“I See the City Not as It’s Become”: On Adam Kirsch’s “The Discarded Life”
By Leslie MonsourJune 1, 2022
The Discarded Life by Adam Kirsch
Kirsch states his purpose in the opening section:
If now’s the time, before I age into
The wisdom or indifference of detachment,
To write down something of the way it happened,
It’s not because the circumstances matter,
But that the soul of meaning can’t survive
Outside the body of contingency.
The interesting paradox here is that the detritus of what Kirsch calls “a few old mementoes of the mind” is absorbing stuff, worthy of serving as the driving force behind the narrative, along with Kirsch’s sobering recognition that “[e]ventually the past begins to leak / The meanings that I took such pains to store there.” The Discarded Life functions as his alembic for distilling the past’s liquid fermentations, and also as the seasoned oak cask for preserving the condensations.
As a highly regarded scholar of Judaism and religious philosophies, Kirsch may or may not have been conscious of certain Eastern dualisms at work here, such as attachment and dis-attachment, engagement and disengagement, disposing and preserving, as well as the trio of Hindi deities: Brahma the creator; Vishnu the preserver; and Shiva the destroyer. The Discarded Life uses the creative power of poetry to fashion a vessel that preserves meaning, then destroys what remains in a figurative bonfire fueled by the flotsam of an American youth many Gen-Xers and Xennials will recognize in details like, “The dungeon I explored in Wizardry”; “The mages, bards, and dagger-wielding thieves”; “Transformers, G.I. Joes / And other loot from Hanukkahs gone by, / the adolescent posters stripped from walls.”
Discarding clutter is a trendy theme in the world of lifestyle gurus and home decorators. Patricia Marx, in her recent New Yorker article “Getting Rid of It,” writes, “A few months ago, I decided to deaccession an assortment of my things by whatever means feasible: selling, donating, recycling, giving them away, losing them on the subway, or reserving a spot for them on the next Mars Explorer.” Marie Kondo’s popular website advises, “Don’t use your parents’ home to hold onto mementos that no longer feel significant. Build time into this process to reclaim them, take inventory, better organize what sparks joy and let go of the rest.” For Kirsch, “Poetry is a method of disposal,” and it’s the letting go that sparks joy — “reckless joy,” at that.
Reading The Discarded Life is indeed very much like keeping an intelligent friend company while he does his parents the favor of clearing out his old room. Watching Kirsch linger thoughtfully over belongings he treasured in his youth, as he prepares to toss them into his own bonfire of vanities, is solemn and edifying entertainment. It recalls the passage from 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Childhood, for Kirsch, starts with an early recollection of abandonment and separation, when, as a two-year-old, a pair of elevator doors leave him “[o]n the wrong side, the side without my parents.” Elevators don’t always elevate. They can also descend toward hell, or, in this case, surgery — perhaps a childhood appendectomy or tonsillectomy — when the small patient finds himself “supine / On a rolling table […] As a black mask is fitted on my face / And I inhale a sour metallic wind / That scatters me to nothingness again.” Who can avoid thinking of T. S. Eliot (one of Kirsch’s earliest influences as a writer) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with its epigraph from Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno and its opening invitation, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” “So memory begins with an incision,” Kirsch writes, “And consciousness emerges in the cut.”
The poem sustains its initial tension of dualisms as it blends the serious with the trivial and proceeds to the world of children’s television and Sesame Street. Kirsch, generously specific, explains that he’s of “the fleeting demographic / That came of age in 1983” and were initiated “in the meaning / Of never coming back” by experiencing the death of Mr. Hooper along with Big Bird. The episode had little effect on his older and younger siblings, whose spheres of influence at the time encompassed completely different television shows and personalities, a realization that raises troubling questions in the young Kirsch about the significance of Mr. Hooper’s life, or, for that matter, any life.
Thus, early on, a germ of doubt and cynicism plants itself in “the soul of meaning,” and Kirsch looks back with a somewhat jaundiced eye at the progressive West L.A. elementary school he attended, where “[t]he last fumes of the sixties lingered on,” and “children bearing names / Like Bodhi, Star, and Rainbow shuffled in” to sing songs about labor unions and endangered whales. But the most valuable school lesson comes when Kirsch is coaxed by a teacher to apologize to a bully, and he discovers “the liberation”
Of realizing that I didn’t need
To mean it when I said that I was sorry —
That I could feel resentment, not remorse,
And no one else would know it.
Youthful cynicism, which is often rooted in fear, is one of The Discarded Life’s themes. The older Kirsch must explain the world to his younger self more than once in the book. For instance, when the Challenger disaster is shown live on television to the entire school, he recalls “the ruthless speed”
With which the big kids turned it into punchlines
So perfect, so hilarious with malice:
Was anyone our age so cynical?
