Pedro Ponce, Homeland: a Panorama in 50 States, Seven Kitchens Press, 2011
Reviewed by Nick Ripatrazone
Reviews of prose poem collections often begin with justifications of the form. Reviewers of lineated works feel little need to apologize, on behalf of the author, for enjambment, but prose poems are seen as aberrations, and poets better have good reason for their sins. I am guilty of the same beginning here, but mostly so I can dispose of the need to explain the malleability of form in Pedro Ponce's Homeland.
Ponce's collection is less concerned with questioning traditional poetics than it is interested in creating an insular world, where the individual, often truncated pieces move toward a profluent end. Some unnamed event has spurred a particular change in the populace, but it would be dangerous to assume this is any real America. This world is anonymous, filled with those who "wanted to be grownups," but realized that, "since the day everything is changed," a governmental reconstitution of self is being placed upon them.
Homeland should be digested whole, in one reading, in a room as blank as the white pages surrounding the sparse text. The pieces here are propogandistic, filmic, unfinished placards. They include incomplete conversations that somehow feel resolved. Fragmented warning signs are juxtaposed with vague speech, and the collective pronoun fails to react to the omnipresent government and its faceless "Executive."
Ponce notes textual inspiration from Triumph of the Will, and the parallels are clear: that film's sleek representation of a fervent culture feels like a curious, yet necessary document. We hate the leaders that crafted the Nazi world of those images, yet it is undeniable that an aesthetic exists in the fashioning and representation of those images. Homeland dramatizes a movement toward totalitarianism: disaster creates a one-state culture, and the inevitable, sweeping aesthetic of political idolatry follows. Citizens and the natural world are scarred: in "Migration," "whales first appeared in the business district," and months later "children could play on the remaining bones that arched cleanly from pavement and grass." An "occupying army advances at night." Fear and paranoia live among absurdity, as this army "is filmed before a live studio audience" and "is a solicitous late night host."
Although "this is not the kind of place where people go missing," a grammarian vanishes, and she is followed by muses "gone, their cupcakes and funnel cheese untouched." Soon, the provincial becomes more immediate than the national, and life continues: "We are patient with recent blackouts, essential as they are to the refinement of the power grid. We are punctual with business, concluding by end of day to gather by candlelight for dinner with our families."
Ponce disrupts the narrative with commercial interruptions, and the power resides in their vagueness: "An accident has occurred...Your compliance is appreciated for the duration of this temporary, negligible, accidental interruption." Orwell long ago debunked the empty world of the word, and reminded us that politics lives through abstractions. Even the concrete is dangerous: "when arrows hit our public squares, cameras are dispatched." Not troops, necessarily, but electronic, automatic documentation of events: to be recorded is better than to be protected. The public must remain silent, as they "are told to ignore the flames licking at gazebos and the severed remains of dogs." Ponce's narrative builds toward "the worst of it," where "people formed somnolent ranks in the aisles of the local merchantplex."
But Ponce's book isn't merely the latest installment in the post-apocalyptic genre. Parts of this world might be dead, but what's really atrophied is human awareness. That's why "those who removed [their protective masks] were stunned by bright colors, the bounty of the land swathed in foil and butcher paper." Homeland presents a world where certain forces retain absolute power, enough to blur perspectives into blindness. Ponce's fluctuations of form—prose poem, poetic prose, flash fiction, lineated poem, fragment--replicate the apparent inadequacy of words, and the struggle to retain meaning.