Found in Phoenix by Amy Ouzoonian (New York: Fly By Night Press, 2014)
It’s a good thing Amy Ouzoonian put her name on her new book of poems, short stories and plays, Found in Phoenix, because otherwise a reader would think each of the literary forms was written by a different author. The poems are personal flights, sometimes gnomic, sometimes reflections on her day’s personal itinerary. The short stories, which are less unified, move (in a single piece) from naturalist realism to fantasy to sci fi. The plays usually center on the relations of men and women, showing up the good and bad sides of partnerships, so constructed that the positive elements of the alliance appear in realist, the negative elements in surrealist mode.
If that didn’t make the book complex enough — and I’ll say a little more about these categories in a moment – it is divided into two sections: “Lost in New York” and “Found in Phoenix,” whose meaning is not at all clear. The titles suggest that the author, who moved to Arizona from New York a few years ago, was indicating with these headings something about the improved quality of life in the Southwest in comparison to that of the dysfunctional mega-polis. And yet, if we look at simply the poetry, which makes up the bulk of the book, it doesn’t seem there is much difference between the two cities. Phoenix offers the same down-and-out people and landscapes, the same political futility and despair as New York.
However, a more careful reading indicates that there are two important differences, unexpected ones, between the locales. I say “unexpected” in that when comparisons are made between cities, like the ones that sometimes appear in newspapers, the topics are usually such things as quality of life, crime rate, and amount of cultural activities. Yet, to come right down to it, isn’t the feature Ouzoonian focuses on an equally significant one? She measures the caliber of romance. They say Paris is the city of love; New York, not so much, especially today when the scramble for money, among poorer people, such as struggling artists, has become so all-absorbing.
This point is detailed in such “Lost” poems as “A Hard Man Is Good to Find.” The relationship is described thusly, “We share a storage of silence and pack that inside // A capsule that spares no room for a // Sense of humor, but swims through oceans of want.” I think this means the partnership involves sex and intimacy but little sharing. She goes on to say for the author’s partner, this connection is “Smaller than the love you never had // Or tried to hide in every set up, delivery punchline // You killed every time.” In other word, the partner turns off any move to a deepening of the relationship with a joke or jibe. In New York, it seems, admitting to love or emotionally opening in other ways, is too threatening to people who must constantly guard against vulnerability. And lacking strong ties, love partnerships tend to snap fairly easily. Many of the poems concern the aftermath of broken relationships, recording loss and longing. The poem “In Lieu of Flowers” has the narrator describe a woman, “Tonight, caressing absence she will // Swallow her own star kisses.”
In Phoenix, relationships endure better partly because, surprisingly, daily schedules are less variable. In New York, a person has to cobble together a number of odd jobs, ones with revolving, shifting hours to earn a living. This, Ouzoonian hints, interferes with love life. In Arizona, hours are more regular. Often in these poems, the narrator is going to work in the morning, leaving her lover abed. “Outside it’s 7 am and still breath and cloud formations. … Not ready for steam of showers and the shivers of dreams weave // me out of bed.” She leaves, saying lyrically, “I slip further, sleepwalking // into a working day.” Or it may be a reversed situation, in which she waits for her love to come home from work. “When the promise of feathers // Curl from dreams I know // you’ll come to me.”
For Ouzoonian, then, the question in relation to romance in a city is not some abstract statistic such as the number of single men or women in an area, but the quality of links that couples form, partly based on how crazy life is.
And, she also has a second, this time political, criterion for rating a city’s being. Again, it is an unexpected one. One might think, perhaps, that the poverty and squalor one finds in New York are less evident in Arizona. Not true. She describes Phoenix, “All the movie theaters are // Haunted welfare offices.” Nor is the prattling and conspicuous consumption of the well-off any less in the West. “All the people are so clean, they never worry about // What will happen when the water runs out // Or when all the fancy cars are tragedies rolling // In rust, spilling champagne from all their lady parts.”
What is different is that in Arizona, political thinking becomes more clear-headed. In the New York section, the narrator, in political mode, simply reacts. Here’s her feelings at visiting one of Gotham’s overpriced emporiums: after looking at the examples of waste on all hands, you might break down, she says, “and cause a disruption // At the sales rack // And fling a glob of silly putty // (now on sale for only four dollars) // At the store manager’s boyfriend // while he’s trying on hats // and too metro to notice.”
In the other world of Arizona, the narrator examines things from a wider perspective, getting her mind around war, “I’ve seen all colors // Charred to ash and knows; // … No weapon has ever been a cure for death,” and environmental destruction, “the price of a melting glacier // Is 1,000 species.” Where in New York, she trenchantly examined, almost bounced off, the immediate, in-your-face indignities of urban life, in Arizona she does not only decry but probes the excuses and attitudes that allow for the wild scale stripping of value from human life and our natural environment.
I’ve said that her stories and plays are cast in different, less realist patterns. But they still adhere to the geographic split she has demonstrated. The play Max and Adele, in the first section, starts with a realistic bedroom scene played between an affectionate if detached couple. Soon enough, turning genre-like, readers find Max is spying on his girlfriend. Next, the story turns surreal when Max decides to visit Adele at her crib and finds it to be rather vague geographically, seemingly way outside the space-time continuum. Despite the stylistic mutations, the couple relationship here is much like those in the poems about New York: unsettled, slightly contentious, without deep roots in either’s psyche.
In the Arizona section, to turn to politics, the standout story, “Cat Love’s Not Dog Love,” focuses on drug smuggling, entrapment and the DEA. As with the play mentioned, this piece grows increasingly fantasmic. Two drug dealers are talking in their apartment. One decides to take the dog for a walk and learns the dog works for the DEA. Meanwhile, the other dealer meets a cat-faced man, who is working for another secretive government agency and is chasing the dog, who, it turns out, is a mole. Then things really get strange! Enough has been said to indicate the story is a political satire, not one drawing from the author’s personal grievances, but examining the current, hysterical political climate.
You can see the book – which also includes the author’s color photos — is an ambitious undertaking, one dressed in all manners: lyric, intense, bizarre, and comic, of resplendent literary garments.