A geographical whirlwind, Connell’s debut collection presents 36 cities in alphabetical order (some letters get more than one hit … why eschew Moscow for Madrid? Xi’an, on the other hand, has no X peer). Each destination offers a story, a scene, or a vignette – as I read I came to think of them as little windows – into the city. A moment, a place, a person. Each encounter is an intense mixture of location and love.
At its best, Metrophilias evokes Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Poetic prose, glistening images. Connell is capable of these, as when he evokes ancient Carthage: “it sits against an ocean blue to profundity, shores gently lashed by the trillion fins of that vast creature, air swept by seagulls’ wings.” His language is a wonderful mix of the suggestive and the concrete; it both orients and disorients. Like Calvino, Connell is unafraid of the fragmentary, the impossible. His scene in Manila does away with traditional syntax to immerse the reader: “pollution smell incense overcrowded chaos prostitutes and faith healers.” Ultimately climaxing in a simple equation: “meat = flesh + scent.”
In each destination, Connell evokes both the setting and some aspect of lust or love. Sometimes, the fetishes are predictable, as in “Paris,” where a rich dandy buys a prostitute a new pair of shoes and has her parade through the filth of the streets, only to “set his lips to the shoes; – next tongue: lapping at and licking leather, – moans and sighs, – all the signs of a man experiencing the greatest pleasure, – licking it until it shone.” However, he frequently breaks out of the expected pattern and finds new avenues to explore. Whether it is in “Peking,” where the emperor’s son becomes infatuated with a vase from the Ru kiln, or Thebes, where a pharaoh, the delightfully named Usermaatresetepenre, is obsessed with women’s noses, Connell explores the far reaches of human desire.
Language is at the heart of this slim volume. Beyond the bizarre fixations, Connell’s prose delights for its diction, its poise. A man more interested in ghosts than living bodies invites the spirits “floating around him, beginning to diffuse about his person a silky white mist, ectoplasmic, softer than the softest virgin skin, more exciting than the hottest vitalic harlot.” Or a man obsessed with the letter W sings its praises: “that semivowel of horns became for me not merely a representation of love, but the object itself.” Connell’s words are enveloping and lush; they challenge and provoke. For all that, it is his simplest sentences that really pop; nothing more than the straightforward recounting of a subway ride in Mexico City, “the train rumbled along beneath the ground: shot along like electricity, like slow lightening,” was enough to make this reader pause.
Other pauses were not so good. I winced at the overdone “historical” prose in “Jerusalem,” when the narrator says, “For I hearken and hear her ply amongst her silks.” And there are times when the syntax just breaks down for no apparent reason: “He had mittens on his hands; was shabbily dressed.” One feels that the author hasn’t thought through each mark of punctuation. It also gave me pause that the volume contains no information about the author (except where some of the pieces were originally published). Perhaps I am picky, but I enjoy knowing where the writer is from and a little bit about the inspiration and the goal.
Weaknesses aside, the volume bubbles with passions and fixations. Dense and coiled, this collection rewards a reader with delightful images, sentences full of sensory detail, situations bizarre and intriguing. For anyone wishing to be transported to some other place, some other time, Metrophilias is sure to engage.