Friday, May 9, 2014

Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope by Frank Montesonti

Frank Montesonti
Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope 

Barrow Street Press

By the numbers
ISBN ISBN 978-0981987675 
Publication: 2012 
Total pages: 83 
Number of poems: 36


I met Frank Montesonti last spring when he was a featured reader at the First-Sundays Readings and Open-Mic here in Bloomington, Indiana. Frank is a one-time Hooiser who attended Indiana University. He now lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at National University. After hearing him read from his book Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, I immediately purchased it. After reading the book, I knew I wanted to review it and am delighted to share this review with you here.

Also, I had the opportunity to interview Frank. Click here for the interview and to learn more about him. Frank has since published a second book. It’s a book of erasure titled Hope Tree (HOw to PrunE Fruit TREEs). I’m looking forward to reading it!
Nancy Chen Long


(This interview was conducted via email in January 2014 and was first posted in Poetry Matters.)


Frank Montesonti’s debut full-length book of poetry Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope,  winner of the 2011 Barrow Street Book Prize chosen by D.A. Powell, has much to recommend it. It's filled with emotionally-charged poems that embody the human condition: ambiguity, ambivalence, the simultaneous holding of contradictions, the greater and lesser strains of beauty that frequently attend sadness. The language is often witty and clever, the tone at times sarcastic or glib. While some of the poems are humorous, taken as a whole, the mood tends to be one of sadness or despair. These are poems that grapple with issues of sobriety, trust, love and not love, God, loneliness, science, and culture, all the while exploring and challenging what we hold to be real.

The title of the book has an exuberant wordiness that brings to mind Walt Whitman. And simply glancing through the book, one can see the celebratory length of the Whitmanian line. Most of the poems lean towards a longer line; some of the poems extend into prose and could be said to approach the lyric essay. Although there are strong prose-like elements in some of the poems, those who are looking for a definitive narrative arc, a straight-forward story, won’t find one. In Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, there is no unifying narrative that imposes order and creates understanding. Instead, there is much of the postmodern in these poems: an indeterminacy that marshals the reader  into active participation to fill in gaps and craft his own meaning out of the text, notions of hyperreality in which one is unable to tell the difference between reality and a simulation of reality, an emphasis on the visual, the view that language shapes our reality, and a self-reflexivity that highlights its own artificiality, such as a poem that lets the reader know that it knows it’s a poem, at times breaking the fourth wall, in which the speaker of a poem addresses the reader directly.

There is an intriguing disjointedness and fragmentation to Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope—various images, scenes, and language that at first blush might seem unrelated, but collectively form a satisfying whole. I experienced the thirty-six poems, with their varying degrees of disjointedness, like scenes in a movie—not a linear sort of movie, but more like a montage of images and scenes that taken together form a cinematic-like experience. This cinematic thread, which includes film-related diction, references, and allusions, is one of the organizing forces of the book.

Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope is an impressive and poignant book. Satisfying on a first read, it also amply rewards repeated readings. The poems are deeply layered, rich with metaphors, allusions, and multiple meanings. Each time I return to a poem, it's like a present being unwrapped—I discover something new. 

A Closer Look

To give you a better idea of what you might find in Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, we'll take a mini-tour through it using the cinematic aspect as a map: First, we'll take a brief look at the opening poem, which establishes a cinematic reading of the book. Then we'll turn to one of the prose-like poems, one that involves the film The Wizard of Oz. The third poem we'll look at is one with shorter lines in stanzas; it involves the film It's a Wonderful Life. We'll conclude with the last poem, which reinforces, as well as closes, the cinematic reading.

The first poem of the book, “The Incalculably Long Geometry of Sobriety,” is set in winter ("November always starts out this way"), with a speaker who is wrestling with sobriety ("A week since my last drink. The falling from the high blue"), who is probably in Chicago ("apartment staircases in Chicago.") So within the first few lines, we encounter some of the motifs that help stitch the book together: winter/cold, sobriety, the Midwest, and the color blue. (The full text of this poem can be found in the interview, which is here.)

The book's motifs combine to support its various subjects, and in this first poem, two notable subjects are introduced: loneliness (“O Loneliness. / I love the staged heartbeat of a Coke shouldered from the machine”) and loss:

Out there in the snow is a kid in a blue sweater with a head full of bronze gears
who is trying to grasp the incalculably long geometry
of loss and life. I’ll miss him too.

