Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Safe at Home:
A Review of Julie Bruck's Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch
Julie Bruck
(Brick, 2012)

The sort-of title poem of Montreal native Julie Bruck’s first collection The Woman Downstairs (Brick, 1993)—entitled “The Woman Downstairs Used To Be Beautiful”—embodies many of the traits that still distinguish her work almost twenty years later. Its first two-thirds read:

This summer she’s grown huge, a ham with legs,
she lumbers below, watering her garden with a hose.
From my balcony, the evening light seems kind
to the extra flesh, soft
on her print shift, the scarf that holds back
her dark hair, and for once I want to believe
she’s not unhappy, not stuffing her face
to fill in the distance between her
and the unusually thin husband who travels, not hiding
in the body of the proverbial fat woman,
passed in the street without notice.
Instead, she wants to be of consequence,
clearly visible to her small son stationed
on their balcony, that he never lose sight of such a broad floral back,
think she might leave him, vanish in the leaves below.

As throughout her work, Bruck’s speaker here positions herself as a keen observer of the lives going on around her, a tendency that led an early review of the collection in the Dutch academic journal English Studies—would we ever be reviewed there now?—to smartly surmise that the poet herself must be “an inveterate people-watcher and eavesdropper.” The frequent observational vantage of Bruck’s poems helps shape their characteristic tone: empathetic yet distanced, too attuned to her subjects’ humanity to fully objectify them and yet rarely allowing this attunement to quaver her verbal precision—at least until the emotional lift that usually comes at the ending (more on which to follow). Indeed, the sort of unadorned precision we see above has become the hallmark of Bruck’s style; “stationed” is the least common word in the passage (and it skillfully conveys both the son’s watchfulness and his slight unwillingness to stay on the balcony where he’s been placed). This straightforwardness of diction, combined with a relatively slight reliance on figurative language and a commitment to free verse over set forms, means that her work often reads like lineated well-written prose. Granted, the persistent caesurae dividing the above lines serve to somewhat rhythmically embody the before-and-after of the woman’s appearance, but overall (and like much of Bruck’s work) the poem swerves clear of the pejorative prosaic largely by striking a tone that readers will recognize (it hopes) as poetic. This comes particularly clear in the poem’s final third:

But the wail that comes from him’s a thin, unwavering cry,
as if he never comes up for air, this wordless child’s siren
of come back, not enough, too far, that has brought me
and, gradually, other neighbours onto our balconies
to look first on a small boy, who, thirty years from now
will turn his life over, say: there was always
too much of her, she swallowed me up—and then down
on a fat woman, breathlessly bending.  

This ending finds the speaker proffering an interesting psychological suggestion: that as he grows older, the son will come to resent the dependence he once had on his mother, to blame her for his future failures of independence. The woman’s growing fatness thus serves to figure this parental “swallow[ing]” of the dependent child, just as her lost beauty comes to figure the transfiguration of that dependence from an innocent, natural state to a smothering one. As in much of her subsequent work, Bruck here proves herself an acute, subtle chronicler of the strength and strains of parent-child bonds. But alas, there are problems here: going back through the poem, one can’t help but be struck not only by the patness of the few metaphors (“ham with legs,” “child’s siren”) but by how its entire edifice rests upon a foundation of cliché. In her classic manual A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie warns us against mistakenly regarding cliché as a strictly verbal phenomenon, highlighting the perhaps greater danger of “clichés of feeling” (or what I like to call emotional clichés)—and these are largely what “The Woman Downstairs Used to Be Beautiful” offers us. Beginning with the title, with its stock evocation of the loss of beauty as a standard source of disappointment for ageing women, the poem moves through a series of tried pseudo-insights: the fat woman is probably “stuffing her face / to fill in the distance between her / and [her] unusually thin husband,” but perhaps she’s not, perhaps she’s gorging herself because “she wants to be of consequence,” wants not to be “passed in the street without notice”—at least this is what, in the “kind[ness]” of the “evening light,” the compassionate speaker would like to believe. For all her observancy and compassion, though, it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through the poem, when she allows for the stranger possibility that the woman may simply want to remain “clearly visible to her small son,” that the speaker imbues her subject with anything more than a caricatured fat-person psychology. This is too often the case in The Woman Downstairs: despite their verbal precision and even lucidity in observing the quotidian, too many of the poems take emotional shortcuts, mistaking well-phrased banalities for insight. This title poem actually stands as one of the better-realized pieces in the collection (I first encountered it in Carmine Starnino’s anthology The New Canon) and is indicative of the book’s central strengths and shortcomings. 

