Joshua Edwards brushes the dust from the remains of history, desire, and nostalgia itself, to reveal “ruins as diorama, ruins as sculpture, birds as music boxes. Everything moves toward metaphor and dream.” A breathtaking cascade of parables, images, lyrics, and aphorisms

http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/imperialnostalgia_GIANT.jpeg

Joshua Edwards, Imperial Nostalgias, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

Imperial Nostalgias is the second collection by poet and translator Joshua Edwards. Written in Mexico, China, Germany, Nicaragua, and during a train trip around the U.S. and Canada, the book reckons with itinerancy, innocence, and American privilege, while pointing toward a strange horizon.

“Through a turnstile, past a diorama / of ruins, into the ruins themselves,” Joshua Edwards escorts us into the desert of the real in his haunting and prismatic second collection, Imperial Nostalgias. Deepening the archaeological excavation—or is it a salvage operation?—of his first book, Campeche, Edwards brushes the dust from the remains of history, desire, and nostalgia itself, to reveal “ruins as diorama, ruins as sculpture, / birds as music boxes. Everything / moves toward metaphor and dream.” A breathtaking cascade of parables, images, lyrics, and aphorisms, Imperial Nostalgias is necessary work, and required reading for anyone who has felt the cold undertow beneath all beauty. “Life,” writes this poet, “is terrible enough without swans.” —Srikanth Reddy


Edwards’s latest—from its cover art to the poems, photographs, and fables inside—is one of the most commanding explorations of travel to arrive in American poetry in a long time, and one whose closest forebear, in light of its lyric chiseling and its philosophical depth, is Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel. Even after the preciseness of his poems and the impact of his questions, both of which are sustained throughout the collection, Edwards captures the emotional restlessness of the American everyman while moving from one poem to the next with the urgent calm of an international journeyman. “The song of our green-eyed family/ is a song about the bread we bake,” he writes, and then, just a few snapshots later, “You want to paint the world/ you were born into, but when you try// you’re only able to portray this one/ that will kill you.” As his title admits, Edwards is caught between the imperious American inside of him and the poet who needs to remember, to make a record of the beauty he’s witnessed. When he looks hard at America itself and misses “the bright feeling of belonging/ and the familiar patterns of my country,/ its virginity and schizophrenia,/ my several stolen bicycles,” Edwards announces himself as a poet who isn’t here to mine the exotic symbols of the world, but rather to speak to the homelessness that every citizen of the world has felt.  - Publishers Weekly

