A Winner of the 2018 Diode Editions Full-Length Book Contest
sam· iz· dat
- the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially formerly in the communist countries of eastern Europe.
Imagine a United States in which the First Amendment no longer exists. What would we say? What kind of poems would we read and write? In a series of terrified, lyrical fragments, American Samizdat contemplates this possibility. The Polish poets who wrote under the censoring eye of Communism serve as models for the collection. Throughout American Samizdat, an anonymous speaker agonizes over questions of freedom, truth, and the resilience of democracy; she is the American version of Pan Cogito, Zbigniew Herbert’s poetic alter ego, who once critiqued an oppressive regime through the coded language of myth, fable, and fairytale. Set in a world of 24-hour news coverage, social media, and alternative facts, American Samizdat wonders what we’ve become and where we’re going.
“Numbness is another way / of turning off the news,” Jehanne Dubrow writes in her deeply moving, terrifying, and necessary new collection, American Samizdat. In this brilliant, book-length series, Dubrow somehow gets at the root of our collective anxiety in a disintegrating America where meaning is merely “the last pink light / that glows above a fence” and “[a]n alternative to fact is vertigo, / the floor rising up to strike my face.” American Samizdat will last as a marker of early 21st century America, a “nation terrified,” a nation fed by technology and led by a mad man. “I remember,” Dubrow writes, “when threats // were given colors, red severe, / orange that the risk was high. // Now there is no chart.”
—Allison Benis White
To say that Jehanne Dubrow’s American Samizdat is a brilliant book would be to say the truth. But what does it mean? It means that we hold in our hands a book that combines lyricism with a sweep of a large historical vision. It means that strangeness of language here wakes us even if we put “stoppers in our ears” because even silence for this poet is a musical instrument. It means that in the couplets of this book clarity arises and the reader in America, the country that denies its own history, sees that “the point of Cassandra / is we struggle to stare directly at the light, its naked blaze.” Indeed. For me, Dubrow’s brilliant book-long poem succeeds because it provides a myth for our time, a fable. How does she do it? “To make a fable of this time, / I’ll say we were governed by a bird // who pecked decrees in the ground. / Our park was a chaos of squawking.” Welcome to American Samizdat, dear reader. Behold the 21st century world.
American Samizdat emerges slowly. It emerges like an animal emerging a fog so absolute it could be mistaken for a wall. It emerges like that same animal erupting into consciousness as it clears the fog—an evolutionary leap!—only to discover that the fog was internal. The animal, a creature that already knows the world, must also discover the world: “For a time, I missed the sharing / as it’s known, the communal // passing around of news, small bites / I used to take of other lives.” In American Samizdat, we discover our world.