(Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015)
Simeon Berry’s Monograph—“a treatise or detailed study of one relatively narrow topic”—focuses on the failed marriage of the speaker and his ex-wife, N. Berry’s writing is hard to categorize; as the epigraph suggests, it at once feels like a treatise and detailed study, but also poetry, flash fiction, memoir, confession, and a series of vignettes. Berry states, “Don’t mistake this for language. This is a blueprint.” The genre of this collection, however, is less important than its smoothness. Across the bumpy road of this marriage, Berry’s collage slides the reader with ease.
Berry’s speaker—revealed on the final page to be known as “Q.”— is a poet, an occultist, a scholar, and a professor. He is sensitive and focuses mostly on physical intimacy in his relationship, often finding himself turned-on by intellect and obscure references; see the comical sexual climax, when, to a tied-up and blindfolded Q., N. whispers Clark Glymour:
His ex-wife, N., is bisexual, acerbic, witty, Catholic, intelligent, and filled with endearing autobiographical stories. Although Q.’s friends describe N. as a “bully,” it is hard not to find her the more dynamic and sympathetic character. With a sad grin, readers—as the speaker confesses to feeling about a famous poem—may “just feel sad for the poet’s [wife]. Sex shouldn’t be social work.”
Q. quotes N. extensively and admits “the attractive prospect” of revealing her secrets “as a form of vengeful performance art.” He is intent on making something of his experience, claiming “It couldn’t just be a mistake. It had to be a story.” Yet, he also believes that through speaking, words (and the pain associated with them) can be lost. He finds “their loss pleasurable,” going so far as to say that the words “had to be pointless, or they’d just turn into art.” The speaker is skeptical of Art with a capital A, reacting to the “clunky avant-garde poems” submitted to college writing workshops: “This is exactly what I go to literature for: self-referential failure.”
Berry’s are definitely not “clunky avant-garde poems,” and his work must be praised for its readability, its accessibility, the enjoyability of traversing this collection. The speaker’s tone welcomes readers, inviting them in for tea, biscuits and some minor reflections on catastrophe. The narrow margins set on the prose strophes make them a visual delight, and the eye gobbles them. But these poems are not merely pleasurable on the surface. Though they never hold the reader at a distance via their intellect, they are quite smart poems, filled with philosophical and religious debates, and peppered with allusions ranging from Raymond Chandler to Joan Didion to Leonard Cohen. Still, the strongest moments of Monograph allow the reader to recline in Berry’s complicated depictions of love, lust, desire, commitment, and marriage, to turn the page and learn that what previously seemed certain is now upended, and to realize that in relationships nothing is definite because so often “it was like whoever cared the most lost.”
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Jake Bauer is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University.