Bruck’s second collection The End of Travel (Brick, 1999) is a stronger book: while still in free verse, the poems overall are formally tighter, less given to swell prosily toward the right margin, and they employ figurative devices both more often and more effectively. So while the now San Francisco-based Bruck’s characteristic distanced-yet-empathetic tone remains firmly in place, and while her range of subject matter remains fairly circumscribed—parents and children, fraught love and friendship, and the ever-presence of mortality, all rendered from a perspective that feels distinctly autobiographical—The End of Travel nonetheless conveys artistic growth. Collection opener “Sex Next Door” (also anthologized in The New Canon) finds Bruck at her concise best:

It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs – tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always), until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch,
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.

This free sonnet does everything right: from the first line’s deft simile, which sets out the poem’s central conceit of the neighbours’ sex as a kind of rickety Lethean ferrying; to the conceit’s further development in “as a boat rubs its pilings” and “pushing off / in their rusted vessel”; to the way the verse’s modulations evoke the rhythmic lapping of waves against hull; and at last to the ending, which eschews sentimental lift in favour of dark ambiguity. As one of Bruck’s many ‘neighbour-poems’, this one succeeds unusually in balancing the speaker’s arm’s-length sympathy for the woman (“she is so frail and short of breath / on the street”) with her odd and even potentially transgressive position as listener-voyeur (“I want it to continue”). At her best, Bruck holds a place as one of contemporary Canadian poetry’s most determinedly (and successfully) social poets, a writer over whose imagination the transfixion of people-watching—and of piecing together other people’s lives from snippets of anonymously observed detail—exerts a vital and productive hold. Still too often in The End of Travel, though, her poems lapse from sharpness into sentimentality; much more common than unqualified successes like “Sex Next Door” are middling pieces like “Greene Ave.”:

Montreal’s blazing in tufts
of acid green and crabapple pink.
Clouds mass at dusk behind
Mount Royal like additional summits,
as my father noted yesterday
from his favourite chair, pleased
as he should be with the rented view.

Framed by my office window,
two elderly women in pink suits
with matching handbags and shoes,
twin iced confections, swirl
across the parking lot to lunch.

It rains, the sun comes out;
a young girl in white begins
her slow, meditative dance
around each parked car.
The pastel ladies reappear, fold
their legs into the Seville.

Alone in their vacant space,
the girl in white spins and spins.
A man pees behind a parking meter,
hails a cab with his free hand.
The cab pulls over, the cab
will wait, and that ring is my rented phone.
Anything to be that girl, turning.

Ah yes, and who doesn’t long for the careless freedom of a young girl? This poem begins well, with the vivid, sonically dense metaphor of Montreal “blazing in tufts / of acid green and crabapple pink” and the simile comparing clouds over Mount Royal to “additional summits.” With the entrance of the speaker’s father, however, the language flattens out; the last three lines of the first stanza do nothing except communicate information in a utilitarian manner. This touches on a frequent shortcoming of Bruck’s work: she often seems more interested in chronicling her life than in making art, and so substantial swathes of many of her poems consist of autobiographical detail transcribed with seemingly little attention to sonic or figurative concerns. Often—as in the descriptions of the elderly woman, the young girl, and the peeing man that take up the middle of the poem above—this commitment to transcription succeeds in lending us the impression of a observant, intelligent, verbally meticulous speaker, persuasive in her determination to chronicle the urban lives she observes. But description—even when enlivened by deft metaphors like the one that transforms the elderly ladies into “twin iced confections”—can only take us so far. When it comes time to transfigure this described material into insight, to take the rhetorical risks that lift the best poetry above skillful notation, Bruck too often falls flat: “Anything to be that girl, turning.” Whether out of a too-firm commitment to autobiographical verisimilitude—i.e., to sincerity over artifice—or a too-high tolerance for sentimentality, she too often defaults to the most obvious (and most obviously poetic) emotional responses to the situations she depicts.