Joshua Edwards begins Imperial Nostalgias with two short parables. One tells the story of a Traveler, another of an Outsider. The poems are immediately evocative and irresistible in the tradition of Italo Calvino and his Invisible Cities, or more recently Srikanth Reddy’s take on Dante. From there, Edwards wades into cinematic territory in a series of photos. These describe a journey through a “Valley of Unease.”  We see ruins, a stray dog, and a bonfire at night.
The third section, a prose poem called “Departures,” is the strongest in the collection. The travelogue model works as a compelling framework to satirize and embrace American anxieties in “slightly foreign” lands. The poet approaches Imperial Nostalgias with clear eyes. In an interview earlier this year with the Studio One Reading Series he admitted, “Imperialism is in the cereal I eat and the culture I consume, and the ghost of Manifest Destiny looms large in the histories of the states I’ve spent most of my life in.” Like Ben Lerner’s terrific Leaving the Atocha Station, the work engages the aesthetics and the ambivalence of young Americans abroad.
Edwards works through anxieties, but he still perpetuates the myth that there is such a place as “abroad.” So while there is little talk of the cringey Tinker, Tailor, “These boys were born to empire,” type nostalgia in the collection, there is still a very clearly articulated imperialist nostalgia.  This comes out in snatches,
In a building that will soon be destroyed,
I wake up and then drink tea, then relax
On my friends couch to watch Paris, Texas
For the first time. When someone goes silent,
Or when a siblings room is filled with sorrow,
The whole world resembles a motel room.
Edwards chooses a very particular aesthetic (He evokes French minimalists like Toussaint, art galleries, (Like Lerner, Imperial Nostalgias repeatedly returns to art museums as if too say this too is a high concept endeavor), washed out desert scenes, vague Orientalism, Paris, Texas, etc) that effectively conveys a certain moment in American (therefore world) history: 80’s independent film and Conceptual Art.
In the translation of this aesthetic, Edwards shows a drive towards the mysterious and apophatic. When Bell Hooks wrote about Imperialist Nostalgia, she focused on celebrities like Madonna, performing blackness. She employed the now well-worn “eating the Other” type analysis. But really, it’s important to remember there’s a lot of Other there (too much to eat), and in terms of nostalgia this comes out in the apophatic or the unknowable. For 80’s Conceptual Art or even Paris, Texas, the mystery deepens as it ages. And difficult to decipher social orders become conflated with truly the truly unknowable. The work of Cindy Sherman, or Vancouver School Photographers, lately much celebrated and mimicked, have taken on a sheen of romance. And this says something about conceptual photography in the 80’s and a whole lot more about the way we live now. It’s common for artists to romanticize and re-imagine the past, but this has everything to do the artist’s personal contemporary.
For artists of a certain generation Paris, Texas becomes a type of nostalgic touchstone; it represents not a time before there was American empire, but perhaps before the artist knew about American empire. The unknown swirling around Harry Dean Stanton would be a lot less unknown for an older generation of filmgoers that had seen him act in movies beginning in the 1950’s. In a recent HMTL GIANT post, Felix Bernstein imagines art “that may or may not know (symbolic order) networks exist.” Paris, Texas is a beautiful film, certainly nostalgic for great Cowboy and Noir films of an earlier era, but the complex social networks it explores (poverty in the panhandle, cold war malaise) might be different for an older artist living in Houston, for example.  Recognizing the precarious position of a would be counter-cultural American artist abroad, Edwards compulsively recreates an aesthetic of the Imaginary or in-between, when the startling symbolic order networks do not exist for him, but not an aesthetic from when they did not exist. And by translating this aesthetic again and again, Edwards is free to play Cowboys and Indians.- Joseph Houlihan

