing on the sidewalk, staring.
It was like the concentrated attention placed on the fox’s perplexing appearance deflected by the fox, who keeps moving down the street, headed to a fox den known only to the fox – dark, liquid, solvent.
Donna Stonecipher’s Model City is a strange and wonderful book, with 72 poems that all look like the one above: four prose sections/stanzas/paragraphs, each beginning with “It was like…” At first they seem to be about inhabiting a “model city,” or “garden city” as they’re sometimes called, trying to explore the sensations one might have in the midst of planned architecture and street design. The utopian vision that is behind any model city – “if we plan this correctly everyone will be happy” – lends itself to all sorts of artificial weirdness, and so we can see how being inside those ideas might be ripe for poetic exploration.
But as the poems accumulate, it gets harder and harder to figure out what the “it” in “it was like” is really referring to. In his blurb for the book, Noah Eli Gordon calls it a “missing antecedent,” and in many of the poems the opening phrase seems less like an answer to the question, “What was traveling through the model city like?” and more like an answer to the question, “What was it like to be a human being in the early 21st century?” The answers the poems provide are not exactly logical, but they are still somehow clarifying.
Which is why the “It was like…” form works so well for me. Like a stutter, or a grasping at ideas, the speaker of these poems always seems on the verge of discovering what “it” was like, but can’t satisfy herself that she’s found the best simile for her mix of thoughts and feelings. In this way the poem, indeed the whole book, seems like an exploration, a series of attempts to reach out to us, her readers, to try to bridge the inevitable gap between one individual experience and another.
In this particular poem, these attempts all revolve around the appearance of a fox in a cityscape. It’s worth remembering that in a perfect “model city,” we probably wouldn’t see a real fox at all on any “overgrown meridian.” But in the first section what’s even more strange is that the speaker has to clarify what kind of fox we’re seeing: “not a taxidermied fox, nor a foxy logo, nor a foxy person one might want to sleep with.” Are we really likely to confuse these things with each other?! If we were there on the street, the clarification would be ridiculous. The only place where we might get confused is in a poem. It’s the first hint we have of Stonecipher’s efforts are self-consciously literary, an attempt to travel through the page to us, against the limits of language and misunderstanding.
The second stanza focuses on how the speaker feels connected to everyone around her who is similarly awestruck at the appearance of the animal. She goes from “stopping and staring” to noticing that everyone around her is also “stopped… and staring.” Even the artless repetition of the verbs seems a reflection of her dumbfounded-ness (“staring” will get used once more, in the following section). I find myself wondering if the speaker’s need to feel communal connection is partly a result of her being in a Model City. I’m no expert, but I sense that artificial constructions like model cities suppress organic, roughened, unpredictable experiences, and so the shared communal staring is a minor breakthrough that the speaker longs for in the same way she longs to break through the page to us.
By the third section the fox is the “only object moving in the landscape,” and in the poem. Notice that “it” is never actually compared to the fox itself – it was like seeing the fox, stopping and staring at the fox, watching the fox, and the attention placed on the fox. The poem, and the comparison – what “it” was like – is really about our experience of encountering the fox, together. “The attention placed” is singular, even though it’s a crowd of people who are focusing their various attentions on the creature, and that crowd now includes us too, who have spent four stanzas seeing, stopping and staring, watching, and placing our attention there.
Meanwhile the actual fox is beyond our efforts to associate with it. Our attention is “deflected” while it carries on with its business, eventually disappearing into its invisible home in the midst of our urban, urbane constructions – our city, our streets, and our poems. I love the last word here, “solvent,” which literally means “able to dissolve other substances.” At the beginning of the poem, the fox’s appearance (and Stonecipher’s poem about it) dissolves our individuality into a collective sense of awe. But at the end of the poem the den, by removing the object of our attention from the scene, dissolves our shared experience, dissolves the scene and the poem. We are returned to our singular selves.
So the poem ultimately seems to be concerned with the rich tension between our lonely, unique, individual existence, and the fleeting, self-dissolving, shared experience of an encounter with nature, or with art. The poem does not try to resolve that tension, only to articulate something about what it was like.