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Burning Down the House: Francis Raven lowers a wrecking ball in Architectonic Conjectures, #poetryreview

Burning Down the House: Francis Raven lowers a wrecking ball in Architectonic Conjectures

Francis Raven’s Architectonic Conjectures arrives as Americans redefine their sense of home, their sense of identity in the wake of the worst economic recession in recent memory. Americans buy stuff. We are a nation of consumers, like it or not, and for many what we identify with is often our stuff. To quote Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity, “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth.” In a recent review in the Atlantic Monthly, journalist Sandra Tsing Loh explores how women in America define themselves, not by marriage or family, as previous generations of women have done, but by real estate. What does our McMansion say about us?  Loh plumbs her own personal narrative; recently divorced she finds herself owning a house that’s too big. She’s house poor, and makes sandwiches on the counter that house kitchen gadgets and accoutrements that amount to kitchen porn. Raven’s poems are about architecture, houses, homes, and communities, and are as much about us, as they are about the places we live. It’s a heady ambitious mix, written for the mind; a complex meditation on the ethics of architecture, the aesthetics, and the politics of what creates a space. It is difficult poetry, part philosophy, part free verse, part prose, part academic riffing, part language play, part meta, but also a rewarding deconstruction of what is and what isn’t personal space.

Architectonic Conjectures questions, as many Americans have been doing since the end of the Bush administration, what material possessions are worth keeping as one downsizes, or upsizes into a recently foreclosed house, what’s “worth lugging up the stairs?”

In “Touring a New Condo with Vitruvius” Raven, like Dante, wanders the condo with the Virgil of architects, pondering the rush of elegance, perhaps opulence of expensive properties, wondering what extreme measures must be taken to secure the “black gold” of the space, “a building needs symmetry to understand itself.”

But buildings don't exist in a vacuum. They must be designed, constructed, inhabited, and in some cases destroyed to be understood. In “Minoru Yamasaki and the Problem of Modern Life” Raven connects the buildings, those “high-density slabs tightly formed a web of crime,” to the hands of the workers who fashioned them, who live among the “lowest gears of our society.” Raven offers no answers, only connections, the existence of social exclusion via real estate. In the same poem he confronts the mortality of architecture, the spaces and concrete “floating candlesticks” of the World Trade Center, the embodiment of a “certain largeness of spirit” (from “A Morning in San Francisco Thinking About New York”). Buildings can be destroyed. Buildings, made by people.

At times Raven’s work seems to ask, is not our great Democracy reflected in the architecture? In our cities? Here the poet offers Plato and Aristotle, memories of relatives who describe the lush neighborhoods of the west coast, the relationship between a house a street, a street and a building. Communities. Government documents. Places to shop. Raven questions the tenuous relationship between a person and the land, for America is a peopled by nomads who move around from city to city, college to job, job to city to subdivision. What makes a native a native? How is your neighborhood yours? The question of ownership, to one’s property, to one’s land, to one’s city is a central meditation in the second half of the book. There’s a quiet violence in the later poems, as the poet moves into a gentrified neighborhood of Washington DC. After all gentrification is destruction, albeit for the good of a community, or neighborhood, but destruction nevertheless. “There are so many problems in the world” the poet writes in “How the Mode of Transport Alters Life Above” how is it that our shopping sprees, and rental cars, and tax bases, and marketing take precedent? What kind of people are we? There are no answers, only more questions, and Raven’s work is a like that of an engineer organizing living into slots, spaces, and stairwells, structuring the space and language of the book, not forgetting that the building must be housed, by people, by us.


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