The first section of Joshua Edwards’s Imperial Nostalgias consists of two prose poems, “The Traveler” and “The Outsider,” which are situated back-to-back on the same page, both visually and thematically ghosting through one another. “The Traveler” describes an unnamed man who arrives in an unnamed town, and, prophet-like, diagnoses a concealed “evil” in the town and then departs, “continuing down the same road he arrived on.” In “The Outsider,” a magician performs a trick using his audience’s collective imagination, which the audience finds entertaining only at first. Soon, they turn on the outsider, threatening to “cut his throat.” In a puff of smoke the magician disappears, leaving in his place a note that reads, “The next disaster is just around the corner.”
These initial poems, in the appropriately titled section “Two Parables,” present dual figures for the poet as a perpetual stranger, a truth-bringer (however fallible) fated to wander and report upon the state of the world. The speaker of these poems is himself a traveler; yet, unlike the “parable” figures, he questions as much (or more) than he answers:
Underway in a slightly foreign land,
I’m glad to have traveler’s air about me,
to be another streak of color exhilarated
and speeding up. Is life movement?
Or a target I’ll always be closing in on?
On a journey I become my questions.
To journey, here, is to participate in a kind of “uncertainty principle,” as to locate the self in one way is to obscure any other. The speaker is both magician/prophet and audience, somehow leaving the note behind for himself to find (quite the magic trick!), always anticipating the potential “just around the corner.” This collection is part magic, part physics: written mostly on a train journey across North America, these poems begin to form equations, spells for making art happen (if a poet and a train are traveling at the same speed, what does the imagination taste like?). And there is yet another variable, the “nostalgia” for a travel mode both deeply ingrained in “imperial” American history and almost completely superseded by the car, another form of environmental imperialism. Within this artistic calculation, the traveler “gladly” gives himself up to the whims of locomotion (“exhilarated / and speeding up”), passive as a beam of light under which the data unfurls. Leaving the comfort of the known (which, Edwards suggests, is unavailable to the poet anyway) brings out the nuances in the most basic elements—earth, air—rendering them not only “slightly foreign,” but virtually, and fruitfully, unknowable.
There is a problem, however, with this Romantic undertaking: the American frontier has long been closed, and worldwide there are very few outposts of the “undiscovered.” Even “the final frontier” seems to be shrinking rapidly. What one hopes is left—the landscape of the mind—may have been already co-opted, conquered:
Now I hear the Majjhima Patipada
promoted in my favorite beer commercial,
first aired at half-time during last year’s
Super Bowl, on a day like every day, a day
to say grace and give thanks for a brain
and the cans that I can crush against it.
But (thankfully) this is not merely another lamentation for the unscrupulousness of capitalism. The Majjhima Patipada, the Buddhist idea of The Middle Way, outlines a path through life that does not veer toward the extremes of pleasure or suffering. While the speaker would not go so far as to compare himself to the Buddha, his travels through varying geographies and cultures (in addition to North America, some of the poems in the book were written in China, Mexico, Germany, and Nicaragua) illuminate the paradoxes inherent in his own “imperial” culture, which leaves room for moments of both grace and brutishness. Occasionally this self-searching tips over into the excitably sophomoric: “What / are poets to do with the silence they put / their poems into?” or “I is a word / at rest, resting in the mind”; luckily, such lines are saved by the momentum of the overall conceit.
The paradox of the American outlook is examined visually in the second section of the book titled, “The Valley of Unrest.” This section contains no text at all; it is instead a series of photographs that are meant to be read in much the same way as the rest of the book. Arranged side by side, the photographs also work as pairings to create further meaning through contrast and association. While some of the pairings seem a bit simplistic—a many-branching tree next to an intricately patterned ceiling brings up little beyond the natural vs. the artificial—some are deeply haunting in their “slightly foreign” ambiguity: a blurry image of a dog on the right looks back across the page to a building that is barred by wooden doors and a corrugated metal roof. Even the typographical design of the book contributes to this meaning making, as title pages and other book matter display the same frame as these photographs, only empty.
Though at first these poems feel truncated or stymied (on purpose, it seems), upon a second and third reading they begin to broaden not across the page, but across other avenues still open to exploration for both poet and reader. Fittingly, the collection’s titular poem encapsulates not only the speaker’s journey, but the strange pilgrimage any reader of poetry undertakes:
They tried to prove,
through enterprise and art,
that a journey’s end exists
at the outset, as a darkened lamp
that tumbles back through
all the stages of its building
into a dream of light.
“Nostalgia” comes from the Greek for “return home” (nostos) and “pain” (algos); these poems  recall not only the blank page but the perfect idea of the blank page, recognizing with pain that the poem written upon it is only a “darkened,” flawed manifestation of the journey of the mind. Edwards has considered nostalgia in a very old sense, taking the epigraph to Imperial Nostalgias from none other than Lucretius’s 1st century B.C.E. poem “On the Nature of Things”: “The mind’s peculiar frenzy and / The oblivion of things that were.” This is a book of frenzy and oblivion. Take it with you when you go. - Rachel Abramowitz 

