Oct 9 2023
Poetry review – DOMINUS: Charles Rammelkamp endorses Tiffany Troy’s poetic complaints against injustice
Expanding upon her chapbook, When Ilium Burns, Tiffany Troy develops the themes of justice and oppression, hope and futility, in her new full-length collection, Dominus. The title, a Greek word meaning “master” (or “owner” – of slaves), harks back to the oppressive character of “Master” who cruelly dominates the narrator of the chapbook. He’s back! Not all of the poems from When Ilium Burns (a clever self-reference as “Ilium” is another name for “Troy,” who burns with outrage as well as compassion), are included in Dominus, but the plight of the immigrant experience in America is at the heart of the collection.
The protagonist of Dominus works for a law firm in Flushing, NY. As Troy writes in “An Elegy for the Foolish and Undignified,” in which she extols the courage and accomplishments of various legal institutions and personalities (Ruth Bader Ginsberg among them, Thurgood Marshall elsewhere), ‘I must shed my skin as a little baby lawyer and morph into an Amazon.’ Her challenge is both personal and ideological. The challenge is to work within the system, with its inherent biases. “Master” – Dominus – is allegorical, the monolithic legal and corporate management system. It’s a vicious symbiosis. Troy writes in the poem, “Tongue and Teeth”:
The tongue and teeth must work together. We are always together.
The long poem at the heart of Dominus, “Morning Train,” involving the daily commute to work in New York, epitomizes the whole experience. It begins ‘This morning a man was struck by a train.’ Troy thinks of Anna Karenina’s ‘one wild leap.’ The ensuing drama affects everyone: ‘every single one of the multicolored pack of us // feels it, this intimacy / caused by grave injury.’ With sardonic reference to Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” on the base of the Statue of Liberty, its message of welcome to immigrants, Troy goes on later in the poem to describe the passengers, ‘we the huddled masses yearning to get to work on time.’ So much for “to breathe free.”
I would be lying if I never thought of leaving the legacy of exclusion and broken promises behind. In the beginning, all we could do was eat, shit, and money.
When the poem ends, after a litany of injustices, both slight and wounding (‘We are all servile to the system.’), the narrator recalls:
Standing, waiting for the 1 train the day before with Mama, I told her at least I didn’t get shoved toward the track. “Yet,” Mama said.
In another poem, “Plus Ultra,” Troy further reflects on the sham of the American Dream, for so many immigrants:
The great-granddaughter of the glazier does not remember the waves of the Hudson River, only the echoes of the failed pronouncements at Ellis Island reverberating years later, as she frames the drone frequenting the low skyline.
The protagonist’s personal struggle is spelled out in the poem, “Telos,” the Greek word signifying purpose, goal. She writes:
The enemies I slay are not dragons but scarecrows I burn for every girl I ever was, every girl who thought maybe she had wronged the world by existing.
Troy’s sarcasm can be biting. In “Heart’s Exile” she asks, ‘Who’s telling you off for not knowing how to do not-your-job?’
The poem, “Shepherd Girl” starts with the reflection, ‘In a perfect world, I can hand in my resignation letter / and call it quits.’ But no, it’s really not an option. The poem ends:
At night, when I can no longer believe in that toxic positivity that I’ve poured my heart into, and look where it’s gotten me, I wonder whether if I wear the mask and smile in this redemption arc, will I truly be saved, and if so, whether I won’t become a shell imprint of my former self, and be unable to love?
Indeed, will the system simply grind you down? What are your options, between slim and none? To buy into the “toxic positivity”?
Troy’s literary references are prodigious and impressive. Many are from the Greek and Roman classics, Homer and Ovid. She illustrates her toxic relationship with Master in “At My Trial” with an allusion to Procne, Philomela’s sister, whose tongue was cut out, the story about the origin of the nightingale, as related in Metamorphoses. Odysseus and Aeneas are frequently referred to, along with ‘the widows of burning Troy’ (“A Twinkie’s Love Song”), Sybil of Cumae (‘who sang of Annals / of Spring and Autumn where kids were grilled / and eaten’), and in “Metamorphosis as Cassandra,” the narrator compares herself with the cursed daughter of King Priam of Troy, whose prophecies were ignored. She alludes to ‘Gatsby’s junkyard’ in the poem, “Plus Ultra,” with its own echo of Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Dostoyevsky, Whitman and Machiavelli make an appearance as well.
Still in the guise of Cassandra in the final poem, “The Sky,” while waxing philosophically about William Blake, who ‘calls experience, a truth / that often mixes cruelty with nostalgia,’ Troy ends the collection on the ambivalent but still hopeful note:
At night, I wait for nostalgia to wash over me as the cold air reminds me of the wheel of fortune, and of grown men who know no letters averring that’s how America works: You either cooperate or starve. I stand up and look out again. It’s lighter, the momentarily pink light. I care for these men who talked over me, the way I desire to touch the sky.
Tiffany Troy is as strident about the need for justice as she is frequently despairing about the deck being stacked against the less powerful. It’s an exquisite balancing act that she juggles throughout this collection, and the balls are still up in the air when the curtains close.