In Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, she instructs the reader to approach poems using what she calls a “provisional reading” method. This requires a reader to consider not only what the poem says, but also all the directions a poet could have taken when he or she was writing the poem. The intention is to have an active reading process, to maintain a permanently tentative stance toward the poem. Suddenly, the poem is a living thing, not just a set, determined meaning. The poem is an unfolding contingency. And, as readers, we appreciate what the poem is doing by considering all that the poem could have done instead. It is careful advice to follow when reading Julie Doxsee’s The Next Monsters. Though I might suggest that advice would be better reversed. For in The Next Monsters, Doxsee’s poems are often busy doing much more than I would expect to see them doing. As though their meaning is contingent upon the reader selecting the best images or dramatic situations that were written into the poems. Or, to use Kinzie’s framework, my “provisional reading” doesn’t require me to imagine what might have been included in Doxsee’s poems, as it feels as though Doxsee’s poems are already offering both the extraneous and the essential.
I would ague that Doxsee operates under a poetry of context. And by context, I am thinking about the dominant premise she uses for bundling together the images and characters for a poem, or an entire book. Not that it should be tidily bundled, but there should at least be something binding it all together so I can see how to fit together the pieces and form a meaning, however elastic or “provisional” that meaning is. But The Next Monsters contains so much information. It is dense, voluminous and sinister. It is information rich. It is impression overload. To my reading, Doxsee’s book stands at the exact boundary between sense and too much sensation or too much information. The Next Monsters is constantly falling into disassociated pieces in my mind, even while the style of the poems are not what I would expect to fall apart. I should be clear, I am normally an advocate for this kind of poetry. Anna Moschovakis’ You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake or Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan or Brenda Coultas’ A Handmade Museum. These are books of overinformation that I will extol, that I will lose myself in. How do I distinguish The Next Monsters, then? The style reminds me, actually, of these newish sculptures by the artist Carol Bove. Bove arranges sea shells using metal rods to hold them in place. The whole piece is very severe, and I often feel antagonized by the work. Why? I don’t know. I feel challenged. I feel like there is an excess of control in the pieces. And that’s what I like them for.
There are many times in The Next Monsters when I see Doxsee maintaining a balance between the arbitrary and the sensible. The “Cabin” poems, for example, where she presents a fixed set of characters. A fixed location. The poems accumulate a sense of consequence. Here, in “Cabin” [I am at the cabin. My husband has come back…], the third poem in the sequence:
Again I test each one and my thumb cramps and I throw them into a corner of the room. I didn’t see you at the pond this morning I say.
He squeegees his fingerprints across the wood. Metal grinding against metal is the sound of the lighters as I test them. I didn’t see you at the pond this morning I say.
The lighters are broken, empty, all of them. She has gold ribbons in her hair and again he doesn’t want to say he was there. I take his hand off the table and squeeze it. I ask if he wants to drown.
The entire series of “Cabin” poems operate under a conventional scenario: the speaker questions her husband’s whereabouts. In this poem, she creates a menace with the sound of metal grinding against metal. She offers him comfort while suggesting his death. For my reading, I can feel this situation, and it feels stagnant with anger and fear. On top of that, it feels taunted by that stagnance. There are set parameters, and the movement of plot throughout the sequence questions this stagnance. In fact, I would say the movement of plot is simultaneously resisted and sickened by a continually renewed set of troubled images. I admire the anxious and toxic tone here. And I admire its presence throughout The Next Monsters. When I am making sense of the book, these kinds of impressions are the very basis of it.
At other times I feel the pieces of the poem have been too self-consciously placed. And as a result, I find myself disconnected from what I think should connect these poems together. “Last” is one of a healthy handful of poems that I feel are committed to an overstylization of the image. Here is the first prose stanza of “Last”:
You come out of the ditch sunburned, wanting breakfast in continuous sunglasses. At 10:00am your facial scuff shown. Drudges make slants of the perfect light you let the low light counterfeit, champagne flat since the first pour. Pout about how air wanes. I wind up holding your long-lost suitcase in my fist after unbinding my hands. You pick me up fireman-style.
I can make the connections here. “Continuous sunglasses” connect to the rough face shown by “facial scuff,” and that connects to picking the speaker up “fireman-style.” This figuring a manly man for the poem. In addition, I can connect “low light counterfeit” with the flat champagne. And for me I see in this some muted version of what’s to be expected from any damsel-in-distress kind of scene. Why do I feel disconnected? The extended sentence conflating light with champagne. The arbitrary nature of a ditch, a drudge and the suitcase, not to mention the suitcase is only being held after the speaker’s hands are unbound. For my ear, the pieces of this poem feel too controlled in their place.
Which leads me to my biggest concern in this review. Perhaps I’m not taking Julie Doxsee’s poetry on its own terms. Should I be reading these poems the same way I view those Carol Bove structures? Do the poems intend to push the reader away, and that is part of an aesthetic tension? I came to Doxsee’s work through the long poem, “Vertigo & Bone Room” that appeared in Octopus Magazine 14. And I have since been looking for that poem, and that poem’s style, to appear in her books. All this to say, I may be biased for what I want to see in a Julie Doxsee book. Reading through Objects for a Fog Death, her previous book, I find myself with similar thoughts about how expressiveness tends to be secondary to her arrangement of images. But I like an art that can make me feel that. And that’s where I finally place Doxsee’s The Next Monsters. Why does it antagonize me so?