After spending some time with Joshua Edwards’s Imperial Nostalgias, it’s clear that not all who wander are lost. His second full-length collection takes the reader on a trek through the fields of France, Mexico’s ruin-flecked chaparral, and the mountains of China while wrestling with themes such as place, belongingness, identity, and one’s moral obligation as a global citizen. The speaker in Edwards’s book is self-effacing, awe-struck, and although just passing through, offers the reader more than just a sort of “wish you were here” set of post cards. Equal parts travelogue and philosophical primer, Imperial Nostalgias celebrates the curiosity and triumph of the human spirit above all else.
Edwards opens with two parables: “The Traveler,” who has “spent his life in perpetual hunger,” and The Outsider, who “stuck the real up into the imaginary.” This of course begs the question, as the poet himself is both traveler and outsider, can he write with authority and authentically about places and people he experiences so ephemerally? Is he qualified to pass the sorts of judgments he does? Are any of us? How do we spend our lives in perpetual hunger? Should we hunger, and if so, for what? This book continues to ask the big existential questions, continues to make moral and ethical demands from its reader. This book wants its reader to be a better, more enlightened, culturally sensitive and aware human being.
Interestingly, the collection begins with the section “Departures,” in which the speaker navigates France’s “worn-out farmlands,” seedy hotels, and high art museums accompanied only by his books, his words, and his daydreams. Why “end” a collection at its outset, especially if, according to Edwards, “travel is an enemy to ends”? What is the speaker departing from? In an attempt to clarify what “departures” means to him, Edwards writes:
I have formulated a new type of
resistance, against my own ignorance;
I transplant my mind a few times a day,
replacing it with unreliable
algorithms aimed at solving problems,
known as poems. I call them departures.
France has morphed into something “indelicate and ugly,” where even the exhibits at the Musee de Beaux Arts examine a kind of boredom and loneliness that remind him of “home without associations.” These feelings of alienation and world-weariness manifest as he passes through buildings on the brink of condemnation and hotels where guests urinate in the sink. The speaker is restless, sleep-deprived, and “annoyed” by the moon and the constellations in the night sky, which are usually unflinching constants for those traversing unfamiliar terrain. Rather than bring peace or give guidance, the stars further alienate the speaker from the self he describes as “nothing if not fictive.”
Although the speaker claims not to understand nature or how a writer can “insert it into a creed,” Edwards manages to pull this off quite nicely as he undercuts the “incommensurable peace” of the French landscape with imagery of cows for the slaughter, “derelict” sailboats, lakeside condos, and billboards for sports cars. Edwards’s provincial France is one infused with American consumerism where “violence starts on the inside.”
JoshuaEdwardsThe next section, “Imperial Nostalgias,” is mainly commentary on the speaker’s time spent traveling and working in various post-imperial, post-colonial countries. Of course, with poems such as “State of the Union” which “The song of our green-eyed family/is a song about the bread we bake,” we are experiencing these countries through the filtered gaze of the American male Caucasian. It’s impossible for the speaker to rid himself of his Americana. He recognizes his privilege with a kind of humbled shame and is cognizant of the limitations his position as an interloper might place on his legitimacy to speak so bluntly. In “Cromwell or the King,” Edwards touches on this guilt of the white colonizer as he laments, “The nation’s/ring of war regains renown: crowns,/new necks, and talent for violating/weakness.” The speaker feels “wrongheaded and obsequious” as an outsider, yet in “Guests,” also admits when American friends come to visit, they all:
celebrate landscape, deride technology,
and try to keep other foreigners
out of our photographs, except for
the ones meant to show
how much stranger than us
other foreigners must be
There are also many pieces in the collection that give the reader a welcome break from all the world-weariness. Poems such as “Romance” and “Sketch for a Treatise on Eros” deal with “To be in a relationship/could mean to be a whole world discrete,/and that’s the danger” and “A description of love could be/people making decisions together/and the beautiful danger of that.”
Edwards dazzles with moments of expert lyrical beauty with masterful lines like, “I recollect all the times I feel in love with pain I thought was cute,” and “life is terrible enough without swans.” In “The Heart is on the Left Side,” he gives us this exquisite bit of ars poetica:
If all
languages are essentially alike,
then softness or firmness is a matter
of tissues in which blood takes a clausal
complement. Taste for etymology,
however, comes from the poetry of
crucial decision making, fruit in one
hand and broad-bladed knife in the other
At one point in the poems, the speaker posits:
Almost all criticism
is like traveling by train, then saying
you’ve seen the world. Everyone knows that all
you’ve seen is the shit around the tracks.
Percy Shelley once famously asserted that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and Joshua Edwards has accepted this duty with a gentle humility. Edwards hasn’t just shown us the shit around the tracks. He’s taken us off the beaten path, illuminated both the derelict and the divine, and calls on us all to better the world we inhabit. - Carleen Tibbetts

