Monkey Bars

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The result of Lippman’s perpetual contentiousness is a collection that is confrontational in the best sense of the word, interrogating the reader, himself, and America pretty much as a whole about child-rearing, over-medication, racism, consumerism and whatever else you’ve got.

W. B. Yeats famously claimed that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” In his energetic and peevish second collection, Monkey Bars, Matthew Lippman engages in constant or near-constant quarreling; however, he does his arguing not just with himself but with all comers, sort of Op-Ed-page-style, producing a book that is rhetorical and poetic simultaneously. Interviewer Elizabeth Hildreth has referred to them aptly as “Get your shit together, people kind of poems.”

In fact, he opens many of the pieces in the book with lines that seem to want to pick fights with specific individuals. The poem “Moses,” for example, begins, “Mike Goldstein is a bitch,” and the poem “Fuckhead” commences, “Alec fuckhead Baldwin whines/ because his motorcycle isn’t new enough.” Even corporations—increasingly defined in this country as giant unkillable people—are not immune to Lippman’s careening pugnacity, as when he opens “Wal-Mart Poem” with the assertion that “There’s never enough candy in the candy aisle at Wal-Mart.” He even argues, in the poem “From God’s Notebook,” in the voice of God, with the physical appearance of the natural world: “The ocean is not blue,” says God; “The sky is not blue.”

The result of Lippman’s perpetual contentiousness is a collection that is confrontational in the best sense of the word, interrogating the reader, himself, and America pretty much as a whole about child-rearing, over-medication, racism, consumerism and whatever else you’ve got. The title poem, “Monkey Bars,” for instance, comes out swinging against the over-prescription of drugs in the United States, including, but not limited to Lipitor, Adderall, Ritalin, and Wellbutrin before arriving at the conclusion that:

What really scares me is when they make that 500mg tablet
for getting back to that place
when there weren’t any pills,
when there was just the dizziness of laughter—
the wind in one’s face—
dying from laughter,
the joke funny,
the bust-the-gut hysteria, hysterical.

Throughout the book, Lippman positions his speaker as one who is not simply observing or describing, or even remarking on the way the ideas and things he observes and describes make him personally feel; rather, his speaker is judging—and at times condemning—said ideas and things. Lippman risks annoying the reader with his emphasis on morality and ethics. His provocations like “I don’t care what the hell you are/or call yourself, think you are, want to be” threaten to push the audience away, but his follow-ups like “It’s all a little silly and brave at the same time” pull them back in. Overall, what keeps his poems poems as opposed to screeds or manifestoes are his sense of humor and his unfailing playfulness.

In the book’s accompanying promotional materials, Lippman states that laughter is “the most important element. Got to be funny. Got to entertain. Humor is entertaining. Poetry has to be entertaining, that’s why it’s got to have those comedic elements.” Relatedly, he has expressed a desire to have his poems be as accessible and amusing as television. As if to illustrate this mission, he writes in “How to Fall in Love”:

The older woman in the red Honda
ran the stop sign
so I honked my big shnoz honk
but she gave me the finger
so I ran her off the road
and my daughter in the car seat said,
Dad, what did you just do?
It was like a Marie Howe poem
or a Dr. Pepper Commercial
featuring Dr. Dre
because you can’t make that shit up
especially when there’s a kid in the backseat
and the white-haired lady in the other vehicle
hits the gas
without looking.

Yes—Marie Howe plus Dr. Pepper plus Dre equals, somehow, a Matthew Lippman poem. Here, as elsewhere, his humor works to temper his judgmental critical faculty in large part for the way he is not afraid to turn it on himself. In his poem “With Black Man,” he makes himself as much of a target as anyone else, writing:

I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out
how to walk down a street
with a black man
and not notice
that he’s black.
How do you do that?
It’s racist.
It has to be.

Thus, even as his poems come across as refreshingly other-directed, so too does he keep his own habits on the hook.

Consequently, his book is not not irritating, but it tends to be irritating about things—“all the crazy fucking college kids,” “starved African boys,” “rich white corporate Don Henley dick suckers” and so forth—that probably should irritate. Self-consciously fun as the book is, it is also full of anger and longing.

The playfulness of the book itself invites the reader to play games, like “If Matthew Lippman’s Monkey Bars were a TV show, which one would it be?” Maybe Judge Judy, or some other courtroom-themed reality-based show—not because it’s set in a courtroom, of course, but because Lippman is forever passing snappy judgments in an outspoken fashion. Poetry with an attitude: dynamic and profane. Or maybe some other as-yet-uninvented show full of Sesame-Street-style short segments and MTV jump cuts, all intended to guarantee that you never get bored thanks to endlessly crazy leaps and associations—unapologetic scene shifts, as in the poem “Oranges,” from Warren Buffett to Thoreau to the Gotham Bar and Grill to the Capitol to Bill Blass to Thomas Jefferson to “Oranges, that when peeled, squirt brand new fifties.”

Whatever show you decide that Monkey Bars is, it would be one that could be described as refreshing and fiercely loving, but also irked and unsentimental. Or maybe a show that is itself hard to differentiate from the high-concept commercials with which it is intercut: loud and clear and utterly unsubtle. That’s not a complaint. Those are the kinds of commercials you like better than the show anyway.

Read The Rumpus Interview of Matthew Lippman, part of the Rumpus Original Combo.


Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author, most recently, of the novel in poems Robinson Alone and the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs. Find out more about her at kathleenrooney.com. More from this author →