Anna Gurton-Wachter’s Utopia Pipe Dream Memory (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)
Review by Morgan Vo
I used to think utopia was a waste. If we’re not applying the dream, what’s the point of drawing it out? Then at this year’s edition of the Brooklyn Public Library’s A Night of Philosophy and Ideas, a lecturer (I think it was Emanuele Coccia?) spoke to the decline of utopian thinking as a philosophic mode, and offered his take on utopia’s fundamental strength: exactly because it is NOT subjected to the pressures of application, utopia is able to achieve new conceptions of dreams and perfections, whose shapes can suggest meaningful differences from, and invigorating potentials for, our ever pressing realities.
Maybe Anna Gurton-Wachter also first saw utopia with a similar skepticism? Utopia sits awfully close to Pipe Dream in the title, after all. But this debut full-length shows her driving insistently, precisely, recklessly, gleefully, into squalls of the impossible, into bomb cyclones of potential, in ways that might worry her parents, but will surely excite her readers.
Gurton-Wachter takes hold of objects close at hand: the work and personages of artists/writers such as Gertrude Stein, Maya Deren, Bernadette Mayer; transient cultural flashpoints like the Mother of All Bombs and Cecil the Lion; hunger, horniness, exhaustion and other recurrent states of the body; the personal practices of writing, walking and study. But rather than position these things as coordinates pointing towards a greater scheme, Gurton-Wachter instead performs an inquisitive melt that reveals them to be sites of potential energy. While UPDM is fun and richly stuffed with subject matter, the deeper subject of these works is not any one of the things encountered, but the ways in which their encountered forms can shift into and out of each other in an imaginative space. “We see the impulse as an entity,” she writes. It’s not a scheme she’s building, but a door for every unforeseen threshold, doors to be unlocked by her lively engagement with an intuitive impulse.
The severance of a self into multiple parts is an ongoing motif, complicating subjectivity with meditation, aspiration, distance and criticality. “Did I mention that Gertrude Stein entered and passed through Gertrude Stein and I was there learning to speak and watching the sawdust fly?” Did you hear? (Lol.) Stein enters the room and passes through herself, demonstrating a curious spectrum, a weird simultaneity of before and after that collapses the two into an electrified, circuitous present. This collapse echoes the book’s title, where utopia, an imagined proposal for a world, is balanced and enhanced by memory, the recollection of a lived past. That same night when I was encouraged to reconsider utopia, another speaker, Frank M. Kirkland, gave a talk entitled “What does it Mean to Face the Present.” He posited that a responsible perspective on the present can only be formed by the twin endeavors of 1) an honest account of the past and 2) an ethical gaze towards the future. It would be our ability not just to hold these two states simultaneously, but to flow endlessly back and forth in the space between them (in the pipes!) that could help us render an authentic sense of orientation.
So Gurton-Wachter “watches the sawdust fly.” That sawdust recalls the book’s first poem, “Poem from Hypnosis,” in which we find the author “on the floor holding an electric saw / up over [her] head, a song emanates from it.” Her metaphors are tightly fastened to her images and structures. A key recurring image aligns the potential energy of utopian thought with the act of beginning a piece of writing. The blank page and the lack of a pen are evoked as vibrant events in which we can conceive of truly new ways to write:
I had to hold the paper in my hand drooling
rub it against my face
lick the blank sheets
with my eyes closed
the trick is to just keep going
forget how we made it all up
how I’m still here taking notes
though still I have nothing to write with
no implement or tool
The blank page provides not just imagery, but a significant aspect of the book’s form. The prose poems that make up the majority of the book are organized spaciously, with paragraphs housed in generous amounts of white space. These poems stretch multiple pages, sometimes dozens, but each individual page feels like its own sub-composition. And while the links between pages aren’t totally random, the movement is notably free. With each page, Gurton-Wachter seems to drift back to square one, towards the poem’s originary impulse, not so much as an act of starting over, but as a way to gather in bouquets of fresh, wriggling sparks. If the beginning is where things are most possible, let’s go there again, and again, and take it with us.
Another way Gurton-Wachter points to the writing’s beginnings is to transparently display the origins of much of her material. In deploying all those famous names, I do not think the author is setting up webs of simple reference that would lead us through flatly decodable work. Rather, these icons are representatives of the marvelous companion to all of our writing: cultural dialogue as fueling and refueling. We are witnessing the pulsations of the books, art, movies, conversations, etc. that fed Gurton-Wachter. These figures leap around her poems mischievously, collaborating with the texts to prod them toward new magics. For example, Stein’s insistence and repetition finds its parallels in UPDM, but one sees that insistence reverse-engineered as the repetition of Gurton-Wachter’s position and approach, not the “very fine and very mine” style of Stein’s tenacious syntax.
In similar transparency, the acknowledgements inform us that the title work, “Utopia Pipe Dream Memory: Interludes, In Three Parts,” was culled from Gurton-Wachter’s notes: “a mixture of remixed words and short phrases” collected from an artist’s talk, a feminist reading group, and a second artist’s interviews. These interludes, placed evenly throughout UPDM, introduce a tonal counterpoint to the rest of the book. Many of the other poems are avalanches of things happening:
Our lady of thought split into being. And it happened that Gertrude Stein was the anchorwoman delivering the news. Only it was someone else’s voice that came out of her mouth.
In contrast, the interludes present mashed-up, tangled lines with a pace that leans more toward spiraling than forward movement:
to dwell in excess of life excess a lot waste what’s forgotten different value systems excess more than forgetting things are just spinning away
These lines definitely spin. I get the sense that Gurton-Wachter gestures to say: even before there was THE writing, I was writing. Working towards a poem is perhaps not that far from the poem itself. It has a place and a meaning in her book as a resonant, propelling space.
While UPDM celebrates the engagements with potential as an effective tool for clarity and growth, the author makes sure that doubt and skepticism are also in the mix. Readers will want to trust the book’s heroic characters, but we have to watch out for foul play: Maya Deren, for example, trades her tools in for a drill and “uses the drill to empty the earth of its contents.” In the aftermath of this disaster, an “executive” enters the scene and delivers a proposal:
She takes out her proposal. Competitors are all doing X. This is because we need to be doing Y. There is always something left to disperse and break down.
If we maintain that everything is potentially anything, how do we guard against exploitation? How do we keep the executive from turning every potential into a corrosive, money-making venture?
Maybe by doing the accounting. Gurton-Wachter writes, “[If] I initiate the roof, build it I must also be able to take it down.” Even as — or especially as — we roam in the wilderness of becoming, there remains a dire need to hold oneself accountable. Can we keep that accountability from stifling possibility? Well, that’s the dream.