I was too young to understand the wisdom
Of that instinctive hardening of heart
In self-defense against the kind of world
Where it was clear that no one was in charge,
Where even heroes did their best and failed,
And Christa’s blue eyes turned to food for fish.
For Kirsch, cynicism is also a by-product of enlightenment, as he relates further instances of “inadvertent lessons” learned in class. In Hebrew school, where the walls are plastered with the names of Hitler’s death camps, he arrives at the conclusion that “God’s not real, but being murdered is.” In a lighter setting, “[a]t Jewish summer camp where daily prayers / And teased-up bangs were equally in fashion,” he shows off his lively kid’s brain when he concocts a way to compare God to hairspray, answering his own little riddle: “Both were invisible but everywhere.” Could young Kirsch have just discovered what Robert Frost called “feats of association,” a fundamental aspect of writing poetry? Intoxicated with the possibilities, he goes on: “If everything could be a metaphor, / The world must be subordinate to language,” and, “Maybe disbelief / And metaphor are twin discoveries.”
When he wrote this, Kirsch must have had “Lying” in mind, Richard Wilbur’s great blank verse poem about metaphor, which begins with an inconsequential falsehood about a grackle and leads to a treatise on the resemblances of things and the idea that all things are connected. “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened,” Wilbur observes after drawing a thrilling comparison between an onion peel and a flapping sail. Wilbur often took for his themes dualisms such as reality and imagination, spirit and matter, the lofty and the common. Kirsch’s ponderings about likenesses lead him to a conclusion the late poet would have praised:
Unless it is the God in everything
That makes the possibility of likeness,
In which case likening is not a game
But something like a tribute or a prayer.
An earlier boyhood instance of poetic awakening occurs while watching MTV on a babysitter’s television. Music and sex collide as Kirsch responds to Devo and Madonna; but, subsequently, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that makes the deeper, more lasting impression. The huge masterpiece begins “as tedious, prestigious noise” that gradually triumphs as an ideal, in what Kirsch describes as “[t]urbulent but under strict control / The way I hoped that I would always be.” To my mind, the idea of turbulence kept under control suggests Wilbur’s genie, whose “strength comes from his being confined in a bottle,” and Robert Frost’s idea of freedom as “moving easy in your harness” — analogies that describe the energetic tension metrical verse enables and free verse too often ignores. In his book Missing Measures, Timothy Steele writes, “The poet who says his subject is too urgent to submit to meter may be deceiving himself,” and, in a statement about formal verse, the poet Janet Lewis concluded, “We need meter. Otherwise, we fall into prose.” When Kirsch understood the folly of believing “[t]he body and its passion for disorder / Were things I could decide I would ignore,” he may have been establishing his roots as a formal poet.
In a 2008 New York Times review of Kirsch’s second poetry book, Invasions, Langdon Hammer criticized the iambic consistency of Kirsch’s lines, complaining that they unroll too smoothly and contain no syntactic surprises. I’ve never understood complaints of this nature. Is Hammer saying that Kirsch uses his craft too well? We know from the start that The Discarded Life is a voyage not lightly taken. Why disorient and distract readers with haphazard line endings and disruptive syntax? Life is weighty cargo for Kirsch, and, thanks to his consistent metrical fluency, his vessel remains on course, with carefully measured ballast to keep it from taking on water or capsizing. His lines skim along, and the poetry feels “entirely alive, entirely aloft,” as Kirsch himself once described the work of fellow poet and pessimist Joshua Mehigan in a review of the latter’s acclaimed and aptly titled collection Accepting the Disaster.
It has been said that the term “urban planning,” when applied to the city of Los Angeles, is an oxymoron. Likewise, lack of form seems to be de rigueur among most Los Angeles poets. This makes it especially refreshing to have Kirsch’s level of attentively consistent blank verse devoted to the city. In his book Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use, Robert B. Shaw writes that unrhymed iambic pentameter “conveys a slight heightening to the material […] holding our attention without distracting us.” Anthony Hecht, who defined blank verse as “poetry’s tool-of-all-trades,” warned that its chief virtue, its flexibility, can also lead to the peril of slipping too easily into ordinary prose and casual speech. But Kirsch avoids this danger, shaping his lines with exacting flair and ease; his agreeable iambic flow sustains the rhythm of normal breathing and heartbeat so that the whole body feels the vitality of the language. Seldom, since Timothy Steele’s heroic couplets in “Near Olympic,” has the sprawling, shapeless City of Angels received the measured care Adam Kirsch gives it in The Discarded Life. What’s more, he makes it look easy.
The section about the Los Angeles riots stands out to me as one of the finest pieces of verse commentary ever written about the city. Kirsch points out the “boundaries / You won’t find listed in the Thomas Guide,” referring to the formerly must-have, now obsolete voluminous edition of city maps, reminding us of a time when GPS and Google didn’t exist. He remembers the ashes
That floated west from Normandie and Florence
Ignited by the video that played
A dozen times a day on local news,
Bearing its blurry witness to the kicks
And sticks rained down on twitching Rodney King,
Thus answering his question in advance:
There is no way for us to get along.