This fundamental shortcoming still haunts Monkey Ranch (winner of the 2012 Governor General’s Award for poetry), but as with the interval between her first two collections, the twelve years between The End of Travel and this one have clearly seen Bruck further hone her craft. Her subject matter, too, has expanded; though still concerned primarily with family—and especially, here, her own close family, with husband, growing child, and ageing parents—and secondarily with the urban backdrop to this family drama, she has infused much of her material with a marked political concern. This is evidenced in the very title of the collection’s opening poem, “This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin.” The poem reads in full:

My husband said he felt human again
after days of stomach flu, made himself French toast,
then lay down again to be sure.

I took our daughter to the zoo,
where she stood on small flowered legs, transfixed by the drone
of the howler monkey,
a sound more retch than howl.

Singing monkey, my girl says.
She is well-rested. We all are. As we slept, cold spring air arrived,
blown from the Bay where San Quentin
casts its sharp light.

Tonight, my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so) about what she
saw in the raised cage.
Monkey singing, she will tell him,

and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
and fallen asleep on her knees.

This is a wonderful poem, illustrative of Bruck’s greatest strengths—an eye for telling detail, verbal precision, and a kind of luminous regard—and yet figuratively and formally richer than the majority of her work. Note, for instance, how the first line—“My husband said he felt human again”—subtly casts a contingency over the man’s humanity, thus resonating with the title’s evocation of capital punishment, an institution that many argue dehumanizes us all. As it proceeds, the poem nuances this motif of dehumanization through the contrast between the “small flowered legs” of the daughter and “the drone / of the howler monkey, / a sound more retch than howl,” juxtaposing the girl’s cultivated yet almost angelic innocence against the basic guttural cries of our primate brethren. (At the same time, the monkey’s “retch[ing]” connotes disgust, perhaps reflecting the speaker’s stance on the titular execution.) The child’s innocence is further emphasized by her characterization of what she sees in the “raised cage” as “Monkey singing,” which works to convey her obliviousness to the injustices of captivity and killing that frame her zoo visit. Though he lacks the excuse of childhood, her father, too, takes his freedom for granted, remaining “restored, even grateful” only “for a day or so” after his illness. The closing tableau of the child, in a crib-cage of her own, having “fallen asleep on her knees” in a posture of inadvertent prayer, swerves clear of sentimentality through its utter figurative aptness—the way it draws together in a single image the poem’s motifs of animality, captivity, and ultimately, hope. “This Morning” succeeds as both a domestic poem and a political one because its two scales of concern are so deftly interwoven: while referencing execution only in the title, it manages to embody, through symbolically resonant imagery, both a stance against the death penalty and a sense of civic culpability in regards to it. That it stands as one of a handful of Bruck’s best poems is all the more remarkable because—though as I’ve said it does embody many of her typical strengths—it is also notably anomalous amid her body of work, both for its figurative rigour and (especially) formally. It is the only poem across her three collections that isn’t fully left-justified on the page, and is all the better for it: its weaving indent and alternating line lengths mitigate against the potential prosyness of the verse, setting out a rhythmic and visual analogue of a mind grappling with the moral complexities of the situation the poem sets out. (Ken Babstock has mastered this technique of using indentation and varying line lengths to create complex rhythmic and epistemic effects.) Based on the evidence of this excellent poem, Bruck would be well served taking more formal risks of this sort.

