Ghost Lights by Keith Montesano. Dream Horse Press. 80 pp., $17.95
Miscreants by James Hoch. W. W. Norton. 128 pp., $14.95.
Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning for over forty years. A seething, underground mine fire has created a ghost town: decades ago, many residents abandoned their homes, and those who remained faced eviction. Not only weekend entertainment for overanxious undergraduates, the empty town has been elegized in several poems and novels. Although Centralia is not explicitly engaged in Keith Montesano’s debut poetry collection, Ghost Lights, he does sketch a similarly charred, wounded Pennsylvania. This is not the pastoral state of Harry Humes or even the blue-collar postwar milieu of Gary Fincke; Montesano’s collection is closer to the work of James Hoch. Hoch’s subject matter is grounded in southern New Jersey—hours from Montesano’s western Pennsylvania—and both poets presuppose violence and suffering as adolescent passages. Hoch’s most recent collection, Miscreants, positions pain as the locus of the suburban male experience. In “Antarctica” boys “[knelt] on the dirt floor / of a dugout” and “popped nitrous / canisters into the communion shapes of our mouths;” years later, “those friends / are gone: some dead, dying, locked up / or jailed in themselves.” Delinquents become criminals, and not solely because of boredom, but also as a result of observing like action. The narrator of “Crop Circle” watches his father “[step] / heel-toe” in the mode of “checking his own sobriety” while he “measured out / a tetherball court.” The mundane is always colored dark: even basketball is burned in “The Court of Forgetting.” There “the air-guitar / player, the air-baller, half-court rim-clanger, the pimple-plagued conjurer of nipples” and other characters “[talk] trash, [snatch] loose balls.” The game, however poorly played, becomes a momentary solace:
they are all
sweat, hustle, break, forgetting minutes, hours,
deaths they’ve inhaled.
Ghost Lights accumulates in much the same manner as Miscreants, and achieves equal success. The ethos of “Bobby Almand,” the longest poetic sequence in Hoch’s collection, feels fully realized in Montesano’s work. Violence populates Ghost Lights: although Montesano plays with form and often opts for tightly wound couplets and triplets, his formation of tangible narratives is a welcome break from the stasis of some collections. Montesano does not force a singular, stringent narrative in the collection: though only a select number of poems are set in Pennsylvania, those firmly located pieces give the book its essential culture. Death abounds: burnings, suicides, murders. Elegies are numerous, and even in the poems not designated as such Montesano creates a sense of troubled determinism. “Before the Fires,” the first poem in the collection, portraits a man decked in “earrings and makeup stolen from his dead wife,” whose “wrenched sobs” happened
before the fires, before boarded doors
and everyone clawing, before a way out, roads collapsing
into potholes, telephone poles snapped in half,
hanging by the last nerve.
“Days of 1994″ focuses on a narrator who “found Annie’s letters / under our high school football bleachers” and learned “her hopes and fears.” His obsession with “the gray sheen of her teeth, and how ribs / snaked beneath her skin” happened “before the pot smoke and broken lamp.” Temporal reference points are again posited in “Deleted Scene: Before the News,” a tight, metered collection of couplets. The poem begins “Before the shrill cell phone buzz”; it ends with “the counting about to start.” Montesano appears intent on punctuating realities with these poems, offering temporal borders without pushing the poems too far toward melodrama. In fact, the accumulation of violence in the collection sensitizes the reader toward those moments when the scene is further dramatized, when detail supersedes litany.
“All the Sighs of Fire” avoids the easy lambasting of a teacher who impregnates a grossly underage student. The poem certainly does not side with the teacher, but rather, through the inclusion of first-person narration, provides flesh to the italicized summary of the work. The narrator’s “first instinct / was confusion.” The man’s “surname now ruined,” he is the owner of ” a brand even penance can’t rectify.” And yet the man “loved her,” though the narrator differentiates between that lust and the albeit imperfect, though “legal and true / long caresses or a few fleeting moments before sleep” between adult couples. Montesano builds a world where lust outmaneuvers love, where the desires of ephemera lead to permanent conclusions. In “Watching Youngstown” we see
skewed mug shots on television . . . raped girlfriend, duplex
cored from arson, a son shooting his mother. Stories
always the same: pummel and discharge, strangle and blood clot.
More stories are “the same”: suicide note penned by a former state treasurer, a teenager strangled by a coat hanger, Sam Cooke “shot by a prostitute in the Hotel Hacienda,” and a “body swelled under seven / feet of water / in Buzzards Bay.”
Ghost Lights, thankfully, is more than meditations on suffering and the suffered. Montesano’s subjects and tone travel more widely than those elements. A sequence of separated “Alternate Featurettes” offer meditations on selected films, expanding the visual range of the book. The poem for “Children Underground” contains the wonderful, yet troubling lines:
the wash of Aurolac fumes rises
like the breath of angels
cast from each child’s pleading,
wet and silver around their mouths:
bags huffed and bloated
like fish so far below the ocean’s surface
they glow and disappear
before our eyes
Montesano does not attempt to overwhelm his cinematic predecessors; rather he mines the original works for elements applicable toward his larger scope. His presentation of “Suspiria” focuses on “black gloves gripped” and “candy-colored light still threshed over wood floors / of the dance academy.” A reader unfamiliar with Dario Argento’s flm is given sufficient context within the poem, while one who does know Argento’s canon will appreciate Montesano’s willingness to play here, to wade where “the rain’s so loud you turn the volume to mute.” Even his poems unconcerned with cinema evince filmic qualities. “Meditation at Pymatuning Lake” reels toward the second-person, driving “past twisted street signs, trees / uprooted, roads pocked and gaping, everything swallowed / whole by night.” More tight lines follow: “For weeks your eyes culled shapes: swarming bats, gulped mice / in hawk teeth, wing beats like flitting eyes in sleep.”
Montesano hits his stride, impressively, in the final quarter of the collection, beginning with “Going Home,” a poem that turns the book in a new direction, the type of work that appears to speak toward future texts. Here a return home, the recognition of one’s metaphorical status as a ghost ,ends at “the house of your childhood” where from a second-person point of view, you “[fight] through / ditch grass, singed fields to broken back windows, edged / like knives.” A warning follows:
Be careful not to carve your shoulder on the shards.
Trudge through busted walls, shredded carpet, rotted doors,
toward the basement and the void inside the darkness,
dust settled on the debris, your undershirt soaked
at the shoulder from blood. And find that here
there is no past, just this memory, the wreck after you fled.
The individuals in Montesano’s poems may return home, but these reunions occur in the midst of transformations, transfigurations from flesh to ghost. Such evolution of flesh and form appears inevitable when the scope of violence and suffering within the text is digested. “Ghost Lights” concludes the collection. Possibly the strongest piece in the book, the poem is precise and brief, leading with “What about the part where the story ends?” The end means “our bodies [are] like machines. Charred like paper— / singed like leaves.” We are burned outside and in. Not much remains: “Bones dusted years from now— / leaving only their voices: We’ve shown you everything.” And so goes Ghost Lights: part catalog of local catastrophes given further significance, part revelation of the distance ashes spread before they settle and disappear.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer at Luna Park and an MFA student at Rutgers University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Cogito, Ergo Doom: Exit Ghost and the Rest of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Books Barrett Hathcock reviews the new, final Zuckerman novel and considers Philip Roth from the standpoint of all nine....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Nick Ripatrazone
Read more articles about books from Dream Horse Press