The idea of the suburbs as a “Utopia minus” comes to the fore in a collection that laments the rise of the suburbs as a “rise into ruin.” Susan Briante has written a bold second collection that tackles issues plaguing the American landscape and, even more urgently, the American people. Utopia Minus challenges notions of industrial and social progress in emboldened poems, fearlessly examining the plight of current American culture and even addressing the wars in the Middle East. These poems seethe with a silent anger and worry for the future.
Prose poems and long-line lyrics intermingle the mechanization of the human world with the natural world. In the opening prose poem, “The End of Another Creature,” the speaker observes monarch butterflies in the city. The speaker claims that “For six days I watch monarch butterflies scatter across the Metroplex, dream their carcasses onto the highway, dream black beetles biting my fingers in your clasped hands.” The interaction with the man-made highway proves fatal for the butterflies, just as the poem ends on the premonition of the image of “the boxwoods where someone left chemicals.”
A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection juxtapose images within the titles. The speaker rides a train in Newark in “Windows, Roof, Wood,” saying,
From this train, you regard places you’ll never reach,
storage containers, Quonset huts, bricks in fields,
warehouses the size of a cathedral,
web of wires, porcelain floaters.
“Detox the ghetto,” a billboard reads.
We do not care for one another.
The distancing of people from one another, of the industrial ruin of the cities, rises in the language of the poem, stemming from the political American landscape.
War fringes the collection, seeping into poems that discuss the radiating effects of the war. In “Robert Mueller Municipal Airport,” the speaker observes, “At the city’s new airport, you empty your pockets: / a kind of downpour, a little divorce: / everyone can see what’s inside.” The exposure of the self, unable to escape from the X-ray machines, shows the vulnerability of the speaker, no matter the location. In “3000 Block Kings Ln—Demolished Apartment Complex,” the graffiti on the abolished buildings reads “It’s all George’s fault in black spray paint” while the speakers sees “black-eyed Susans / to which I feel no relation.”
Briante ends each section of the book with poems that act as letters to high-ranking government officials, called “Memoranda.” In “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security,” the speaker asks the secretary after describing the aftermath of a hurricane: “Madam, do you ever get the feeling there’s something wrong with how things are run? […] And when a cardinal spits out his high, hard song, are we responsible to him as well?” She asks of the President for an exit in “Dear Mr. President,” finishing the poem with lyrical language that encapsulates this collection: “And pigeons swerve from north to east stained by a light that resembles an emergency exit’s red glow.” The poet tries to show a solution for the American plight, an exit linked to the natural world.