A more cynical and perhaps churlish response to a poem like “This Morning, After an Execution” would be to charge it with simply using political context as backdrop to lend undue weight to what is ultimately a quotidian domestic scenario—with deploying the fact of capital punishment to cast a eulogistic glow over the homey safety of the family circle. Though I don’t agree with this assessment in terms of that particular poem, a similar objection does trouble me at various other points throughout Monkey Ranch. Take “Election Night with Dog,” for example:

It bites, still pees in the house,
barks at every change, pulls
against the leash as if it just located
someone unsniffed since high school.

But when the young senator from Illinois
was declared President-elect, our child
watched, cross-legged on hardwood, weeping
for joy, the scruffy new dog in her lap.

It smells very bad when wet.
As she listened, it licked and licked
her streaked face, while she ran
both hands rhythmically down its spine,

head to tail, head to tail, and
then, for a second, I saw
the aisles of a cracked sidewalk
down which these two can travel:

A girl of strong feeling, and her
crazy dog, on a long, loose leash.

If this were only a bad poem, I could ignore it. If it were simply a slice of domestic life in flat, uncompelling language, sentimental and virtually void of resonance metaphorical or otherwise, then I could readily pass it over. Unfortunately, though, it is a bad poem not just verbally, but ideologically—a poem that tries to lift itself out of banality by deploying Obama’s election in the hope that the significance of that historic event might help to sanctify its artistic inadequacies. In other words, it’s a poem that brazenly (and one might even say cynically) attempts to transcend its status as a domestic vignette by partaking of the cachet of the ‘political’ realm. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it were as well-realized figuratively as “This Morning, After an Execution”; but here the attempt in the last two stanzas to lift the poem into metaphorical resonance—Is the “cracked sidewalk” symbolic of a divided America? What, politically, might the “girl of strong feeling” and the “crazy dog” represent?—fails utterly, and Bruck falls back (as she often does in her earlier work) to substituting a poetic tone for the rigours of actual poetry. As it is, then, the poem’s political pretensions amount to little more than a paean to the parents’ enlightened liberalism—even their young child weeps at Obama’s victory—while any reference to contentious subjects such as race, inequality, or the future of America’s wars (i.e., the central issues around which the hope in Obama constellated) is resolutely avoided.

This is my issue with much of the “political” content of Monkey Ranch: it is riskless. It dips its toe in the political ocean just enough to say it has swum there—and glean the congratulations even such meagre toe-dipping commands in our alarmingly apolitical poetic culture—but without any chance of having to battle the tides. In poems like “Election Night with Dog,” “The Help” (a nod to domestic servants), “Goodwill” (a sketch of a low-wage Goodwill employee), and even “Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad” (a journalistic account of an distraught Iraqi father’s search for his son’s body in post-bomb wreckage), any explicit political position is carefully and safely avoided. Those inclined to disagree with me will say, “So what? Art isn’t politics. Bruck should be applauded for engaging without soapboxing. As a literary critic, you have no right to criticize her politics or lack thereof,” et cetera. To which I reply: one can’t have it both ways. A book cannot be simultaneously congratulated for its politics—George Murray’s Globe and Mail review lauds how easily it moves into “deeply political” terrain—and yet immune to an examination of what precisely those politics entail. Snuggled in CanPo’s comfortable confines, we too often fail to acknowledge that our option to remain aesthetically “apolitical” is itself enabled by the political imperatives our governments and economic systems impose on those elsewhere, whether within our borders or abroad. Bruck’s work—while not entirely blind to this—often seems to want to gain the prestige of being “political” while never embodying any point of view that might arouse controversy, to quail at the death penalty or sympathize with the lot of servants or grieve at civilian deaths in Iraq or weep at Obama’s election, all while carefully avoiding even the slightest reference to the contentious issues that orbit these events.

