On Justice Thelot’s ‘Stonemilker’

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Justice Thelot’s Stonemilker is a compelling debut poetry collection, published by Nueoi press, that cunningly traces grief, love, and isolation amidst a tech dystopia. Thelot’s book of poetry presents largely sparse, short stanzas situated among clouds of white space. The writing is for the most part continuous, without titles to break up each section into distinct bits or poems. Moving through this collection mimics the feeling of traveling through contemporary life, that is to say––language being somewhat connected, somewhat disconnected, a narrator plagued with thoughts and worries and observations, surprised by moments of joy, jarred and activated by reminders of the larger capitalistic forces at hand.

The book begins with a simple couplet: “With no phone / there’s no you” thus catapulting into a collection that looks head-on at technology’s unyielding hold on our lives. And a few pages later: “morning bus rides / dreaming of all the things / i could do / with a data plan.” I found myself profoundly affected by this, thinking about the purity of dreams, which feel as if they should be divorced from earthly things, perhaps something more primal or subconscious––capital T Truths about what we desire and yearn for. I found myself wondering––is it possible to even know these things about ourselves? To access them without operating through a lens of objects, tech, external validation, the interconnectedness that being on the internet has forced us into? To (not) answer my own question: I truly don’t know. Thelot’s text reminds us that capitalism has infiltrated even our dreamscapes.

“who in their right mind would purchase a condo?” Thelot’s writing on tech dystopia also moves into brilliant prose-ish text that dissects the absurdities of ownership and property through the shining example of the condo. He writes:

you can tell condos have become a commodity because every single
unit is the same. the same countertops, the same stove, the same
sink, the same shower, the same — you can customize your walls
with the art of your friend who insisted on being a painter which is
sad because they would have made a damn good financial analyst.

NEWS REPORT: big-headed doctor buys high-ceiling condo.
(only logical.)

how did we get here? cave, then hut, then condo?

The condo is a modern flattening of experience, a version of home that is simultaneously sterile and representative of a deeply uncomplex version of success. Yet:

the condo has everything to succeed. it provides us with the
proximity and shared spaces for communal living. but practically
it fails. we stay, doors locked, cloistered. a bunch of
tech-savvy nuns.

The condo, like phones, like the endless scroll, like these mega-companies that keep consolidating and forcing us into less and less options for where we give our money, creates further division and loneliness. We work and work to purchase a space that keeps us away from vibrant reality. We work and work to own an apartment that looks like a thousand other apartments. And of course the “we” here is not most of us––is not me, or probably you––as the idea of property ownership is so far away from the financial possibilities of my future. It is an unreachable goal, yet one that I can’t shake. I associate ownership with a proper version of adulthood and happiness. That is what the endless scroll tells me, and despite my “intelligence” or habit for critique, the scroll creeps into my head, shaping me in undeniable ways.

Even among the book’s apt takes on isolation, it also makes space for attempts at combatting such feelings. The narrator isn’t wholly passive or alone, and reaches out towards others. There is remembrance of family, of homes past, and an invocation to a repeated “you”––

i would become
the wind
blow leaves
until my lungs prune
to see you smile

And several pages later:

in the future
i am no longer
in love with you

The inclusion of such stanzas further grounded the collection in reality, poignantly conjuring the desire for an other that persists even in our highly disconnected capitalistic era. We try to measure progress, create control over the ways that things develop and happen for us, but love evades such controlled logic. Perhaps we are all this:

a romantic oracle
by apocalyptic obsessions

I know that I am, or at least, that I am controlled by such forces––the tug and pull of romantic hope…and then also financial / ecological / political doom. It is both and. I know that I too am “hoarding clues / in search of the meaning of ‘us’.”

The final sections of Stonemilker introduce titles and headings for the first time, delightfully playing with form and line breaks, leading the reader through a partially numbered list: miracle #1, miracle #3, miracle #6, miracle #8. The miracles take up themes of forgiveness and apology, suffering and the painful passages of time. These sections grapple so honestly with the dark side of what is being written about. Like yes, we have our punchy social critique and the communal musings on how fucked up Amazon is, but underneath that is often the presence of a heartbreaking sadness and loneliness. Regrets. A heaviness whose force grows stronger.

I love endings of books, of poems. Final lines can be so powerful. In my own writing, I find final lines to be so difficult, but when you craft a good one, it feels ecstatic. Thelot leaves the reader with a gorgeously pensive set of questions:

is it unjust
to beg
the eroded heart
once more

to ask
can we

There is a sense of hope rendered in these lines, at least to me. As we suffer through so much increasing powerlessness, we wonder if it’s possible to try something new, try something else, or try again. There are so many things that we––you or I––cannot control, fix, or eradicate––but we can reach towards another and attempt to find connection, even as our hearts tell us that such things have the potential to increase our pain. It is not unjust to ask “can we again?” I think, perhaps, it is necessary.

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About Justice:

Justice Thelot is a poet based in New York. His writing focuses on the consequences of technology, love and capitalism, and sometimes their intersection. His work has been published in literary journals in London, UK, Montreal and Toronto, Canada.

About Sarah:

Sarah Yanni is a poet, writer, and researcher in Los Angeles. She has been recognized as a Finalist for BOMB Magazine’s Poetry Contest, the Andres Montoya Letras Latinas Poetry Prize, and others. She currently serves as Managing Editor of TQR. 

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