The Unreal City

Mike Lala
Tupelo Press ($21.95)

by Peter Myers

“I want a holophrase,” declares Hope Mirrlees—a single word to denote a whole complex of ideas. Thus begins Paris: A Poem, a six-hundred-line eruption of avant-gardism now regarded as a modernist classic. Her holophrase could well be the title itself: “Paris,” in 1920, signified both a classicism on its deathbed and a frenetic, whiplash present, a free-fall into a future as garish and unassimilable as the city’s boulevards, street vendors, and neon lights. Mirrlees’s poem of urban flânerie was an attempt to capture centuries of history and culture (read: barbarism) piled atop each other, chaotically signifying the arrival of a new era and a new relation to time.

The Unreal City, Mike Lala’s second poetry collection, reprises Mirrlees’s method but swaps 1920’s Paris for present-day New York City. While The Unreal City remains entangled with the modernist era—the title alludes to The Waste Land, a poem published, it’s worth noting, three years after Paris—its preoccupations are decidedly contemporary. For Lala, the city is ground zero for both the violence of history’s erasure and the deluge of its return; it’s where social antagonisms stare each other down in “the maculate, moth-riddled / sodium-vapor street-lamp light.”

Lala’s poetic method is primarily one of depiction. The collection’s opening poem, “My Nudes,” is ekphrastic, a montage of art-historical bodies. But Lala tweaks the formula by adjoining multiple subjects to a single first-person pronoun; the boundaries between the nudes, and between art and audience, are blurred from the start. Thus we’re introduced to one of the book’s central preoccupations: the challenge of separating our own outlines from the historical forces that shape them.

In subsequent poems, the speaker adopts a posture akin to Mirrlees’s urban flaneur, bearing witness to a world-destroying appetite for wealth as they wander a maze of asphalt and blue-grey glass. “Elizabeth Street” is a catalogue of storefronts that doubles as lifestyle porn, a litany of all that’s found “on Liz / street of my patron-funded dreams.” A sampling: “Unis, Café Habana, Kit 228 and Steven Alan / Le Labo, Aesop, Clare V, Shott NYC, Me&Ro, / Albanese Rudolph, Emmett / McCarthy, Thomas Sires, then Todd Snyder.” Here Lala deftly navigates a tricky tonal strait. The fact that his speaker simultaneously craves everything his “patron-funded dreams” would grant him—the $50 soap, the $400 shirts—and finds those same “patrons” despicable registers not as a contradiction so much as a necessary resentment; the would-be patrons, after all, are the ones who made the world this way, engineered it to contort our desires into such monstrous shapes. Many of the storefronts Lala’s flaneur strolls past have long been closed, a testament to how these high-end stores and boutiques—a living index of the city’s transformation from a place where people live to a publicly-subsidized warehouse for excess capital—are no less safe from the market’s predations than the people who can barely afford to window-shop.

“Work,” a long poem of urban wandering and rumination, takes up the majority of The Unreal City’s pages. The poem pays explicit homage to Paris: Lala borrows Mirrlees’s opening line and recycles many of her formal experiments, including typographical jump cuts, unconventional text alignment, and the incorporation of found text. But whereas Mirrlees generally restricts her scavenging to her poem’s urban environs—storefronts and advertisements, overheard gossip—Lala quotes and interpolates from a litany of written sources, documented in the book’s copious endnotes. The poem’s most prominent source text, other than Paris, is Vergil’s Georgics, the Roman poet’s treatise on farm work and apiculture. Lala thus turns our attention toward a different relation to work, one which, from the approximate hell of our present, seems prudent, even virtuous. Here, the word work functions as Lala’s own holophrase, referring not just to labor, but to what comes of it—the work of art, say, shaped no less by the hands of the artist than by the forces which act on those hands.

Like The Unreal City’s shorter poems, the opening gesture of “Work” is to strafe the urban environment. Our flaneur-speaker notes rooftop cops, overhead jets, and, like Prufrock, his own footfalls on “certain half- / deserted streets.” But unlike Prufrock (or Eliot, for that matter), Lala’s speaker has a decidedly historical-materialist sensibility: “View down Wycoff; mist over spires. / The workmanship of these, of everything, is empire— / bodies, labor, and theft—a way of making money / in the blue alarm clock light, a holophrase.” Later, “Work” swerves from the metropole to the periphery, copping to the predatory extraction of land and labor that keeps the urban enterprise running:

You KNOW how it STARTS.

MONEY taught

human beings

to wrench up the SOIL with iron,

            to hunt, fund, kill, till, drill, develop, and steal land from others.

NOW in resources EARTH is DEFICIENT




“Work,” however, is far more than agitprop that pays mind to prosody (not that that would be so unwelcome). The elements of its composition—the formal debt to Mirrlees’s Paris; the interpolations of Eliot, Vergil, and others—become, as the poem unfolds, an elaboration of its argument. Lala takes as his epigraph a quote from Andreas Malm, noting that our current climate crisis isn’t the revenge of nature so much as “the revenge of historicity dressed in nature.” We are helpless against the past’s irruption into the present, even if the unreal city’s burnished surfaces, visual metaphors for the frictionless flow of capital, would lead us to think otherwise. Our present world cannot be disentangled from the regimes of violence and dispossession that built and sustain it. “Work,” in its own way, drags the past into plain sight; it’s the revenge of historicity dressed in language.

Cities, like poems, are at once bastions of unreality and a means to survive it; in its final pages, The Unreal City takes the shape of a directive to tip the balance of urban life toward the latter. It’s didactic, but in a way that rings true, animated by the conviction that it would be worthless to say it otherwise: “Death to the god of our owners. / Death of the shares of our holders. Death / to the futures that lead us toward death.” For Lala, our new futures must be built where it is we stand, “beneath the shade / of monoliths.