The word that keeps occurring to me is bourgeois: not in the colloquial sense of middle-class—though Monkey Ranch, which besides many tributes to affluent nuclear family life, also contains poems on subjects like horseracing and closing up the summer family cottage, and so clearly embodies a specific class position—but bourgeois in the more nuanced sense sanctioned by Marxist theorists since Marx himself, designating the ideology of the “independent citizen” whose troubles and (especially) successes may be safely insulated from those on whose exploitation they depend. The bourgeois, in other words, is one who denies the reality that her or his material existence is utterly interdependent, who persists in the illusion that true material independence is even possible. This illusion inflects many of the poems in Monkey Ranch—“Gold Coin,” for example, the first stanza of which reads:

Two weeks past Chinese New Year, red
paper children and dragons still drape
the copy shops and nail parlors.
I wheel the baby through the street’s bright offer.
She hoots and points her articulate,
fat finger: comic books, pantyhose,
Beard trim $4.50, and the Chinese name
for a certain kind of orange, Gum Chin Chang,
posted above the fruit like a musical score.

From the title on down, San Francisco’s Chinatown is cast in purely economic and aesthetic terms, as the shops and their colourful contents amount to little more than sensory delectation for speaker and baby. Though “the copy shops and nail parlors” hint that this isn’t a particularly wealthy neighbourhood, this registers with the speaker only in how “the street’s bright offer”—note how the metaphor transforms the street itself into something to be consumed—peddles inexpensive wares: “comic books, pantyhose, / Beard trim $4.50.” In the final stanza-ending flourish, the Chinese language itself becomes an aesthetic object, “posted above the fruit like a musical score.” Through its first half, “Gold Coin” is notably well-articulated—its imagery is vivid, and that closing simile is apt—but it is also a exemplary ideological artifact. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the poetry of the capitalist status quo, where when undertaking the task of writing a poem about North America’s oldest Chinatown, the poet studiously avoids any reference to the messy facts of history—e.g., that the area was settled by immigrants recruited as cheap labour in the development of the western frontier—or any exploration of cultural particularity, instead choosing to remain on the safe and level ground of consumerism, where foreign cultures reach us mainly through the weird things they sell and their general redolence of the exotic. The poem finishes:               

What gives this day such perfect pitch,
a held note against the usual desolations?
The baby laughs—there’s a white moon up there—
as we rattle west with the hand-me-down stroller.
A new girl in town and her mother (new
too on this particular morning), we’re rinsed
with sunlight and wind off the Bay, glossy
as the scarlet envelopes you can buy here
by the pound and stuff with money,
meaning luck.

Of course, the poem isn’t about San Francisco’s Chinatown at all, but about the speaker’s beautiful day spent with her child. But to answer this stanza’s opening question: what does “give this day such perfect pitch”? Isn’t it at least partly (as the first stanza suggests) the sense of freedom and aesthetic satisfaction one feels, as a relatively affluent white person, strolling along soaking in the consumerist exoticism of Chinatown? And isn’t there a hint of defensiveness at this privileged class position in the speaker’s insistence that it’s not just a stroller she pushes, but a “hand-me-down stroller”? I’m not implying that poems set in such ethnic enclaves ought to take full (or even any) account of the historical and economic realities that mediate one’s relation to the place, but I can’t help but think that if Bruck had been willing to engage with her setting on anything other than an aesthetic or consumerist level, she might have found something more interesting to say than lines five-to-seven’s sentimental glorying in the “rins[ing]” power of “the sunlight and wind off the Bay.” Beyond the reference to the Chinese practice of giving money in red envelopes at special occasions like the New Year, I still can’t decide whether to read the final lines’ evocation of “the envelopes you can buy here / by the pound and stuff with money, / meaning luck” as the speaker’s tacit acknowlegement of her privilege—i.e., I have money therefore I am lucky—or evidence of her bourgeois obliviousness—i.e., having money is just a matter of luck. I think probably both.

