"Now I’m Embarrassed"
“I am only 22 years old. / I want to fake my death on Facebook,” says the narrator of “Zelda,” one of the 50 poems in Dispatch from the Future, the debut collection of 27-year-old poet Leigh Stein. Though it is the most ostentatiously au courant line in the volume, it doesn’t feel like much of an aberration. Stein’s poems are written in the lingua franca of the Internet—self-deprecating confessions and casual pop cultural allusions abound. “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I / have in common,” says the speaker in “A Brief History of My Life Part VII,” “are our preoccupations // with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize / a kinship there, as if those two things mattered // more than anything.”
Out of some dedication to lyrical grace, contemporary poetry often denies the particulars of our lives. But to make such elisions, as David Foster Wallace once said, is to be “retrograde about what’s ‘permissible’ in serious art.” So it comes as a disproportionate relief to read poetry that reflects daily life such as it actually is today: blinkering and smeared with banner ads, but also chatty, connected, and littered with the kind of esoterica that only 15 years ago would have seemed unthinkably remote.
It’s a tricky mode to succeed in, though, and Stein does it well. “Gchat” sounds like a Cosmo coinage, and social interactions hardly seem mentionable when they occur on Facebook, for which there are no synonyms. There is something ignoble about invoking brand names when we are at our most impassioned. For poets it can be easier to euphemize our modern vocabulary than embrace it. Stein avoids this trap by refusing to think of poetry as a precious form.
Stein’s narrative points of view telegraph her casual ease. She relies mostly on first- and second-person pronouns, and seldom provides antecedents for either. The “I” changes from poem to poem, and the “you” remains illegible. By refusing to identify her addressee, Stein maintains a sense of aired-out friendliness and indistinct intimacy. The poems read a little like blog posts, our modern-day soliloquies.
By declining to write indirectly about our modern modes of communication, Stein, whose first novel, The Fallback Plan, was also published this year, is quickly becoming a sort of ambassador for her generation. (Stein’s fictional debut was in fact written after Dispatch from the Future, but released first by Melville House, which published both.) Esther, Stein’s protagonist, is a Millennial martyr: after graduating from Northwestern, she can’t find work and so moves back in with her parents, where she loses the will to groom and eats a lot of cereal. She’s finally forced to grow up after taking a babysitting job with a mourning family that ends up relying on her in unexpected ways. Stein’s ripped-from-op-eds plot is partially autobiographical, though less than some critics and readers assumed. Her observational abilities are astute, and her scenes not just timely but well rendered.
For those who have read The Fallback Plan, Dispatch from the Future will feel familiar in both its tone, which is alternately infantilized and alarming, and its preoccupations—revenge and its attendant thrill, the beauty myth, reading-in-lieu-of-living. When the narrator of “Immortality” says, “I took my medication and looked at pictures / of people who were not in love with me,” we can deduce that she’s not rifling through shoeboxes of Polaroids, but rather clicking through albums posted on Facebook, and also, relatedly, that these “people” aren’t anonymous—they’re friends or, rather, “friends.” And the medication? Prozac seems a likelier pill than Claritin. Stein has described her work as “poetry for people who hate poetry,” but Dispatch from the Future is no shtick, and Stein does not exploit her youth or rely solely on conspicuously contemporary imagery. Staying alert to the constantly connected world that Stein sometimes describes ensures that even the poems that aren’t explicitly about life online can feel as if they were. A line like the one that opens “Addendum to the Previous Dispatch” could have been written decades ago, but knowing that it wasn’t gives it new freight. “I just remembered every single thing I’ve ever done / and now I’m embarrassed” is not a notional pronouncement, but in fact a totally reasonable anxiety now that so many of our mistakes are only a click away.
On her Tumblr, Stein posts poems made up exclusively of dialogue from The Bachelorette. They’re hilarious but also startlingly emotive (“This is my simple life. I’m goin where you’re goin./ On that note, let’s have a drink."), and were the source material not identified in the header, you’d think Stein was just experimenting with a different voice. Her engagement with reality television, romantic comedies, and tabloid celebrities is not so much without critical distance as it is without sarcasm, and her poetry is better, funnier, and more honest for her earnestness. Stein is not alone in her fascinations. Two other contemporary poets come to mind when thinking about her alliance to supposedly degraded subject matter: Julia Bloch, with her recently released Letters to Kelly Clarkson, a collection of haunting, epistolary prose poems; and poet/performance artist Kate Durbin, the founder of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, and author of E! Entertainment, a chapbook that includes, among other projects, a deadpan rewriting of The Hills.
Stein is unabashedly playful. She writes with the intermittent ditziness of a woman who knows she’s far cleverer than the men around her assume her to be. She has relinquished tedious responsibilities: to be academic or theoretical or even to signal her remove. Stein isn’t treating her subject matter with faux-seriousness or attempting cognitive empathy by drawing parallels between us and Lauren Conrad. Stein’s narrators do all the things we’re meant to associate with superficial girls: they go to the gym to get “sexier,” they cry in public, they retreat home to eat vanilla frozen yogurt. But they also offer brilliant insights (a casually radical rereading of the myth of Orpheus, for example) and quietly scandalous denouncements (instead of “a room of one’s own,” one speaker asserts that she wants “an apartment paid for by someone else’s hard, / manual labor”).
Ditziness, for Stein, is a kind of dramatic irony by which her narrators can assert that they’re secretly smarter than their audience. Dispatch from the Future is a land mine of rising intonation, but each gratuitous question mark is purposefully planted, a red herring meant to distract us from an intelligence that will reveal itself just a beat before we’d start to doubt it. It’s not immediately clear that the stuttering, uptalking stanzas of “Have You Hugged a Latvian Today?,” for instance, in fact announce a send-up of pageant culture: “Like, I wish, right?” the narrator says, “I wish there was a spokeswoman for aphasia who / was also internationally recognized for her / beauty, intellect, and equestrian panache.”
Like her incorporation of Internet culture, Stein’s use of girlish vernacular is more an assertion of proprietary right than it is contrarian rebellion. She contextualizes the most debased words—our ugliest proper nouns and dumbest hedges—in a way that grants them unexpected dignity. By showing us that it’s possible to make something beautiful and funny out of our supposed follies, Stein rescues the present.