The Available World by Ander Monson. Sarabande Books. 72pp, $14.95.
What happens to all the old, new things after two or three new, new things replace them? And what of the ideas and memories of which they are ultimately extensions and souvenirs? This is one of the larger questions, really, that Ander Monson poses in his most recent collection of poems, The Available World, though he does so in varying shades of subtly and explicitness. His discontent with the ever expanding, ever forward-moving present manifests as an ambivalent nostalgia, part hostility, part intrigue. “Everything here is swaddled in static,” he writes. This metaphor could serve as the descriptive core of the collection.
What is at hand, not what is to be dreamt up, what is to be recollected—Monson’s work draws its content from just that. And forget about tranquility. Monson, who grew up in the 70s and 80s, has had his perception shaped by material proliferation and change. As an example, in the ambit of pop gadgetry and culture the cassette displaced records and the 8-track; the CD overwhelmed the cassette. Now the CD has lost its luster. Once, it’s true, buying a computer meant choosing from a scarce selection apart from an “amber-screened Tandy, least sexy of all / conceivable IBM-compatible computers.” Innovation can seem inviting but it can also be the province of dispossession; in particular, dispossession by devastation of choice.
The poems take on many guises, including lists, elegies and, most notably, sermons. “Availability,” Monson’s most dense list, reveals just what is subject to inclusion and attention. Name it: “Princes. Prints of reclining princes, contemplating euthanasia: / a hundred doors opening in front of you until they curl closed / with a swish. And yes. C’est oui. And wine. Manuals for response / to wine.” Moreover, as entertaining accompaniment to the wine and wine manuals, there are “All of actor Wil Wheaton’s thoughts, collected.” Here the static starts to hiss and crack. These things do not match up, though they are often forcibly paired. On the one hand, the odd combination effects a certain ironic, celebratory humor. On the other, it jibes at rootless, middle-class appetites.
The kind of fraught relationship Monson has to The Available World stays what could otherwise lurch into didactic delivery from on high. He does not shy from implicating himself in an imbroglio of fleeting trends. In “Dear Boar,” a sort of elegiac epistle for a wild hog Monson inadvertently clobbered with the grill of his Nissan on an Alabama highway, he reappropriates the memory of “a burst of ham ambling afterward into the trees” as an opportunity for introspection.
And I see you circling back in dreams,
in the temperature of fur I picked out of the grate
(there is always more of it: tied flies
barbed later in my brother’s shoulder, that Russian winter
hat I wore through most of eighth grade in my short life
as a Communist, the dried out dandelion bursts
that haunt late summer evening air in Iowa
like paratroopers, like perspiration).
Monson not infrequently forces recollection through some form or another of technological mediation. In the case of the boar there is the car, which cannot avoid coming off as a source of injury. So too, not infrequently, the curiosity shop’s worth of technological apparatus in the poems appears smudged, darkly tinged, neither shining nor enticing. The following lines from “This Simulation: Tour,” a poem touching on memory, doubt, and reality’s unreality, illustrate the point: “You can see yourself in it if you reduce / the resolution low enough so it all goes / to dot and RGB representation of light. / Yes, that’s death you’re seeing.” The creative manipulation of additive color mixing can produce dazzlingly representational images, trompes-l’œil perhaps more lifelike than life. Seeing a constituent part—“yourself”—of the overall image necessitates breaking the primary colors away from one another. All the animation of the illusion seeps out between the seams.
Given the degree of pathos in such messages, it is a further credit to Monson’s self-awareness that the language with which he delivers them never runs away from him into a haughty or supercilious style. The language is, in fact, apt and it carries the poems with verve. Even in the case of the sermons, typically outlets for rhetorical intensity, sometimes invective, a cooler degree of poeticity tempers the more firebrand lyricism attendant upon the tradition of this form.
“The Calculus Sermon” pleads against the incessant enumeration of physiological woes. “Oh Christ then enough about the body / and its wealth of fault, its gilded inside / and all of its unhappiness and ruin.” Interestingly, the invocation that begins the sermon actually verges on blasphemy and positions itself contrariwise to any latent ecclesial implications. The twisted invocation establishes the expectation of further wryness, but still more interestingly, it never comes. Instead the tone shifts momentarily to an almost Romantic exaltation of human form channeled through natural wonder.
There are things beyond all this—cirrus
clouds glancing on the horizon, thunderheads
meaning upcoming inclement threat of hail
and dangerous ground-to-sky electricity
that is to the air like a strike of love
or a tenth-frame drunken turkey comeback
so improbable as to stun your friends into
submissions and promises to resume attending church.
The body is a beauty, silhouette
There is something deft in the transition from the wispy sibilants of “cirrus / clouds glancing on the horizon, thunderheads” to the more booming and palpable “meaning upcoming inclement threat of hail.” If lofty imagery threatens to carry the poem away, the bowling image grounds it securely, nearly to the point of collapse. If anything, it testifies to Monson’s willingness to draw afflatus from the entirety of his environs. Granted, the results are not always glamorous—bowling appearing in a poem being a case in point. But it’s the same churning current of any and all opposites running through the book that Monson intends to make a reader feel as an uncomfortable pulling sensation at the moment of this appearance, and at other moments like it.
Inclusiveness, coupled with ambivalence, leads to the most salient aspect, or non-aspect of the sermons—but, really, the argument could be made for the whole book. What it is, is that these poems stop blatantly short of prophetic utterance. They come up approximately half of the way to it. For prophecy, in its most pared down sense, is twofold. It is observational and inductively inferential. A prophet acutely observes the world over a long duration, studying its tells and tendencies in order to, next, construe the signs of the times into prognostications of what will follow. Monson writes so many of these poems as if they were snippets from logbook entries. That is to say that they do draw detail from the past and the present as it ineluctably yields to the past. But, that detail drawn, a wary restraint impedes its further progress into the future.
Now, Monson certainly believes in a future. He simply refuses to affirm an eschatology, let alone hint at it in his poetry unless playfully mocking it or gainsaying it outright. In the “Sermon, Now Encrypted,” he asserts that “There is not a land beyond this one when / the screen is cleared and our lives have been / lifted away like a spider net is from a set of ferns, / unfurling.” Of course there isn’t, not in a book so enmeshed in the fray of immediacy. These poems limit readerly experience to human moments, past and present, in a tenor that is utterly human—the alliteration and assonance of “Ferns, / unfurling,” for instance, more or less mark the ceiling of artifice. Voices and subjects range, but never too high and never too low, hovering over a meditative middle ground. This is not necessarily ground easily won; sometimes it is downright wearisome to negotiate through everything base and illustrious in The Available World in order to meet Monson halfway. Yet, it’s worth it. And in the end, it is the reader who must venture into prolepsis by considering what may yet come to pass, as suggested by the book’s final “Sermon in Ribbons:”
our hands and faces up to God or light
cast down from satellites and ask for something new.
Fill in the blank for “something new” as you will.
Derek Gromadzki is an MFA student in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. His poetry is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Conjunctions, and Drunken Boat and has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Black Warrior Review, CutBank, The Journal, and other publications.
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