The various subjects in the book in turn form the foundation for what I believe is the theme of the book: a questioning of reality, an assertion that life feels like an imitation, like
 something less than. In the third stanza, we encounter the start of the groundwork for that theme and an invitation to a cinematic reading:
                                  … You feel like a movie,
rapping on someone’s door,

then you’re in a movie;
you could swing the camera around and watch the brickwork of snow.

It's likely that the poem is a monologue, so the 'you' in the above snippet is the speaker talking to himself. When the speaker says he feels "like a movie," he could mean that he feels like watching a movie. However, if we let the words stand on their own, he could be saying that he feels like an a movie. When taken together with the line that he's *in* a movie, the speaker calls into question the reality of his life at that moment, and in the doing, he starts the groundwork for the theme.  

The next poem on our brief cinematic mini-tour is “Quitclaim of the Wizard of Oz.” It also questions what we hold to be real. “Quitclaim of the Wizard of Oz” is one of the longer, prose-like poems. In it, Montesonti hijacks the movie The Wizard of Oz and beams it into his own universe. The Wizard appears to be the speaker in the poem. Since a quitclaim is a renunciation of any legal claim to rights, at this point the title seems to suggest that the Wizard has given up his rights to the Land of Oz. The first few sentences of the poem read like a script. The first stanza suggests that the Wizard and Dorothy are not in Oz, but perhaps are in their mutual home state of Kansas or somewhere in the Midwest:

Edge of reaped cornfield. Stood there. Dorothy jump cut-materialized and ran into my arms. “What happened to the scarecrow?” she asked. “You were the scarecrow,” I replied.
“I knew all along,” she said, brushing back her hair.

While the beginning of the first stanza is script-like and suggests a movie, we learn in the second stanza that the Wizard is also talking to someone, a ‘you’, which suggests that the poem is also an epistle or an address to someone who isn't there:

Dear Anonymous, There are small blue tornadoes in my eyes when I read your poems about the outlines of socks on your floor. Your poems entitled “Depression in a Suitcase.”

The specificity of the second stanza—'your' poems, the socks on the floor, stating the poem’s actual title—all point to a particular, known person, despite the Wizard calling that person 'Anonymous'. In addition, the Wizard  seems to know about other poems in this book. For example, the part about the "outlines of socks on your floor" could be a reference to the poem "A Time to Sing in Airports," which comes later in the book and mentions the speaker's socks on the floor. The Wizard ask questions of, and addresses, this anonymous person throughout the poem, for example:

Would you trade your lion for courage?

Dear Anonymous, If I were a soldier I’d be a bad soldier because I wouldn't die for anyone or myself. May I digress? Black T-Bird blacking out. Yellow maple tree unzipped. Mattress, independent on hardwood floor.

First you’ll miss banana shakes in the summertime; then you’ll learn we’re voices trapped under language.

In the fourth stanza, we learn that the Wizard is also a poet ("the light from the poem I wrote about watermelons") and that the Wizard in this poem-version of the story is probably living with Dorothy ("the artificial womb of the bathtub, Dorothy's bare feet out of cuffed jeans; she sat on the edge of the bed, crossed her legs, and spread out her toes.") Given that the Wizard is a poet, given that the anonymous 'you' is also a poet, given that the Wizard has information about other poems in the book, all of these 'givens' together support the idea that the Wizard is either addressing the poet who wrote the poem, or the Wizard is the poet who wrote the poem. So we have the poet speaking as an alternate version of himself (as the Wizard) and we have the speaker, the Wizard, who is speaking to an alternate or separate version of himself (i.e., the poet). This circularity creates ambiguity with respect to speaker and addressee. It has the effect of conflating the role of the Wizard in this poem-film with the personhood of the poet in 'real life'. What is real merges into make-believe and vice versa.

Before leaving this poem, I'd like to spend some time with the last two stanzas:

This is the talking I find significant, talking more like clothing. The broken, frozen reeds of cornstalks, the pale yellow sun struggling to lower its temperature below the silos.

Would you give it all up to go home?

