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POETRY: The Poet of Post-modern Life

Escape from Combray
Rick Snyder
Ugly Duckling, 2009

In his seminal essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire defined the modern artist, or flâneur, as a “solitary individual endowed with an active imagination.” This figure was a detached but passionate individual walking through the city, carried along by its tumultuous crowds, observing but unobserved. There have been many flâneurs and derivative wannabes since then, but only the best of them have added something new to Baudelaire’s original conception. In his quietly charged, laconic poems, Rick Snyder adds something solid and useful to the long rich history of the poet walking alone in the city. And by some measure, he is just hitting his stride.

Although Snyder published his first chapbook in 1999, Escape from Combray is his first full-length book. In it, he not only assumes the mantle of the flâneur—a seductive position fraught with pitfalls—but he doesn’t settle for any of the familiar, often trivializing moves that so many urban dwelling poets end up publishing. There’s no nostalgia, bursts of easy outrage, teary laments, self-pitying cries, or transcendence in Snyder’s poems. Alienation isn’t touted as an affliction that is endured or understood only by the poet, but recognized as a condition that we all inhabit.

Understanding just how detached and passionate one must be to register what the world and we have become, Snyder doesn’t try (as Baudelaire did) to “distil the eternal from the transitory” because to do so now would be an escapist response to the post 9/11 world we inhabit. (The interested reader should download Snyder’s e-book, Forecast Memorial (2002) from—three longish poems written two months after 9/11 and made of lines and fragments carefully spliced together from the constant barrage of mass media “facts” and fictions that filled up our lives in the aftermath.) Instead, he is “stranded/between the steel buildings/and stainless sky…surrounded by strangers/in putty and bone…none of whom/is Dante Alighieri.” The 14th-century poet who journeyed through the Inferno until he reached Paradise can’t help the one who is living in 21st-century America with no promised land in sight.

The “I” in Snyder’s poems comes across as muted and self-reflective, always aware that sanctuary is at best an illusion. At the end of “Walking Home,” which on the surface is about passing by:

the relief of Jesus

staggering under
the weight of his cross

The poem ends with

while Simon (I think)
stands at his side
keeping one hand
still on the cross

not knowing
what he should do

now that they’ve walked
to Calvary.

Snyder is a religious poet who, while he hasn’t lost faith, hasn’t found any answers.

He registers the connections and disconnections in a world full of cheaply-made consumer products which, as Merleau-Ponty writing about Cézanne pointed out, “[w]e become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily and unshakably.” Like Cézanne, Snyder “suspends these habits of thought and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself,” as well as acknowledges two very different and opposing trajectories without reaching a resolution. 


As much as you deserve it,
I wouldn’t wish this
Sunday night on you—
not the Osco at closing,
not its two tired women
and shaky security guard,
not its bin of flip-flops
and Tasmanian Devil
baseball caps,
not its freshly mopped floors
and fluorescent lights,
not its endless James Taylor
song on the intercom,
and not its last pint of
chocolate mint ice cream,
which I carried
down Milwaukee Ave.
past a man in an unbuttoned
baseball shirt, who stepped
out of a shadow to whisper,
How are you doing?

In “POEM FOR AN AUNT,” Snyder describes the possessions of his deceased aunt with a precise, understated acuity in two stanzas: 

On the massive couch that sticks to
my skin, in the rocking chair
with two ribs missing,
I study her broken cuckoo clock.

Then the ashtray like a big beige ear.
The bleached-out soap opera
on the 27-inch tv: our portraits
arranged carefully on top.

And then after a perceptual shift that Snyder scores with a stanza break, the poem seamlessly turns and opens out: 

For a second I think I remember her.
Then that apartment building
built over its own parking garage.
Yellow brick. Standing water.

Line by line, the poet goes from a hesitation (“For a second I think I remember her.”) to the inhuman, everyday world (“Yellow Brick. Standing water.”) without veering into any of the false solaces society eagerly offers. Effusiveness or even terseness—any human utterance, in fact—feels forbidden, not to mention self-dramatizing. Palpably evoking the cold, indifferent silence that envelops us all, no matter where we are and what we are doing, Snyder conveys how far we have traveled since Baudelaire’s time.

Escape from Combray is a powerful first book by a poet-translator from Catullus, and essayist, who has resisted aligning himself with any coterie or theory (check out his evenhanded, insightful essay, “The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf” in the invaluable on-line magazine Jacket: Based on what I’ve read of his works, Snyder’s detachment and passion appears to extend to all of his endeavors, which is a very rare and increasingly necessary feat to achieve in this day and age.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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