Joshua Edwards’ second collection of poetry, Imperial Nostalgias, grapples with the uneasy nature of language and art in a world seemingly devoted to death. This circumstance, Edwards makes clear, has always been the case, but he himself has not always been around to witness and comment on it. In the longest poem in the collection, a travelogue in verse entitled “Departures,” Edwards writes, “To create actual violence out / of diplomatic anger requires an / indulgence to the spirit of pity / and the monument of pain. Intercourse / between governments is trash talk in which / the trash is memos about ballistics.” Western culture resides in the narrow interstice between “the spirit of pity / and the monument of pain”; that Americans feel pity when they read about the relentless ravages and skirmishes in a third-world country (whose name they might not even be able to accurately pronounce) speaks to their sense of humanity and, perhaps unconsciously, privilege. And that they often elect to do nothing about such third-world misfortunes simultaneously speaks to the American government’s “monument of pain,” one it often inflicts on other countries for some vague ultimate good-type idealization—an ultimate good always approachable and yet never, seemingly, attainable. “My political engagement consists / of questionable associations,” Edwards asserts in “Departures.” And it’s to his credit that Imperial Nostalgias identifies and discusses concrete, in-the-news-today type issues that so many other contemporary American poets seem unwilling to. In “Cromwell or the King,” a later poem in the volume, the point is made that “You want to paint the world / you were born into, but when you try // you’re only able to portray this one / that will kill you.” To romanticize is to exist in a world of one’s own fragmented, disingenuous creation, and Edwards seeks to refute such modes of thinking. This endeavor is, of course, risky, but with Imperial Nostalgias Edwards roundly succeeds in it; after finishing the book, one rethinks her or his position in—and conception of— the world. - Jeff Alessandrelli


[excerpt] 

Symbolic gestures feel
bound not by referential expression,

but by mystery and drama. If all
languages are essentially alike,
then softness or firmness is a matter
of tissues in which blood takes a clausal

complement. Taste for etymology,
however, comes from the poetry of
crucial decision making, fruit in one


hand and broad-bladed knife in the other



1. Where are you now?
My better half, Lynn Xu, and I both had books recently published, so we came back to the States from Germany for a couple of months for a reading tour that ended where I am now, in Marfa, Texas. We’re settling here in seven or eight months; until then we live in Stuttgart.

2. What are you working on and what have you got coming out?
I recently wrote a few short texts for an arrangement by Austrian composer Peter Jakober, and that will be performed in the fall. For the past five years I’ve been chipping away at a book-length poem, Agonistes, which will hopefully be finished soon and published in late 2013 or 2014. I’m also working on a couple of collaborative projects with friends: a travel project with an artist, Charlotte Moth, and a building project with Lynn and an artist / architect, Alan Worn.

3. Where do you write?
I occasionally jot things down in a notebook when I’m walking, but I usually write at a desk in our living room, or in coffee shops.

4. What’s the last best thing you’ve read?
Today I finished reading Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, and I loved it.  It has some of the most incredible, weird sentences (even in translation) that I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. Example: “He hungered to be others.” Also, a couple of collections that were already favorites when they were manuscripts and which I recently re-read as new books: my wife’s, Debts & Lessons, and Nick Twemlow’s Palm Trees.

5. What journals, poets, presses have you discovered lately?
Besides some great manuscripts that were submitted to the Canarium reading period, I haven’t read much new poetry lately. I’m surrounded mostly by artists, architects, and composers in the place where Lynn and I live, and I’ve been trying to learn more about their disciplines. Discoveries: Casa Malaparte, Tacita Dean, Steve Reich.

6. Care to share any distractions / diversions?
Since moving to Germany, I’ve been playing lots of chess and table tennis. Also, I obsessively play fantasy sports and basketball whenever I can find a game. Today I played full-court in a high school gym. It doesn’t get much better than that.

7. What are you looking forward to?

I’m really looking forward to traveling around Europe with friends this fall and building a house with Lynn next year. - takedowntheclouds.tumblr.com/


Joshua Edwards, Campeche, Noemi Press, 2011.

