In this review, Jack Parlett ventures through the avenues, grooves and colliding landscapes, fantasies and libidinal economies of Nathaniel Farrell’s Lost Horizon (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019).
> Nathaniel Farrell’s long poem Lost Horizon (2019), which takes as its subject the space of the retail utopia, makes me think of a lot of things. Which is to say that its sense of breadth and abundance – packed full of things and images, traversing vast distances across different landscapes – had me grasping for other reference points, for affinities that might suggest ways of reading it. The pile-up of the opening lines, scattered across the page, offers a glimpse into the ways this poem can get you lost:
The fountain full of coins the smell of pretzels, print, perfume formaldehyde in fabrics brass rails down stairwells rebar in the pillars the underground parking structure – Roman alphabet Arabic numerals – (Farrell 2019: 1)
> The mall, scented with the churn of Auntie Anne’s pretzels (say) and the potent fragrances of a nearby department store, is rendered throughout the poem as an archaeological surface, as though the poet’s task were one of excavation. Lost Horizon reminds me, in this sense, of an Anselm Kiefer painting; a maximalist collage blending the industrial and the pastoral, foregrounding the dimensionality of objects that appear ‘found’ within the landscape of the work, like the unsettling use of spindly wires and sticks the painter is known for. Farrell, too, is interested in exteriorising the subterranean, the things that glimmer and protrude, like the ‘coins’ emanating from beneath the water of the fountain, like the chemical compounds found in our clothes. His is a multi-storeyed work, finding ancient linguistic systems in car parks, conferring the quotidian spaces of late capitalism with the dignity of the palimpsest.
> But Farrell’s poem does not settle upon one groove. It unfolds in strange and wrong-footing ways. Although this opening passage would seem to suggest a logic of succession, a list of things you might expect to find in a shopping mall, with an associative momentum driven forward by alliteration, the poem’s larger scheme is one of randomness, a yoking together of any number of images and textures. (My personal favourite: ‘Avocado. TV as diorama or diocese catfish farm trout hatchery.’) (27). This fragmented structure speaks back to the form of the Surrealist catalogue, or to experiments in automatic writing, and renders them in a distinctly American vernacular, like the New York melee of Frank O’Hara’s long 1953 poem Second Avenue or, more recently, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s 2011 work Metropole (minus the strict iambic rules.)
> Yet where Second Avenue seems to stage a representational gag – in what sense is this poem, characterised by lines like ‘Butter. Lotions. Cries. A glass of ice’ (O’Hara 1995: 149) ‘about’ Second Avenue itself? – the abstraction of Farrell’s purview is already made explicit in his title. Lost Horizon is a work in search of a potentiality that has already been lost, and it goes looking for it in all kinds of places: shopping malls, forests, multiplexes, highways, locales suspended in the poem’s veering between the vitality of the artificial and the natural realm to which it shall one day return. Where a ‘rebarbative’ work like Second Avenue, in Andrea Brady’s words, recoils ‘from sentimentality but also from the reader’ (Brady 2010: 60), Farrell’s poem does the opposite. It homes in upon the way that sentiment might inhere in the spaces and materials of consumption and the faded spectacles of capital. Perhaps this is why, beyond any of the more high-minded comparisons it invites, Lost Horizon makes me think most of all of the town I grew up in.
> It feels a little parochial to compare the scale of Farrell’s Americana with a single town in Buckinghamshire. (He writes in the Acknowledgments that the project ‘emerged from road travel’ and draws upon the imagery of places including ‘St. Louis and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Fort Wayne’.) Yet shopping malls trade, the poem suggests, in incongruity; they flatten space and time, incorporate the urban, the pastoral and the global, as if the whole world might be incorporated under their ceilings. I realised in navigating this poem that so much of my sense of America, and Americanness as a kind of distant and glamorous imaginary, was mediated through my childhood in Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes was, after all, developed with reference to the layout of American cities.
> The area known as Central Milton Keynes (or ‘CMK’) was conceived in the mid-seventies as part of the recently created ‘new town’ in Buckinghamshire, and was officially opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Although ‘CMK’ is a municipal designation – a name for the central zone of the larger Milton Keynes area – it is predominantly a business and retail district. Laid out on a grid, CMK sits somewhere between the ‘downtown’ area of an American city and the out-of-town shopping mall; an assemblage of shopping centres, office buildings and industrial parks, characterised by its distinctive glass-and-steel buildings and an infamous number of roundabouts. Like many British ‘new towns’, Milton Keynes was created with both pragmatic and idealistic aims in mind. On the one hand, it was an overspill project providing an outlet for London’s rising and congested population. On the other, it was to be a new frontier both socially and architecturally; an automobile haven merging green space with the imposing surfaces of the modern city. Today, it looks both futuristic and dated. Or rather, it looks like what the future was once supposed to look like.
