Gothic dreamscapes and hypnotic investigations of the self beguile the reader of Monica Ferrell’s debut collection.
The books of poetry I find the most depressing these days are full of well-behaved, very polished, very sound, technically accomplished poems. Such books often resonate like struck crystal: sweet, but hollow and quickly dispersing; they make me wonder what these expensive things would sound like if dropped on a hard, oily garage floor. Such pleasant poetry takes few risks, and as a result offers few rewards, or reminders of poetry’s capability to unsettle, to disturb, to remake the familiar into the strange, or the strangely sacred.
Thank goodness, then, for the poems in Monica Ferrell’s debut collection, Beasts for the Chase, which startle, challenge, and claim “Not the rose but the rose’s stratagem, its sweet / Guidance into the dark maze where it kills the bee.” To read these poems aloud is to feel the pleasure of phrases like these in your mouth: “fountains purl like minxing cats,” “this / Emberish volcano dangerously aching at its core,” “To flux the snakebite I swallowed the whole / vial of venom.” In this book, a mouth becomes a “speak-trap,” and the word “difficult” becomes a verb. Like chartreuse liqueur or Gorgonzola cheese, the book’s pleasures are richly idiosyncratic and often disorienting in large doses, but a welcome departure from the milder tastes of the day.
The opening images of pagan sacrifice in the frontispiece “Harvest”—“Tonight the lares have eaten their offerings. / The sweetbreads are gone, black kidneys / Infantine and nacred as mollusk-eggs”—establish the preoccupation with ritual which dominates Ferrell’s collection. The rituals of the hunt, of games, of holy feasts, of the stylized magic of fairy tales—all suggest the speakers of these poems are seeking a fixed, reliable set of gestures which can bring order to their sense of displacement and loss; poems like “Self-Story as Spheres of Egyptian Industry” and “Eleven Steps to Breaking up a Hart” are resonant examples.
But while the speakers strive to read their experiences through these lenses of ceremony, no single approach seems to settle the crises of self at hand, as we watch the poet repeatedly take apart and reassemble herself. In “In the Binary Alleys of the Lion’s Virus,” she remarks that “now I am just a husk / Of armor with the gray squid of memory inside—I have forgotten / Land and tongue, I have forgotten everyone.” In fact, many of these poems function as “binary alleys” in which we encounter a speaker divided against herself:
[…] she and I correspond, we have the same
Knot here in our left chests so you can tell
We are cut from the same blasted tree:
The grain of one’s wood never changes, you see. (“Echo Digression”) […] I am like a girl asleep in a dream
of herself in a dream in a dream of herself
as a Russian doll with its many selves […] (“Homecoming”)
In places, the poems are reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s sonic textures, as well as her sense of the gothic and the surreal, particularly in “At the White Quay”—“Ill, ill. He shook his head, I paid the pundit again, / I paid him with my fat wallet of tears. Ill, ill, ill.”—and “Nighttalking”:
Queen of the future, I will wake with amethyst eyes
When the moon has finished with her witching.
Then all the gold lights of heaven will fall in me like seeds
And sprout marvelous trees, drooping with heavy love.
Despite these stylistic resemblances (not to mention a compelling charisma), Ferrell has greater faith in the possibility of change. The poems in Beasts for the Chase are often dark, but rarely are they bleak. Though the speakers wander in the labyrinthine recesses of their own psyches, they approach these explorations with a strong sense of curiosity and adventurousness, an enduring belief in renewal. In “After a Rest: Palimpsest,” a stalk of gladioli, with its multiple flowers in various stages of blossom, becomes a symbol of the multiplicities of the self: “[they] prove metamorphoses / insist, constantly altering, superseding faces / into palimpsest. I cannot be afraid of my future.” Determined to resist singing “the same old song, / Only magical for never changing,” the speaker of “Mohn des Gedächtnis,” vows that “I will live through it: burn it up / With my breath. For after all I am alive / While what is past has lost that art.”
As much as her poems may thrum with the allure of the past and linger in dreamscapes, Ferrell understands the dangers of surrendering to escapism and living wholly inside the mind. Her poems refuse to stay still, mining the past and dreams for the discoveries they afford. Readers are guided through ancient Alexandria, the frescoes of Pompeii, even the poet’s “birth-theater,” by a hypnotic imagination working in concert with a lively, compassionate intellect.
The rewards of this book don’t always come easily, though, and sometimes the excesses of language and the obliqueness of certain narratives can be overwhelming. Jane Hirshfield, who selected Beasts for the Chase for the 2007 Kathryn A. Morton Prize, expresses, in her introduction, an admiration for the book’s “willingness to enter experience fully, to bear fully its price and brunt.” This also describes what the poems demand of their audience: more than just reading, they require immersion. Indeed, this is what is at the heart of genuine risk-taking in poetry—not the desire to superficially shock, or to strike a perversely anti-literary pose, but to encourage readers to take risks as well, treating the conjoined acts of writing and reading as a shared exploration of mystery. How lucky we are, then, that Ferrell has invited us to hazard the mysteries of the self through her work, to join her as she hovers across the strange landscapes of her poems, “a floating signifier / In the floating city of fire.”
Read “The Hour of Sacrifice,” a new poem by Monica Ferrell, published today in The Rumpus.