The Epic of Gilgamesh does not end with a dead body or the celebration of a dead body like The Iliad or Beowulf. The poem does not end with the hero resting triumphantly like Odysseus at the conclusion of the The Odyssey. The poem ends with Gilgamesh returning home as a failure, as a husk of a hero who couldn’t save his best friend Enkidu or save himself by attaining immortality. The poem doesn’t even end with a focus on Gilgamesh. The hero himself tells readers to focus on Uruk, the city he terrorizes at the beginning of the poem and takes pride in at the end of the poem. Researchers and historians believe Gilgamesh existed because Uruk exists. Gilgamesh was the demigod-king of the city, but the city owns him. The city controls him in a way that Humbaba or Ishtar or even Enkidu never could.
Ancient history was my first love, so the old gods are always in my head, but I kept coming back to Gilgamesh’s end when I read Sesshu Foster’s City of the Future. It would be easy to call the collection epic because of its size, scope, and ambition. However, City of the Future is an epic because of its mission to celebrate and mourn the movement of one era into the next.
Foster’s Uruk is Los Angeles, and the speakers in City of the Future show us a city that demands love and obedience no matter the circumstances. In “Los Angeles Postcard,” the first poem of the collection and the first of many postcard poems in the collection, readers are told “In the infinite city, it’s so late it’s early. // In the infinite city, somebody is going down.” These two energies drive the book. The vivid and hectic mortality of the body clashes against the cool immortality of the city. City of the Future leaves many bodies in its wake. Poems are filled with lost lovers and friends. Some names are used as dedications and titles for the poems. Some names are forgotten.
Foster does an excellent job of showing how the city transforms the body into something both intimate and alien. This talent comes across the strongest in pieces like the prose poem “El Sereno Postcard,” where the narrator gives the following observation to the reader:
i always drive down huntington past the fire station at monterey pass road, where ten or 15 years ago there was a brutal murder, some guy with a shotgun followed two girls out of a party in boyle heights and shot them to death in front of the fire station because it was said they broke the mirror on his car. he chased them down and shot them one after the other, screaming in the street in front of the station. i mentioned it at the time when i got to school and a student said that one of them was his aunt.
The bodies of the women in “El Sereno Postcard” are far from the only bodies that are lost and recovered in City of the Future. Bodies are broken and discarded by lovers and broken and discarded by state-sponsored violence. But it is not only the bodies that are celebrated and mourned in the collection; the silhouettes left behind by those bodies are celebrated and mourned as well. For example, in “Mother’s Day, night,” Foster gives readers a speaker contemplating the meaning of their relationship with their mother and considering how that relationship is made of “Phone messages erased from numbers that never existed in this century.” The pursuit of the mother’s memory is not an attempt to resurrect the mother. It is an attempt to use the memory itself as proof of both the speaker and the mother’s existence.
This need for existence is a central friction of the collection because the need for existence creates a need to reckon with the city. In many poems, reckoning with the city means looking for ways to avoid the force and pull of the city. For example, “chico postcard” captures the fleeting hope for a world outside of the grasp of the city. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker is “dropped off on a long highway that turned into an avenue with two huge boxes, each about the size of a kitchen table, and one extra suitcase.” From the beginning, it is clear that just the world of the speaker’s belongings is too large for them. This poem could easily be a poem of hopeless struggle. This poem could easily be a poem of heroic struggle, but “chico postcard” is the opposite. In the end of the poem, the speaker announces “i had to figure out a way. then i awoke in chico, calif. on a chilly morning at the thunderbird motel as the sunshine slanted down main street and melted the frost. and i had no boxes and no suitcases to carry, and everything was better already.” The poem is a poem of hopeless and heroic submission to the city, and this submission is one of the few escapes found in City of the Future.
City of the Future would be a strong collection even if the collection only focused on what the city does to the most vulnerable bodies: female bodies, minority bodies, immigrant bodies, transient bodies. However, Foster’s city is a wonder and horror because of the indifference it shows to all bodies. There are no heroes towering above the populace. The city reserves the right to erase any body with impunity. This power comes through most clearly in “Ragazzi.” The poem gives an account of a speaker watching a group of young men pass through the city. It starts by saying “I hear them before I see them from across the parking lot, hooting and calling out in the street, two boys on skateboards surging up Main Street, another boy on a bike ahead of them.” This display of loud, masculine energy is at the heart of many epics. We see it in Gilgamesh’s boasts and his insistence on raping the new brides of Uruk. We see it in Achilles’ rage that can only be checked by the gods in the beginning of Homer’s Iliad. Loud, masculine energy is an energy that is often treated as sacrosanct. It is an energy that is meant to be noticed and catalogued and feared. The city itself is often a monument to loud, masculine energy that gives no concern to the carnage it leaves behind.
Foster’s city does not consider this energy to be sacrosanct. Foster’s city does not consider this energy to be worth fear or cataloguing. The energy of the young men fades even faster than it appears in the poem, and it fades until poem reduces the young men to “just half-seen figures barely inscribed inside a couple lines here; they’re on their way and passed far behind, throwing giant shadows across a blue evening.”
To be a shadow in the evening is the most a body can hope for in Foster’s city. The speakers in Foster’s collection try in vain to remember the names and shapes of these shadows. The speakers in Foster’s collection are haunted by the thought of being turned into one of these shadows in a moment’s notice that no one will notice.
The city is a human creation, and City of the Future is an expansive portrait of a creation that can’t be endured or bargained with, a creation that has grown far beyond its master’s control. Ultimately, Foster’s city pushes all humanity into passivity. The populace of Sesshu Foster’s City of the Future can only suffer the experience of the city and hope—like the heroes of most epics—that their names will not be forgotten too soon, as the city moves on without them.
Jason McCall is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of North Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his collections include Two-Face God (WordTech Editions); Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize); Silver (Main Street Rag); I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press); and Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He and P.J. Williams are the editors of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press).