I’ve taken the deliberate rhetorical risk of engaging politically with Monkey Ranch—a move that I know will alienate and possibly even anger some readers—for several reasons. First (and as I’ve said), the book proclaims itself from its opening poem as politically engaged, and although that one poem succeeds, the overall terms of the book’s engagement trouble me. Second, I want this review to embody a sense of risk that Bruck’s work rarely does—not just politically, but rhetorically and even formally. I’ve repeatedly praised Bruck’s verbal precision, the descriptive vividness of her style at its best. The flipside of this, however, is that her work rarely startles with a sudden odd conceptual shift, or thrills the ear with chiming sonic patterning. When thinking of traditions or poets to which I might ally Bruck’s work (besides the lineated near-prose that characterized much of the dominant mode of Canadian poetry from the 1960s to at least the 1990s), I settle on Elizabeth Bishop, who serves as the subject of a poem in both The End of Travel and Monkey Ranch. Indeed, Bruck’s prosy free verse stands above so much similar work because of her Bishopesque powers of observation and phrasal care. On the other hand, however, Bruck is like Bishop purged of not just her formal virtuosity—Bishop excelled at even the most difficult fixed forms, while Bruck doesn’t attempt them—but her eccentricity: nothing in Bruck’s body of work is as unabashedly strange as “The Man-Moth,” for instance, nor does she favour the sort of daring rhetorical leaps that lift “The Fish,” for example, into its “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” moment of transcendence. Instead, whether formally, rhetorically, emotionally, or politically, Bruck’s work tends toward the safe route, rarely off-putting readers with any outlandishness, but lacking the sense of hazard that marks the artform at its best. To use a sports analogy: Bruck’s poetry often reads like it’s playing not to lose.

For this reason, the oddest poems in Monkey Ranch resonate as some of the best: whether the formal anomaly of “This Morning, After an Execution”; or the surrealism of the title poem, which opens, “Our monkeys were striped / green and yellow, except / for the red and white ones”; or the short, concise highlight “Scientists Say” (After Neruda):

Deep in the seabed,
when the Twin Towers fell,
two enormous tremors
rocked the eels
of Jamaica Bay, Queens.
A small disturbance
under the great water,
quickly settled. Now
they lie like circles
of the earth again,
mating and devouring,
dressed in ritual mud.

In a book that returns and returns to the family sphere through a first-person lens, the third-person detachment here is refreshing. The decision to trace the effects of 9/11 to “Deep in the seabed” allows Bruck to find a dark metaphor in the disturbed “eels / of Jamaica Bay, Queens” (a locale domestic and yet deceptively exotic sounding, helping make the poem both global and local, specific and mythic at once). That the eels—long a symbol of a kind of destructive phallic desire (as in Shôhei Imamura’s film The Eel)—lie now “like circles” hints at the historical inevitability of humanity’s destructiveness (as embodied, for instance, in the symbol of the ourobouros, the snake eating its own tail), an idea that resonates through the last two lines, which further point to the almost religious obsessiveness with which we sully ourselves by destroying each other. Though I still can’t help but think that such a poem would benefit from some sort of metrical patterning—which would only serve to strengthen the circularity and inexorability at its thematic core—this poem does succeed, largely through the skill with which it transfigures the central image of the “rocked” eels. Another element of its success, though, inheres in its point of view: while many of the other politically inflected poems in Monkey Ranch end up serving as little more than tepid advertisements for the speaker’s compassion, the shift into a mythic register here virtually absents the speaker, foregrounding the imagery and thus voiding the question of political stance. (*) This isn’t to say that many of the collection’s first-person pieces aren’t strong—poems like “Why I Don’t Pick Up the Phone,” “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972,” “Love to, But,” “The Trick,” “Missing Jerry Tang,” and “How to Be Alone" are all skillful social/familial meditations in what has become Bruck’s signature style—but however accomplished, their consistent plumbing of similar thematic and formal territory leaves one cherishing any opportunity to dwell, even if only for a few poems, beyond the collection’s well-appointed comfort zone. 

(*) Bruck’s work has been repeatedly lauded for its “compassion.” In a better world, congratulating someone for being compassionate would be as ridiculous as congratulating them for being bipedal—so essential would compassion seem to any meaningful conception of humanity.