I want to linger here with the simile "talking more like clothing" because it is a simple example of the richness of Montesonti's metaphors, similes, juxtapositions, and other methods of comparison that transfer meaning and attributes. The simile "talking more like clothing" draws me in as I consider talking that is more like something you slip on and off, as something you can leave in a heap on the floor, or wash clean and put away, talking as something you choose to put on in order to form an identity or project a persona, talking as something you wear to protect yourself from being naked and exposed, talking as something wordless.

Lastly, the question that ends the poem "Would you give it all up to go home?" is an example of the multiple meanings that Montesonti layers into his poems. The landscape depicted in the stanza (the "broken, frozen reeds of cornstalks" and the silos), along with some of the other location-descriptors in the poem, suggest that the Wizard and Dorothy could be back home in Kansas. If they are already in Kansas, then the question at the end of the poem could be asking the Wizard if he would give up what was considered home (Kansas) in order "to go home." In this case, asking the question conveys the feeling that home is wherever he is not. However, in the poem, the Wizard and Dorothy also meander to Greece and possibly to Chicago. If they're not in Kansas and are moving around, then asking the question at the end conveys the feeling that home is unattainable. At the same time, if we read the poem as the poet speaking as the Wizard speaking to the poet, then 'home' takes on a more metaphorical meaning, one that is not necessarily a place.

The third poem on our brief cinematic mini-tour, A Flock of Iagos Waiting in the Wings," is one of the poems that appears in shorter-lined stanzas and is an excellent example of Montesonti's use of allusion, ambiguity, and juxtaposition. First, the title. Through the name 'Iago', Montesonti invokes both what some would call high and low culture: Iago in the title alludes to the the charismatically-cloaked Machiavellian character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago also alludes to the parrot in Walt Disney’s cartoon TV series and films Aladdin. While both manifestations of Iago have unsavory characteristics, Shakespeare’s Iago is malevolent—Disney’s not so much, more of a trickster character rather than an evil one. If we have in mind Shakespeare’s Iago, it sets the stage for the menacing undercurrent of the poem, especially in connection with the word ‘flock’, which, while meaning a large number, also summons the image of a flock of evil birds. However, if we have in mind Disney’s Iago, then it sets the stage for something comical as we imagine a flock of mischievous cartoon birds. The word 'flock' also hints at a church congregation, giving a slight religious tint to the understanding of the title, an understanding that also presages the biblical references and allusions in the poem.

At the start of the poem, we find the speaker standing on a bridge in Indianapolis “getting covered with coils of snow,” contemplating the 1946 American Christmas movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and the alternate world that would have existed had the main character of the movie, George, never lived—how George’s home town would have ended up “… constricted financially, then choked / out by cheap neon from the luminous / vices.” The image of the speaker of the poem on bridge echoes the scene in the movie where the lead character George stands on a bridge in the snow on Christmas Eve contemplating suicide. The movie title It’s a Wonderful Life takes on a sense of irony as the speaker tells us he “feels like Lucifer in a tree” that this alternate harsh, George-less world would never come to be “just because George renege[d] on his wish” to die.

The speaker's consideration of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is immediately juxtaposed with science, as the speaker starts talking about a science article: “I read this article / about some scientists who theorized / twenty ways the world might end.” This juxtaposition seems to turn from the elusive fantasy of the movie to hard fact. But that turn turns out to be elusive as well, because according to the speaker, the last scientific theory is that “Someone wakes up / and finds it has all been a dream.” The speaker acknowledges with glib sarcasm: “Yes, this trick / is cheap soap opera tripe, but who says / we live in an expensive universe?” There is humor in this ironic turn to science that really isn’t science, a darker humor rooted in cynicism.

The speaker of the poem continues the extension into science with a story he saw on the science TV program NOVA about a man afflicted with Capgras delusion. The man "believed / all his loved ones were carbon-copy imposters.” The speaker recounts that the man “didn't think his parents / were reptiles in rubber suits or Iagos waiting in the wings ... / they just weren't them.” While the poem says that the parents are not “Iagos waiting in the wings,” the title says the opposite, that this poem is about “a flock of Iagos waiting / in the wings.” Here, we have family members who are not family members, a poem that says the parents are not Iagos waiting in the wings, while title says they are. This sort of ambiguity disorients the reader with respect to what is real and what is not.