In the national artistic dialogue, there are usually but two coasts: East and West.  The Gulf Coast barely enters the radar screen and, when it does, it’s normally because of a great tragedy like Katrina or the BP Horizon disaster. A chance for artists to express their solidarity or disgust or anger or sadness or pity.
So when I saw the description of Joshua Edwards recent book Campeche at Small Press Distribution – “titled after pirate Jean Lafitte’s name for Galveston Island, Campeche is a cautionary lyric composed of poems and photographs in which a real place is overlaid with the parable of a mythical world on the verge of an apocalyptic flood” – I knew I had to get a copy. Galveston reeks with history. History in this case being the more than 6,000 people who died on the island after a hurricane in 1900.  Or history being the seawall or the fried seafood places and Salvadoran pupuserías all up and down Broadway.  Or all of the dead trees from Hurricane Ike, tricked into drinking the salt water from the storm surge after surviving a long drought in 2008.  And yes, it sometimes does get some winds from the North carrying down the smells of the oil refineries lining the Houston Ship Channel and Texas City, just up the Interstate.
More broadly, I’ve been obsessed for a long time with place: how anyone from their own small margin comes to speak to a larger world. When does place become no-place? When does a specific geography get to be universal? What kind of language allows particularity to escape provincialism? I was hoping Campeche would help me think about these questions.
I also knew I wanted to see the book because I think a lot about ways of combining image and text.  I was interested to see what the poet, Joshua Edwards, and his father, photographer Van Edwards, had wrought.  Well, in Campeche, the words and the photos produce a feeling that pervades the book: a brooding, syrupy aesthetic weighted down by both historical and impending loss. The photos locate the poetry in the alligators and roadkill, the boxy corner houses of Galveston’s avenues and the strange bird houses that mirror the larger homes for people.  The sea, the sky, the trash brought in by storms and the wreckage left after strong winds.  Everywhere there is evidence of nature and destruction.  There are also people (of all colors), mainly looking like they walked out of the seventies or eighties (which sometimes leads to a certain nostalgia), at gun contests and always seemingly near the water, looking out at the sea or getting progressively more sunburned at the edge of the seawall.  Or dancing in a swimsuit in the half-light of a honky-tonk.
We’re reminded these are real places made of sweat and sea and sand.  Galveston Island becomes a kind of fading memory or a calamity-stricken ship at sail in perilously rising waters.  The world created in the poems and the photos feels precarious, always already about to be submerged.
The first of seven sections is named for Deucalion, a figure from Greek mythology who survived a global flood unleashed by Zeus (much like Noah and the Christian God).
The “I” in this section is  “hermetic” and his “blood is on fire” and he is “alone / in silence, which profiteers call sadness / but of course it’s not.”    There’s a sense that the world is always impinging, at times violently, at times strangely and inexplicably.  Edwards does the work of stating what I read as an ars poetica:
At times
too serious, at others not serious enough,
I organize life with old ideas, in silence,
and with a cosmic sense of nature failing
I set off into southern wilderness to seek
some subtle center, as elusive as a crisp
dollar bill in the spillway of a penny arcade.
Nature is failing, the “I” is failing, the city and the island is failing.  Things are looking bleak and the voice of the “I” is serious and seriously sad.  But there is still a subtle sense of humor that somewhat alleviates the grim grayness, like at the end of the poem “Cold Green” when a subdued thinking about history and predecessors and a “bird too tired to fly” ends with the unexpected sentence: “It’s like repairing a foreign car.”
In this first section, the poems seem tight and contained, each one of them nineteen lines in length and paired with a photo.  Each spread has a poem and a photo and the relationship between the two is never easy, never literal or illustrative.  There is a relationship between the photos and the texts, but the relationship is like the one between consecutive lines in the book – often paratactical and slant.
The poems in the second section entitled “Campeche” seem to return to the idea of the ancient (or future?) flood moreso than the poems in “Deucalion,” despite its title.  The poems dwell in tragedy, in the space of what might happen to the island of Galveston, to the Gulf Coast and to the speaker.  In fact, if I read the poems as a kind of voice of the coast, the mournfulness of them seems less weighty, a bit lighter: “It is not pain that holds me back, but time / With its sad prefigurations and smell.”  These poems are not afraid to be melancholy.  Decline, perilous longevity and oblivion define the poems in this section:  “All wine ends up as piss.”  Nothing lasts, not even the land itself: “There will be nothing left here but the sea, / When it is done showing off its power.”  The sea is rising, the carbon is floating “up in plumes,” and the poet is left on the island as the people flee, counting ships as they sail to the horizon.
A poem, “Seawall” in a later section, sketches out an ode to a seemingly cursed Galveston, pounded by hurricanes throughout its history ever since the 1900 storm I mentioned before (and which still holds the awful record as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history).  Throughout the 20th century, storms have threatened to wipe Galveston off the map, most recently in 2008.  If not for the seawall built after the 1900 storm, Galveston would have sunk into the sea a hundred years ago.
Edwards writes an ode to the seawall, to its “protection / against the water’s teeth,” and in the process writes an ode to the island and the city:
The future has arrived,
Each storm describes it, and
Until the relentless
lives of fantasy and
Remembrance fade, no peace
will be known in this town.
But this small town is not just a small island or a small place (Jamaica Kinkaid dixit); rather, the island is a lot bigger: “The world could be bird or a snake, or an island someone left behind.”  The book’s focus is a small island on the Gulf Coast and yet, this is clearly a book with grander ambitions. It’s a small island in an increasingly smaller world. As the same poem, “Seawall,” says,  “I’d really like to speak to the world.”
Campeche clearly has literary ambitions.  Its poems are well-crafted and often rely on traditional forms, like sonnets in its eponymous third section. I think this might be how this book answers my questions from before about place.  It seems like the set structures, the attention to form and line, even the references to Greek mythology are an attempt to universalize or at least to locate the poetic concerns within a larger conversation.  It’s an attempt to escape the margins. This approach isn’t my own, but I can learn something from Campeche: from its emotional rawness, its structured lines and stanzas, its commitment to old forms and, perhaps more than anything else, a son’s remixing of his own poetry with his father’s photos of an island they both clearly love. - John Pluecker

