“Useful Junk” Explores Memory, Multiple Lives, and the Ephemerality of Selfies

At the end of “Missing Parts,” from Erika Meitner’s impressive sixth poetry collection, Useful Junk, the speaker states, “I have lived what feels like many restless lives in this / one body.” Such “restless lives” are evident in this collection’s capacious use of the contemporary world. Meitner’s poems take place in Sheetz and CVS and mention Ken Dolls, THC lollipops, and sexting. In addition, she references writers from Erasmus and Martin Buber to Walter Benjamin and Elaine Scarry and works in conversation with artists Valerie Roybal and Ed Ruscha, among others. Where Wordsworth once wrote that “The world is too much with us,” Meitner illustrates the depth and richness that can come from such engagement.

“All the Past and Futures,” the collection’s fifth poem, introduces the idea of multiple lives in its declaration:

if I know anything it’s that our pasts are
multitudinous and wild and overgrown with

weeds, and our futures might converge in
some field with an abandoned hotel.

This minimally punctuated poem, which includes only commas, parentheses, and question marks — never a period — tumbles down the page in couplets, building toward its finish: “how we’re just trying / to find the origin, the place where, on an axis / y meets x?” The momentum is slowed only by the parentheticals, which are less asides than hesitations, in keeping with the poem’s focus both on “how / scattered memory gets” and on the uncertainty of the future.

Of the collection’s stellar prose poems, “A Brief Ontological Investigation” considers a neighbor’s belief in ending the day by “com[ing] up with a moment of gratitude,” which is not for this poem’s speaker, who wants to tell her grateful neighbor, “we can thank anything […] we all feel an abundance of something but sometimes it’s just emptiness.” Ultimately, this speaker asserts “that the opposite of ennui is excitement and I’m not feeling it either today even a little.” A dense, page-plus block of type, this work matches its title perfectly, for Meitner’s ontology is filled with the things of the world — “the crushed cans in recycling, my wristwatch for keeping time, the rainstorm yesterday that had water pouring from the gutters” — and the previously referenced abundance of emptiness — “vacant page, busy signal, radio static, implacable repeat rut where the tone arm reaches across a spinning vinyl record to play it again.” For this prose poem, the tension between the interaction of such different qualities takes the place of tension built on the interaction between line and syntax, as demonstrated in lineated poetry. Highlighting content over form allows readers to concentrate on the substance of the poem without requiring us to navigate the added complexity of lineation.

Meitner is equally adept at poems in a more personal mode, as evidenced by “Selfie with Airplane Voyeurism & References to Your Body” and “Elegy with Lo-Fi Selfie.” In the former poem, the speaker sits on a plane, adjacent to a woman “reading The Celestine Prophecy [who] has a tattoo on her foot in Latin.” Even before take-off, realizing she is unable to make out the tattoo, the speaker’s mind turns to common Latin quotations: “Alis grave nil” [Nothing is heavy to those who have wings] and “Luceat lux vestra” [Let your light shine]. Such a fancy comes upon this woman as she thinks,

Everyone should be
looking out the window hoping for
more spring, which is glorious if
you are loved or love yourself.

Meanwhile, her neighbor “is filming the girl next to / her in the window seat who is // freaking out on the ascent with joy / and fear and awe combined.” The speaker seems removed from such emotions, as she wonders, dispassionately, “How can a body resist / the forces pressing against it?” Meitner resists answering her speaker’s question, leaving readers, like the girl by the window, with “an O of wonder and terror / and pleasure.”

The speaker of “Elegy with Lo-Fi Selfie” also resorts to filtering existence through her smart phone, deciding, “if I tried to take a sexy selfie I’d probably just look like a body / they found in a dumpster on an episode of Law & Order: SVU.” Nevertheless, this elegy ends with the still-living speaker “stuck in my car thinking of you somewhere, Chris, I am taking // this snapshoot & posting it on Instagram.” Once again, Meitner minimizes punctuation, which, combined with long-lined couplets, creates a stream-of-consciousness feeling that belies the artfulness behind the poet’s choices. This speaker, in her forties but still carded when she buys alcohol and potentially leered at by “a millennial in the cereal aisle” is self-deprecating enough to wonder if her late friend would “think [the selfie] was hilarious / or sexy or possibly both.” Either way, she concludes, “touching my finger // to the button & it clicks & clicks.” Seeking to immortalize this moment, she bows to the ephemerality of uploading a selfie to Instagram, where it will become lost among a deluge of similar images.

These examples do not do justice to the sheer abundance and variety of the poems in Useful Junk. Meitner has mined the detritus of the online and real worlds of twenty-first-century America to address themes of desire, family, and memory. The collection can best be summed up by one of its poem’s titles: “What Follows Is a Reconstruction Based on the Best Available Evidence.” Meitner’s speakers reconstruct lived experience in all its messiness through the “Best Available Evidence,” the stuff of the world, in material and personal forms. This poem ends, “go on, go on / again, again / return, return.” Readers will conclude this book wishing just the same thing.

Useful Junk
By Erika Meitner
BOA Editions
Published April 5, 2022