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Erika Meitner: Ideal Cities

  Ideal Cities

This collection of autobiographical narrative and lyric poems explores the relationship between body and place—specifically the pleasures and dangers of women’s corporeal experiences. Ideal Cities is guided by an epigraph from Song of Songs, and the metaphorical idea of bodies as cities, and cities as bodies. How do women’s bodies become sites of inscription via sex, childbirth, and other highly physical acts? These poems also investigate urban, suburban, and rural borderlands. Who do we leave behind or look past? What do we discard, as purposeful markers or accidental refuse? How can these people, places, and objects be woven into larger ideas about nature, sense of place, home, exile, and both personal and collective memory? Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan terms this bond between people and place “topophilia”—we manifest our ties to our geography in aesthetic, tactile, and emotional ways. Ideal Cities takes some of its cues from Robert Smithson and other Land Artists of the 1960’s, who often created work based on landscapes of urban peripheries and structures in various states of progressive disintegration, by delving into interstitial, overlooked spaces (dubbed “non-places” by French ethnologist Marc Auge)—tract housing, superstores, freeways, and construction sites—to demonstrate the tension between the imagery of these generic ‘non-places’ and the individuality that exists in their narratives.


“Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner is velocity and landscape, language and heart, the modern blur in which we live. These poems are so generous, so bright and sharp, so funny and winning, they feel immense: from the first lines, I was captivated. They were an unassailable announcement that the reader would never be bored or unmoved, that they were places one would never want to leave.”

- Paul Guest, Judge for the 2009 National Poetry Series

“The poems in Erika Meitner’s Ideal Cities are road maps, blueprints, dollhouses, dioramas. Her decidedly unsentimental, poignant odes celebrate grand subjects and the joys of domestic life with idiosyncratic flair. Meitner’s poetry isn’t afraid of history and personal histories. Her voice is smart, sassy, and savvy. Her ideal poems are built with mortar and quirkily astounding metaphors.”

- Denise Duhamel, author of Ka-Ching!

“Meitner’s themes—failed romance and love, motherhood, identity and the death of a grandmother—are expansively woven and are emotionally emboldened by her humor and forwardness. These wonderfully long-lined poems are always dense with movement—they bound between emotional registers, stitch and associate narratives, and modify by shifts in setting. Without fail, emotions accrete throughout each poem. This embrace of the expansive and Meitner’s handling of variety and textures are just two of the many brilliances found in Ideal Cities....Never do these poems unravel—Meitner’s assemblages grow out of temporal jumps and emotional switchbacks and are often marbled with theological diction (she is finishing a doctorate in religious studies at the University of Virginia). All of these flurries are made purposeful because she stays within each new anecdote just long enough to make them feel whole. Meitner’s array always augments, often twinning sadness and joy.”

- Poet/Critic Alex Lemon, The Dallas Morning News

“[Ideal Cities] follows a sometimes cheerful, sometimes frustrated, often volatile first-person speaker—one we may as well call “Erika Meitner.” The speaker has spent time in Brooklyn and in Washington, D.C.; now she teaches at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg (“I no longer live / in a city of any kind”). She addresses her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust and who falls ill and dies in the course of the book; she describes her pregnancy and then her fears and joys as a new mother. We read about films, TV shows, places Meitner has seen; about her commute, about phone calls from her mother, about her memories of summer camp. Ideal Cities presents these topics in more or less self-contained, lyrical forms, some as old as medieval Provence (“North Country Canzone”), others mostly Meitner’s inventions. Those inventions, their range and their oddity, make Meitner’s second book not just a pleasure to read, a book to recommend (not least to people who usually read novels), but also a sharply effective counterargument to claims that the autobiographical lyric is worn out. Her poems seem uncommonly true to life because they seem uncommonly true to the capacities of her American language: in their emotions and oddball forms, the poems explore and enjoy that language’s internal variety. Meitner can sound exhausted (up all night with a sick baby) or mournful or dismayed, but more often than not she sounds excited—about what she sees, what she remembers—and she cooks up form after form to let us share that excitement....Uncommonly autobiographical for a gifted poet of her generation, Meitner also comes across as uncommonly extroverted: wanting, and finding, new forms, new people, new places, new phrases, Meitner does not need to find new ideas about what poems, in general, do. If her goals seem traditionally serious, her sometimes-mercurial attitudes seem up to date. So do her titles, which could fit fine indie rock songs—“Slinky Dirt with Development Hat,” “Christmas Towns,” “We Need to Make Mute Things.””

- Critic/Poet Stephen Burt, The Boston Review

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Erika Meitner

    Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner was born and raised in Queens and Long Island, New York. She attended Dartmouth College (for an A.B. in Creative Writing in 1996), Hebrew University on a Reynolds Scholarship, and the University of Virginia, where she received her M.F.A. in 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow. In 2001-2 she was the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and has received additional fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009), the Blue Mountain Center (2006), and the Sewanee Writers' Conference (John N. Wall Fellowship, 2003). Her poems have appeared in publications including The Southern Review, Slate, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, The New Republic, and APR. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program, and is also simultaneously completing her doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where she was the Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies.  

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