(New York, NY: Black Ocean, 2013)
As a well-bred, attention-deficient, “multitasking” reader, I always have at least two books open, bookmarked, and in progress at any given moment. It’s not simply about having variety, or feeding different parts of the brain, but often about the strange complementarity that arises. One book leads to an idea, which leads to opening another book, which reflects back on the original book, which leads to opening a third, and so on. To paraphrase Paul Valéry, a thought is never completed, only abandoned. Julie Doxsee’s The Next Monsters set me fidgeting, reading and re-reading. Doxsee’s prose poems are delicate in their construction, if not their sensibility. They’re reminiscent of old Celtic art, loops and knots of iron that hold the secrets to their allure in underlying geometrical patterns not immediately obvious to the naked eye.
So what was it that helped me grasp Doxsee’s subtle geometry? Oddly enough—or not, since these kinds of connections invariably come from odd places by their nature—it was an early passage in Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth: “When you come to something you can’t explain, do not gloss over it; stay with it, wrestle it. Confusion is your quarry. Rejoice when you find it, bear with the pain it inflicts, and don’t let it go until it gives you a new name.” Hecht was talking about the Biblical Jacob wrestling the angel, and I was wondering about these monsters with whom I was currently wrestling.
Doxsee writes, “When we hunger we eat. When we hurt we analyze.” And by the time I had reached these lines, late in the book, I was firmly in the latter mode. Doxsee has a knack for finding little bruises you’d forgotten or didn’t even realize you had. The mild vertigo that follows contains a tiny dose of euphoria, though. These little bruises we’ve carried for so long; never fully disappearing, embedding themselves in what feels like the normal order of things, the baseline. “It’s the permanent, not the fleeting, that hurts.”
This vertigo manifests in several ways. Many of the poems can read like incantations or spells. “Girls On the Run/Two Hours On the Island” brings to mind Ashbery’s book-length poem Girls On the Run and the Henry Darger work on which it was based. It’s overtly sexual and, like the majority of the poems in the book, also sensual, but do the undertones hint at sexual trauma, or something altogether more vague and ambivalent? “I am what I remember.” Is it the anguish of desire (or even of guilt)? “[I]t is a sick surge aliens feel when they discover skin made for men’s pleasure sucks clouds out of the air.” Or what do we make of this line? “In an ungoverned land a slick and subtle shock brings lightning cut from the next monsters.” The book’s title appears “cut from” an image—lightning—that’s repeatedly evoked throughout, to the point where it even shows up in firefly form.
Another source of dissociation emerges from Doxsee’s use of the “I”. It’s revealing, but it doesn’t feel confessional. When she writes “I am you” who is the “I” and who is being addressed? Are we supposed to directly inhabit the “I” here? If these are letters, they are just as well composed to the self as much as by it. “I have sprouted from the universe, from a broken loudspeaker no one heard.”
Amid this whorling and whirling, there is the simple pleasure to be taken in Doxsee’s sentences. The shortest poke and prod, while others take their time to uncoil before baring their teeth:
A man and woman who live in the middle of a town-flattening tornado made of one million quiet sweaters may never know devastation.
Her rhythm and balance culminate in a music that’s both pleasantly unfamiliar and hits disconcertingly close to home.
One physically quivers from her lines, yet for all the superlatives there is a downside. Through the book’s middle—mostly the sections “Cabin,” which reads like a story-within-a-story, and “The Last Monsters”—the poems feel overly occluded, reluctantly, if ever, opening themselves up for the reader. But upon reaching the section/poem, “The Key to Moving Correctly Without Running Into Obstacles,” there is a shift leading to a line that actually does feel like a key: “Words should find the physical and let it bruise, and they do bruise after one cuts them open to learn or to never learn how they tick.” If not exactly revealing the secrets that have preceded it, this line at least gives an indication of how “form coddles the cookie-cutter twilight.”
We are led down a medieval warren, hesitant, but our guide sports a wry smile and a reassuring laugh, informing us: “These cities above us: wasted volumes hushing a life woven straight from the shadow we move through like carcasses.” By the end we’re running, breathless. We’ve scaled so many steps and can now see across the roofs, the occasional street corner or public square coming into view. What felt like isolated moments string themselves together—the laundry dodged, the pentecostal tongues bleating from vendors’ stalls, all the shadows name-checked and pink-tinged illusions alluded to on the run to sun up. Where before you said “you smear me on the naked fog,” the fogs now burn off at these heights.
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Alex Crowley is the poetry, science, and history reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a co-curator of Brooklyn’s MENTAL MARGINALIA Reading Series. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Handsome, Big Bell, InDigest, and BORT Quarterly.