Fort Gorgeous, Angela Vogel’s first full-length collection, populates an original fairytale landscape—one grounded thematically in 19th and 20th century American literature and painting—with a village of anachronistic, pop-cultural misfits who define the contours of the contemporary American identity. Vogel’s poems, so playful and satisfying when read aloud, imply that these American archetypes, figures once representing a type of individualism, have now been commodified, reduced to emblems in our mass-produced, mashed-up and hyper-mediated versions of reality. The reader imagines, while reading the thirty-seven ultra-imaginative poems in this collection, that the characters in Fort Gorgeous have themselves mindlessly purchased the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, neatly packaged and wrapped.
We also have to imagine the speakers as renegades, outliers in the mostly sedated population, awake and mad as hell. In “Rip Van Winkle,” for example, the character wakes to the speaker advising him to “Check out your gnomes. They are the paprika / of landscape, garden variety boys”; in “The Enchanted Forest,” the speaker tells a tale about “The Crooked Man,” a figure whose “house was an abomination / in an otherwise orthogonal world, / . . . squatting dark values from the road, oystering strange fugues.” In other poems, Vogel’s speakers inhabit places in rusting decline, their melancholy states of mind sharp but disillusioned with what romantic love once offered them. Brooding over life’s transience while reflecting on a dead rosebush in her yard, the speaker of “Rosebud, Or Now that I’m Older” says: “Push your hands far down / the dirt, feel it grip your insubstantial grasp, / make you mindful this too shall last.” The speaker of “Poem for Your Wedding” states:
If we’re smart,
we sign up a la carte for the whole enchilada,
move slow into the flowering plot of children,
the family gone nuclear, the kin ship sailed.
Vogel exaggerates her speakers’ cynicism, disillusionment or melancholy regarding love to counter, by way of satire, our consumer culture’s simplistic and unrealistic representations of it.
In writing a world with such creatures, places and values in it, Vogel stops short of engaging in identity politics by keeping the wordplay and sound-work of her prosody front-and-center. Consider the opening couplets of “No Fat Chicks” (a popular beach t-shirt):
Imagine what you make of me.
Adipose planets orbit my knees.
My ankles are tabernacles to a goddess
of feed. Saccharin beads on me.
When my body dies, my soul will rise
like the steam from a jelly roll.
Any venom the speaker might want to spit at the “you,” the type of guy cruel enough to wear such a t-shirt to the beach, is neutralized with humor. Nor does the reader have to pity the obese speaker, such a bodily transcendent, self-effacing wordsmith.
Vogel’s central goal with Fort Gorgeous—and perhaps the reader could say it’s her main subject—is to experiment with the comedic and satirical possibilities of poetic diction. She does so by making jokes and puns, by riffing on popular ideas and icons. The opening lines of “Fort Gorgeous,” the book’s title poem, demonstrate Vogel’s process: “Grandfathers will call you Miss America / coming down the stair.” This seemingly simple statement and image echoes Duchamp’s painting titled “Nude Descending a Staircase.” If the Duchamp title sounds familiar to the reader, the subtle sonic affinity it has with Vogel’s phrasing “coming down the stair” places the poem’s “you,” absurdly cast as a leggy pageant contestant, walking down the modernist painting’s steps. Take, as another example of Vogel’s wit and dexterous verbal humor, these lines from “GPS: A Fairytale”:
As you can see, I’m driving home a point
in my Suburban, in my Legend.
A calculated risk, a satellite, and a minister of
logic walk into a bar. Consider this a thumb
map, a pocket allegory to solve for y man is king
Read aloud, Vogel’s syntax intones a centrifugal force that swings out from ear to world—her inventive turns of phrase generate new energies trapped in inert idioms, the tired rhetoric of everyday speech.