September 28, 2013

A Possible Decency: A Review of Diane Raptosh's American Amnesiac by Marc Sheehan

cover credit: Etruscan Press
American Amnesiac by Diane Raptosh
Etruscan Press (2013)

Reviewed by Marc Sheehan

Over the past several months, the United States (or parts of it, at least) has crossed a number of sociological, political, and historical divides—think marriage equality legislation and marijuana legalization, for starters. However, for me, two events stand out: the re-election of President Barack Obama and the death of noted poet and feminist Adrienne Rich. What the two have in common is that they both rose to the top of their respective paths without the support of—and even the active opposition of—white males. Rich’s power and recognition grew as the power of white males in the United States declined, and President Obama won both his national elections without support from the majority of white males.

Enter American Amnesiac, Diane Raptosh’s wonderful, ambitious, and timely book of poems that was recently a National Book Award nominee. At the center of American Amnesiac is Calvin Rinehart, a former financier (“I plumped / for Goldman Sachs) from Denver who wakes up with amnesia. In an act of self-reinvention, Rinehart adopts the generic name John Doe, which he has been given by the authorities, the media, and the denizens of the blogosphere:
                                        Bloggers from across the world
predict What ‘happened’ to Cal Rinehart will become widespread

if ID cards fall into currency: round-the-globe government-controlled
            DNA database hubs.
A mug’s game! A blunt kick in the khakis!
In these poems, Rinehart/Doe spends as much time and emotional energy piecing together the world around him as he does trying to reconstruct his past. Culture, Rinehart/Doe discovers, both liberates us from ourselves and imprisons us in its expectations:
                                                                 We can’t
ask what we are without asking when, within which mixes, how

weighted, and who’s strung up in we.
Raptosh gives her character a Hobson’s choice: He can either remain untethered from a culture that gave him privilege at the expense of others, or he can re-enter that culture and forgo the redemption he found through having his memory erased. Or maybe there’s a third choice: take the best of the past, jettison the rest, and move forward. Raptosh’s white male protagonist combines longing, regret, remorse, self-discovery, and reinvention in just the right proportions. Of course, it is ironic that Rinehart/Doe has the ability to start over precisely because he is a white male of means, a status which he tries to renounce.

Most of American Amnesiac is written in a loose form of the ghazal—a traditional Arabian/Persian poetic form Rich also explored in her “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib.” In Raptosh’s hand, the form becomes more narrative and the associative leaps—for which the form is known—stretch further across the couplets, creating a tug between epiphany and narrative. Although, sometimes, the juxtapositions appear faster and put Doe’s predicament into sharper focus:
I recall the end of Rinehart’s last consulting phase
as if it were Lisette’s first look.

At each momentous stage of his life, a Sioux Indian earns a new name.
Jumping Badger landed the tag Sitting Bull on killing his first bison.

Unfriend was just dubbed word of the year.
The name’s John Doe, and I’m just lying doggo here on wheezing earth.
When Adrienne Rich won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1951, few people felt the United States was on the path of becoming a country that would embrace marriage equality and an African American president. What these poems do best is to synthesize our experience—both intellectually and emotionally—and try to make sense out of the cacophony. Like Rich, Raptosh sees a changed world, and the poems in American Amnesiac point with a “spine of possible decency” toward it.

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