> When I tell people I grew up in and around Milton Keynes, it usually prompts one of two responses. The first, most frequent and predictable, is a kind of apologetic nod, a nod to MK’s associations in the national imaginary as a uniquely naff, soulless place. The other (more generous) reaction is a kind of keen and outsize enthusiasm, prompting a conversation about the town’s architectural significance or its peculiar place in British local history as an experiment of urban planning. (There’s also, sometimes, outright judgment, as when on my first day of university a private schoolboy told me that ‘when I think of Milton Keynes I think of scum.’). My feelings about the place fall somewhere in the middle – I’m defensive of it in the face of snobbery, but I also think that the people who find it an area of intellectual interest probably didn’t grow up there. Until the opening of the recently re-developed Milton Keynes Gallery, which was reported widely in the national press, CMK lacked a culture of its own, and it still remains best known as a cornucopia of brand names and chain restaurants.
> And yet I can’t pretend that some part of me doesn’t kind of love it. Farrell’s work pays attention to the embarrassment one might feel about being from a place like Milton Keynes, or rather the embarrassment in our attachments to such a place. I still desire to rediscover the uniquely artificial pleasures of the shopping mall. Against my better judgments, I find myself beguiled again by CMK’s performance of grandeur, its strange radiance. Or perhaps its that my memories of childhood and adolescence are shot through, like an off-brand Lorde song, with its suburban framework, its constellation of uniquely named places like The Point, a red steel pyramid housing the UK’s first multiplex cinema when it opened in 1985, or the pastoral-sounding Midsummer Place, an extension of the shopping centre built around an oak tree, which people still refer to today as the ‘new bit.’ (It was opened at the start of the millennium and has been bought out by the Intu franchise. The tree is no more.)
> The speaker of Lost Horizon similarly figures the retail landscape as a site of affective and libidinal attachments, less a utopic horizon than a space where experience is packaged and backlit, where material capitalism might dupe us into utopic thinking, where you can hear ‘the beat of an unmoored heart in the duty-free shop’ (Farrell: 70). (The term retail therapy is particularly apt.) This speaker has a mobile erotic attention; reflects on the bulge of a male model, spots ‘a sign for Hooter’s at the Colonial Williamsburg exit / the owl’s eyes made to look like nipples’ (24) and appears to cruise, ‘wait[ing] at the bathrooms; / they smell of feces and orange cleanser / Yankee Candle’ (23). Nature, after all, will make its return, and the most pristine spaces must co-mingle with muck, human and otherwise. An ominous refrain towards the beginning of the poem - ‘A cellphone glows in a back pocket’ (9) - signals the mall’s impending obsolescence, its succumbing to the space of the virtual, and this in turn informs the poem’s ecological fixation, its avalanche of natural elements and catastrophic tableaux. Because this is what happens to shopping malls, eventually, as shown in the work of photojournalist Seph Lawless. Lawless’s portraits of abandoned shopping malls in economically precarious parts of America, malls now overgrown with vegetation, look post-apocalyptic, like a contemporary sci-fi iteration of the way Walter Benjamin conceptualised the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century; as repositories, in part, for the lost dreams of prosperity.
> The shopping area of Central Milton Keynes is now Grade II-listed by Historic England, and it is renowned for its extensive greenery, its line of trees that populate the grid. (The area as a whole boasts 22 million trees and shrubs.) The integration of the green and sub(urban) landscape is something that makes the centre of Milton Keynes more desirable and sustainable, a nod to the land’s past. But you could look at it another way; not as a symbol of origin, but of man-made transience. Whatever shiny promises the retail utopia makes, it is built, Farrell’s dizzying poem suggests, to one day succumb to an unknowable horizon, where the trees will be ‘all that remain of home’ (3).
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press)
Brady, Andrea. 2011. ‘Distraction and Absorption on Second Avenue.’ Frank O’Hara Now: New Essays on the New York Poet (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press). 59-70
Farrell, Nathaniel. 2019. Lost Horizon (Ugly Duckling Presse)
O’Brien, Geoffrey G. 2011. Metropole (Berkeley: University of California Press)
O’Hara, Frank. 1995. Collected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press)
Lost Horizon is now available via Ugly Duckling Presse.
Text and Image: Jack Parlett