Diane Raptosh’s American Amnesiac examines the struggle for identity in a world where there’s so much of it around. The technological, media-driven world offers us selves at every turn, every time a television is turned on or a mouse is clicked. Raptosh shows what happens when stable identity evaporates and the self encounters forces that try to shape it.
Her protagonist, Cal Rinehart, has lost his memory so completely that his name is simply a piece of information he picks up from his surroundings. Distanced as he is from that identity, however, he comes to consider the name “John Doe” and what it means to be an anonymous person without distinction or definition:
The name’s John Doe. And I am a place, the holder of a pose.
All selves serve as other people, and I’m no exception.
Calvin J. Rinehart must be some fabulist’s rendition
of a different face. Or turn of mind. I’m John, complete
with silent middle h. (5)
The silent letter hints at the tension that drives American Amnesiac. Are we silent at our core? Or does modern life deny us the ability to voice ourselves? Raptosh’s work is challenging because it interrogates the most fundamental thing about our experience: that it is unified in the self. Cal is unable to pull everything that happens toward him, to filter it through a familiar singularity. In Raptosh’s work, the unambiguous pronouncement of stable being is not possible. Instead, the poems here reveal the extent to which our surroundings attempt to speak for us.
Shattered subjectivity has been with us since modernism, of course, but what makes Raptosh’s book so compelling is the extent to which the world is less of a backdrop and more of a pulsing and adaptive membrane that tries to shape us. Cal’s haunting Google search is a memorable example:
Last night I was looking for bean recipes. I forgot how to spell fagioli.
The laptop came at me with its unease: Did you mean: fragile? (35)
The environment in which these poems take place is not the poet’s natural world of trees and valleys and streams, nor is it the contemporary family of so much twentieth century poetry. Instead, Raptosh creates a world that emerges from the internet, song lyrics, blogs, and SAT analogy tests. Though some references seem almost random, they succeed because they replicate the randomness of modern experience. And in a disturbing way there is a sensibility to this electronic background information. In a sense, the book challenges the reader to enjoin the struggle facing its protagonist. We must sift through the crossword puzzles, news blips, and wordsearches to recover what we can of meaning when so many are thrust at us.
On one hand, Raptosh destabilizes any comfortable answer, leaving us with only questions, only the search: “I continue to organize files into masses of clues” (27) or “The self is a thousand localities / like a small nation” (66). It is only the effort of organizing stray and disconnected experiences that comprises contemporary life. The clues are never solved, just amassed. Identity is the act of living rather than any cohesive, underlying self. Identity is epistemology not ontology.
On the other hand, however, something inevitably remains:
I’ve survived my own extinction, like a freak marine
reptile. I have to feel what I think or I can’t find who
I want to become. I wax into what I listen to (64)
The “I” still speaks, though he is dispersed into the world. He waxes into what he listens to, but he nevertheless survives. This persistence is based on a new, interconnected sort of being that touches everything around it. At the end of the book, one might view Cal/John Doe as a sort of “powerful entity” that exceeds himself because he is not tied down by selfhood. He points out that “Some cultures avoided the true names of powerful entities / and hailed them obliquely. Or labeled them Nameless” (72). Though Cal is nameless, he is so because he acquires too many names rather than losing the one he had. He is diffused, a “bouquet of vowels [. . .] whose sounds yield great notions” (72). American Amnesiac is an epic poem of sorts – to the extent that our age allows the possibility of an extended and culturally unifying narrative – and it asks us to consider notions of greatness that run counter to our usual veneration of the individual. Cal’s loss of identity is an unsettling, ominous, and particularly American condition, but, in Raptosh’s hands, it also opens up the possibility of a positive transformation.
-American Amnesiac was published by Etruscan Press in 2013.