The Ruins of Nostalgia 59

We felt nostalgic for libraries, even though we were sitting in a library. We looked around the library lined with books and thought of other libraries we had sat in lined with books and then of all the libraries we would never sit in lined with books, some of which contained scenes set in libraries.   *   We felt nostalgic for post offices, even though we were standing in a post office. We studied the rows of stamps under glass and thought about how their tiny castles, poets, cars, and flowers would soon be sent off to all cardinal points. We rarely got paper letters anymore, so our visits to the post office were formal, pro forma.   *   We felt nostalgic for city parks, even though we were walking through a city park, in a city full of city parks in a country full of cities full of city parks, with their green benches, bedraggled bushes, and shabby pansies, cut into the city. (Were the city parks bits of nature showing through cutouts in the concrete, or was the concrete showing through cutouts in nature?)   *   We sat in a café drinking too much coffee and checking our feeds, wondering why we were more anxious about the future than anxiously awaiting it. Was the future showing through cutouts in the present, or were bits of the present showing through cutouts in a future we already found ourselves in, arrived in our café chairs like fizzled jetpacks? The café was in a former apothecary lined with dark wood shelves and glowing white porcelain jars labeled in gilded Latin, which for many years had sat empty. Had a person with an illness coming to fetch her weekly dose of meds from one of the jars once said to the city surrounding the shop, which was no longer this city, Stay, thou art so fair? Weren’t these the words that had sealed the bargainer’s doom? Sitting in our presumptive futures, must we let everything run through our hands—which were engineered to grab—into the past? In the library, in the post office, in the city park, in the café, in the apothecary... o give us the medicine, even if it is a pharmakon—which, as the pharmacist knows, either poisons or heals—just like nostalgia. Just like the ruins of nostalgia.


Copyright © 2020 by Donna Stonecipher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 8, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I began writing this series while thinking about ‘Ostalgie,’ the nostalgia for East Germany, and my own feelings for my hometown of Seattle, which is changing so dramatically with the growth of Amazon and barely regulated influx of capital. ‘Nostalgia’  was invented as a diagnosis in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, designating a pathological homesickness in mercenary soldiers. Over time, it came to signify longing for the past rather than for home. Svetlana Boym wrote that nostalgia ‘is at the very core of the modern condition’: once time began to be understood linearly rather than cyclically during the Renaissance, the backward glance opened up to longing. At a production of Faust in Berlin, I realized that the words ‘Stay, thou art so fair’ (Verweile doch, Du bist so schön), which will seal Faust’s doom, can also be understood within the framework of nostalgia and linear time. If time is cyclical, there’s no reason to ask anything to stay, because it will eventually return. And I began to sense the fragility of everything I took for granted that might someday disappear, even things that seemed permanent, like libraries and the post office.”
Donna Stonecipher