On the  heels of the NOVA show, the speaker returns to standing on the bridge, there in the slush of traffic:

I’m not thinking of doing anything drastic;
I'm just watching the light from the nearby power

plant occasionally coil in a divot of water,
shine like a scale, and then disappear.

Those last two stanzas leave the reader with a final imprint of the snake that has been slithering all through this poem in images and allusionsLucifer, coils of snow, the alternate universe that "like a snake unhinges its jaw"as well as in diction, for example “constricted,” “snake-oil salesman,” “the brief venom of visual exultation,” “reptiles in rubber suits,” and the "legless" moonlight and snow.

Related to the image of the serpent, one last comment before we move on: Like other poems in the book, this poem contains biblical references and allusions, both directly through Lucifer and indirectly through Iago, which loops in Shakespeare's Othello, considered by some to be an allusion to the biblical creation story in which Desdemona is Eve, Othello is Adam, and Iago, the serpent that deceives them.

We'll conclude our cinematic jaunt through Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope with the last poem of the book, which has the delightful tongue-in-cheek title “Gratuitous Voice-Over at the End of a Film, Reflecting on the Tribulations of the Plot and Coming Finally to an Epiphany.” The poem is told in the first person, and being a voice-over to a film, I imagine the speaker saying the opening lines out loud, as he watches himself row across the lake:

Then I realized, rowing across the lake
that even if Mother leaves the sanitarium
and they build another aviary and free the bullfinches

The humorous tone of the title spills over into the beginning of the poem and those first few lines have the feel of parody. The first twenty-six lines form one long sentence, a string of collaged images and scenes that feel less and less parodical until we reach the final images of that sentence:

winter rain cutting through tree branches,
all this inevitable turning in my life,
a tornado kicking out shreds of a barn,
or an icebreaker ship rolling like an oily bell.

The last six lines of the poem clinch the cinematic reading of the book with a final, parting shot:

It’s as if there’s a camera that pans out farther
and farther until you question what holds it.
Then I realized, rowing across the lake,
there’s so little to keep me from sinking,
just this small craft,
suspended above the consuming water.

This last poem, in which the speaker approaches his life as if it were a film, suggests that life/reality is something we construct, something we can't help but question; it evidences the postmodern container that holds the poems of this beautiful book. 

Like the final poem, the poems in Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope demonstrate a skillful use of tone, juxtaposition, metaphor, and allusion. Montesonti carefully crafts images and language. He is a master of juxtaposition, metaphor, and layered meaning. The result is a book that engages the reader's heart and intellect as it takes us on a journey, an exploration of what is considered real. The book doesn't presume to give answers. Rather, it gifts us with an experience.


[a poem from Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope]

Blackout Chef

I had a friend whose father,
every night after coming home
from looking for work,
would sit down at the kitchen
table and with medical accuracy

pour six shots of vodka
into six glasses and drink them
one per minute. Then he
would stand, open a bottle of wine

and start cooking in his little
basement apartment,
which he rented after the divorce,
until his memory lifted away.

Starved of himself,
he grew so hungry
he would prepare elaborate
meals: New York strip steaks

a perfect medium,
roasted lamb with rosemary
and mint, tomato
and cilantro gazpacho.

He must have staggered through
the bright aisles of the grocery
rooting around the crisper
for kale while Sheryl Crow

played overhead, or slurred to
the manager about the lack
of fresh tarragon. In his bright warm
kitchen with the snow piled

above the basement windows
in the winter months when the sun
would set at five p.m., he pulled his face
from the steam of the pots,

wrinkled in an expression
of joy in preparing things
that made sense, but the next morning,
he would wake to find it all there

untouched, gleaming on plates,
his night work, having appeared seemingly
from nowhere—from someone

who had the things he lacked in life:
taste, inspiration,
the power
to wake up the next morning,

someone else.

"Blackout Chef" was first published in Spork

* * * * *

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Frank Montesonti Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope (Barrow Street Press, 2012)

Nancy Chen Long received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the local Writers Guild, she coordinates a reading series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. Her chapbook, Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (2013) was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Sycamore ReviewCold Mountain Review, RHINO, The Louisville Review, Naugatuck River Review, and other journals.

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