He continues, telling of a school bus
Whose driver commandeered it for a tour
Of Compton and South Central, so the kids
Diverted from their Westside journeys home
Would recognize how close the riots were
And learn that innocence can be offensive.
Kirsch, who now resides in New York, is of the last generation to have known L.A.’s neighborhoods as they were before the city began permanently erasing itself with the insidious brutalism of gentrification, when astronomical rent increases and evictions gave birth to communities of displaced people pitching tents and sleeping on sidewalks. Homelessness skyrocketed in Los Angeles when Ronald Reagan closed federally funded mental health facilities, and activists went around sticking signs on bus benches that read “Another Ronald Reagan Federal Housing Project,” until separation bars were installed to prevent people from lying down. New generations won’t see Los Angeles as Kirsch did, when,
Before the Grove and Third Street Promenade
Seceded from the city to afford
A stylish sanctuary to the rich
Where they could visit Anthropologie
Without the fear of getting asked for change,
A Saturday meant browsing Westwood Village,
Its five competing bookshops, used and new,
And always leaving time for the arcade
Where I would shovel quarters in Galaga.
Now, when I drive down Wilshire Boulevard,
Its few remaining Googie diners lost
Amid the Coffee Beans and ATMs,
I see the city not as it’s become
But as I like to misremember it:
Everything cheaper, dirtier, and better.
At age 15, halfway between fear and boredom, before smartphones and laptops had made their grand entrance, Kirsch remembers looking for something happening, “Pacing the lawns and gutters of Mar Vista,” the neighborhood he grew up in where nothing ever happened. “More likely, life was in the coffee shops,” he writes, naming two well-known establishments of the day, Van Gogh’s Ear and The Bourgeois Pig, places he’d heard about but never visited, because getting there
Would take more than the car I didn’t have;
It needed the ability to talk
To girls I hadn’t known since second grade,
To linger with a cigarette and book,
To order cappuccinos and to like them.
Like many teenagers, Kirsch resorted to cigarettes to calm the paralyzing self-consciousness and anxieties of adolescence. His addiction coincided with his new excitement and obsession with writing. Smoking was allowed everywhere in those days, which made the tobacco habit all the harder to kick. With indelible detail, Kirsch remembers “the plain college composition book” he took with him to the coffee shop on Venice Boulevard, when he learned to hold a cigarette “[w]ith the same fingers that could take a pen / And flick the words like ashes down the page, / Leaving a record of the life consumed.”
Of the few blank verse autobiographies in existence, probably the most notable is William Wordsworth’s complicated and ambitious “The Prelude.” In his introduction, Wordsworth wrote that he hoped to “construct a literary work that might live,” and that “as subsidiary to this preparation, [the author] undertook to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers, as far as he was acquainted with them.” In many ways, The Discarded Life serves a similar purpose. After Kirsch records the origin and progress of his mind, he steps back, and, with tentativeness and humility, takes a wider view on a range of subjects, including love, mortality, sleep, money, time, art, and the lesson he learned from Boris Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull — the lesson of accepting life as nothing more glamorous “[t]han disillusioned productivity, / Doing without the need for a belief / In what you’re doing.” After all, “Art is nothing else but a devotion / To saying what’s unfortunately true.”
The last lines of the poem contain a striking pun, as Kirsch completes, with “reckless joy,” the task of throwing out his old belongings,
Until the room approximates a berth
With nothing but a desk, a chair, a bed,
All the equipment needed for a voyage
Away from everything I used to be.
Among the book’s approximately 1,070 lines, an occasional clunky one shows up, such as “the streaks of innocence / I must have left behind me when I left,” but it’s a minor, almost petty criticism, given the larger significance and excellence of the work. I would also have preferred it if Kirsch hadn’t mixed up his metaphors by ending with the image of a balloon that “jerks higher toward the sun,” suggesting the drastic failure of Icarus. It would have been better to stick with the imagery of a voyage and a ship’s cabin or “berth,” a sturdier metaphor, easy to extend to Emily Dickinson’s “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” The Discarded Life is a wonderfully seaworthy and streamlined vessel that carries us capably through the treacherous straits of youth and the pensive, open seas of adulthood.
Leslie Monsour was born in Hollywood, California, and she grew up in Mexico City, Chicago, and Panama. She is the author of the the full-length poetry collection The Alarming Beauty of the Sky (2005); the chapbooks The House Sitter (2011), Travel Plans (2001), and Earth’s Beauty, Desire, & Loss (1998); and the letterpress edition Indelibility (1999); and, most recently, The Colosseum Critical Introduction to Rhina P. Espaillat (2021).
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