Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope
Barrow Street, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Sadler
I want to say reading a Frank Montesonti poem is like watching a Wes Anderson film, everything wrapped in irony then wrapped again in a glibly bright track suit, but irony and deflection are not solely what Montesonti is going for.
I want to say reading a Montesonti poem is like taking a mild hallucinogenic drug, one that just slightly alters the reality you perceive, thus both exposing the world as a fraud and opening new planes of existence to your senses, but that’s not quite right, either.
I want to say my heart yearns for the over-complicated days of my young self figuring out the world, that Montesonti has captured that zeitgeist, put it in a bottle of Drakkar Noir and sprayed it all over the abstract expressionist print silk shirts of my middle school dances. But the double edged sword of nostalgia is just a part of Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, the first full length collection by Montesonti. (A second collection, Hope Tree, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2014, thank the lord).
And speaking of the lord, I want to say this book helped me find god, but instead, it led me to the dirty hamper of “Heaven’s Undershirt,” where whiskey is served along with the bible in hotel drawers to help us “warm to the idea/ of living forever,” and all new poems written by poetry students are about piranhas. Don’t get me wrong. This book is very much about the spiritual. It is the joyful and futile search for spirituality and meaning, squarely in the realm of the everyday, corporeal world, that permeates this book, and it exposes us in its moments of simultaneous humor and despair, deflection and acceptance.
Take, for example, a passage from the poem “One Last Waltz on an Ave Maria.”
Goldenrod bent to forward slashes. Sparrows thrown
________like handfuls of mud from one power line to
What little I had.
Each gravel driveway frozen in its flow to the street.
Been praying over a jar of Miracle Whip?
The initial natural imagery, concrete, fresh, slightly askew, turns inward to a prayer over a jar of fake Mayo. Similarly, in “Heaven’s Undershirt,”
Dear Reader, One night when I was still becoming
a man, the moon threw down its white, wet
underclothes on the tree branches in my front yard
And since then I’ve been shocked.
So I tried to forget. To float away. A hiss of dark
________liquid and I’d join the sky.
I don’t love myself.
Two lawn chairs so close they’re kissing.
The coordination above, of the everyday observation with the sublime question of a prayer, is a common combination in this book, one that deftly points out the nature of our individual spiritual questions, as they invariably happen in the midst of an everyday context clearly focused on elevating the importance of physical things. One could see the speaker as a pathetic Buberian, or a postmodern pioneer, but most of us cannot deny experiencing revelation in a similarly plebian context.
Another key aspect of Montesonti’s work is the use of surreal imagery to tear back the surface of reality and examine what’s hidden underneath. Montesonti offers new and surprising comparisons, mixing and matching the details of his observations like a Rubik’s Cube.
In “Untrue Story in a Small Town,” the narrator states, “I carry my darkness like a black/ doctor’s bag,” and in “Train Ride to Yourself in Handcuffs,” the narrator hears, “the echo rolling across the fields and down/ to the river. A noise, a cloud of blood that must/ have held itself intact before the wind marched/ the layers off.” In “Film Noir,” we see, “the boat lights tacked to the sea at night with butterfly pins.”
Such imagery, paired with the jumpy search of a solitary voice, has the reader looking at these combinations like an abstract painting, looking for meaning but wondering if the thing is anything actually “real,” an act that emulates the poet’s own search for meaning in the confusing swirl of details around him.
There is an abundance of fun and play in this book, as in the pastiche commentary of “Every 1930s French Novel,” and the aforementioned “Piranha” (one of my favorites), and the moments of humor offer us respite from the self-doubt pervading the book. The self-deprecation is at times so desperate as to appear suicidal — as in “Last Poem in a Book,” in which the speaker is trying “to get comfortable/ with leaving this world, this/ ocean, these trees, the long/ wheat grass, having hardly/ touched a thing.” — but other moments offer transcendence in the face of depression and solitude. My favorite such moment, at the end of “One Last Waltz on an Ave Maria,” turns the big questions on the questioner:
Forgive the movement and the co-pilot and the flying.
Forgive who turned up the volume of the snow.
Forgive the soldiers, who were told to fire when they
saw the whites of eyes because there was still some
idea of heaven in war, of salvation,
And later in the poem,
that when I pray, I whisper, so no one but you can
hear me, for at times when I lace my hands together
to open the line it seems the biggest betrayal to ask
for another world,
Blight is peppered with moments of clarity, doubt, joy, and pain; its imagery fluctuates from concrete to abstract to surreal; what holds the collection together is its underlying search for more, followed by the varying reactions when more is found in the most unexpected places. DA Powell, this year’s judge for the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, selected an enjoyable, enigmatic book, one worthy of reading and re-reading.
Matthew Sadler is the author of The Much Love Sad Dawg Trio (March Street Press, 2011) and Tiny Tsunami (Flying Guillotine Press, 2010), both collections of poetry. He currently serves as a poetry editor for Versal, a multinational literary and art magazine headquartered in Amsterdam, but he lives in the Detroit area of Michigan.