Titled after pirate Jean Lafitte's name for Galveston Island, Campeche is a cautionary lyric composed of poems and photographs in which a real place is overlaid with the parable of a mythical world on the verge of an apocalyptic flood. Like the body fishermen of the Yellow River, this book combs water for remains and meditates on evidence, while attempting to reckon with the self as a troubled song within a greater song. If the soul is a souvenir in human shape, / the sun is half its shadow and discloses / who is what when in public. This is the first book of Joshua Edwards's eschatological trilogy.
"In a mirror I unearthed the birthmark / Of my century," writes Joshua Edwards in his remarkable literary debut, Campeche. Reflected in the textual mirror of the facing page, we find a black and white photograph of a capsized conifer – a weeping juniper? a witch's broom? – ripped from the ground by a wind storm, its root system's ramifying circuitry "unearthed" and exposed to our gaze like the "birthmark" of our tempestuous millennium. This is not ekphrasis, but, rather, something altogether more slanted, like the artfully skewed rhymes that cascade throughout the poet's work. ("Outside I stand, until otherwise proved / Under the impression I am not loved," writes Edwards at the conclusion of this lyric, revising the final couplet of Shakespeare's famous sonnet on the marriage of true minds). The poems and the photographs alternating throughout this collection do not reflect so much as they inflect, or, better, refract one another. Refraction, rather than reflection, is the translator's true art, and Edwards – an accomplished translator of Spanish-language poetry – displays his prismatic literary intelligence through a marvelous sequence of translations from Chinese poetry in this multifaceted collection as well.  In his slanted ekphrases, his refractive translations, and his sly renegotiations of literary form, Edwards shows himself to be a masterful composer of dissonant harmonies and artfully misaligned seams.
Campeche
is a collection of mirrors, yes, but it is also a book of storms. Prefaced by an epigraph from Lorca – "Mira al agua" – this volume tours the wreckage of the poet's native landscape (originally called "Campeche" by its first European settlers) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the attendant flooding in the region surrounding Galveston, Texas:
At last, I stand atop a public telephone booth, in the
small evening of a disappearing culture.
Up in the clouds, portent or part of the divine, I peck.
The damage is no longer a dream.
Like certain bird species of the American southwest, telephone booths themselves linger, precariously, on the brink of extinction in our cellular culture. This poet finds both refuge from the floodwaters of modernity and a literary podium for his poetic lamentation while perched on top of an endangered communications technology, singing his postdiluvian song of damage and disrepair. But Edwards' work never dwells for long on nostalgia for an idealized past.  "The new market is being built here, / atop the old one," opens one poem: "Salvage is a major player. / It never stops."  Campeche ultimately ventures a kind of literary salvage operation for an emerging epoch, sorting through the wreckage of collective life for new forms of aesthetic experience. At times the poet salvages beauty through the act of witness. Elsewhere, he recovers the aesthetic through acts of imaginative vandalism which are, nonetheless, tempered by a precision of lineation and form:  "I broke one window after another until / the light was cut by an edge."  Throughout, Edwards invites us to imagine new collectivities within the precincts of consciousness:  "A crowd is gathering. / Your skull is their kingdom." —Srikanth Reddy


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