Associate Editor James Ellenberger: For the past month I’ve been reading poetry submissions for the Robert and Adele Schiff Awards here at The Cincinnati Review. There have been some interesting patterns so far, particularly on the level of shared terminology.
It isn’t unusual to read multiple poems in a single sitting about the same topic—the moon, the angelic homeless, or cicadas—but whenever the same (odd) language shows up again and again, often in sequential submissions, it’s hard not to wonder what’s up with our collective (un)consciousness. While some of the terminology will come as no surprise (fake news, Trump), the repeated use of words like flotsam (often paired with its kissing cousin jetsam) and imago function as a kind of facial composite of the current zeitgeist.
Let’s start with flotsam and jetsam. The former is floating wreckage while the latter is what’s hucked off the ship to lighten the load. If, as Modest Mouse proposes, “language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in,” then it’s taken on the immensity of an ocean. It seems lately, though, that an undercurrent (i.e. white supremacy, blatant racism and sexism) has overtaken the ocean itself; instead of seeing poetry as an aspect of what makes us great as a species, terminology like flotsam and jetsam make it seem like a remnant of what once was, a few boxes bobbing along until they slip all the way under.
There’s a degree of helplessness in the repetition of this terminology: the ubiquity of an ideology of sinking that doesn’t end up with us finding land. We’re either already in the drink and the world as we know it floats past the horizon (flotsam) or we’re resigned to the final stages of sinking, making sacrifices and compromises to stay somehow afloat (jetsam). America, love it or leave it. If America is instead the boat, who gets to stay on? Who is being cast into the depths so that the lucky few can go on floating?
Imago is an interesting term as well. I’m going to focus on the entomological definition (the final stage of an insect) rather than the psychological one (a therapeutic practice involving the essential images that we create of others).
As a species and a civilization, it’s hard not to see these days as a kind of wretched imago: We’ve traveled to the moon and reached our hands into the genetic code that builds and binds us, yet we can’t seem to disengage from the animalistic banality of dated belief systems. If this is the best it gets, then no wonder there’s such a long line at the return counter. Because time runs as it does, on and on until we’re out of it, it feels like the universe has been winding up for this moment, our lives like an errant pitch wobbling in the air.
Or perhaps it’s just the cicadas hatching, as they have off and on here in Cincinnati, that leads to poets everywhere with imago on the brain.
Either way, it’s been a real pleasure getting to read a bit (okay, a lot) into the poetic and political landscape a la contest submissions. Thanks for sending in your work—and we look forward to seeing more of it when the submission floodgates open again on September 1!