JUNE 7, 2016
Often, right before sleep, N.
would say, Tell me a story. And I
would, I’d talk about quislings, secret
underground rivers that flowed
backwards, or why all the snowflakes
in Hell are exactly alike.
IN HIS COLLECTION Monograph, Simeon Berry writes about his time pursuing an MFA and a youthful love affair that eventually becomes a marriage. The book feels like pieces of writing saved across the life of this relationship. Its poems resemble little pithy reminders left on the edges of a notebook’s pages: the kind of ephemeral thing anyone might have written to themselves at one point or another. They recall New Directions’s reproduction of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems in Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. An even better comparison might be Coleridge’s notebooks, with their irascible mixture of jottings that seem to lack conscious arrangement by the author. (Berry even titles the first section of Monograph “contra preferentum,” inviting us to judge against the poet/draftsman in any cases of ambiguity presented in the poems.) By the end of the book, however, Berry’s ability to curate these moments is unquestionable.
When Monograph opens, the direction this book will take us is exciting, but far from clear. The first few pages portray the speaker’s crush on an older teenager, followed by a scene in which the speaker’s grandfather tells his potential son-in-law (the speaker’s father) that his beloved (the speaker’s mother) is mentally ill (“These are the / people I come from”), and then the story of that speaker’s fateful introduction to “N.” Up to this point, we have no clearly defined subject or narrator to respond to, which helps to focus our attention on a thin little box of letters, which makes up the shape of each stanza on each page.
The form does what good forms do: it holds things together. On each page, clumps of lines force our attention toward the center of the page. Each rectangle of text assures us of its separateness, each represents a self-contained moment that we must fit back together with all the others.
As the title implies, readers will only know the collection’s characters by their monograms. Berry claims that the text aims at radical silences in poetry and his omissions inform the book. The monograms have the odd effect of anonymizing characters (as in social science research or whistleblowers in investigative journalism), while making them somehow more real. Readers become intrigued by the specificity of the poet’s lover; we wish we knew her, wish we could talk to her, wish we were her lover. Episodes of early and later love arguments pass by with art often at the center of the conversation:
N. is very protective of per-
formance artists, so she gets upset
whenever I gleefully reason out
another link. It doesn’t stop me, but it
does make me want to kiss her.
Or the couple encountering an impasse on the subject of film:
N. thinks the film is real, but
the director isn’t. Or the director’s
transparent, but the work is wholly
As this single letter “N.,” the beloved is a particular person and a generality.
Our knowledge of the speaker, on the other hand, is a sociologist’s dream. He is primarily social, with few internal explanations not couched in terms of other people. He is a person we come to know through his interactions with others: his meetings with friends (known by their single letter monograms) which reveal more about his relationship with N. Even in the self-reflections and memories that come from the speaker’s origin story, the verses that feature his parents and childhood recollections, the speaker is known through his attitudes toward others, his family. These memories are cast as stories the speaker was told, rather than as active tales of growing up.
The monograms produce anonymity, but they also draw attention to language itself and focus our observations on the generality of Berry’s characters. Other people appear but they all are illuminated by the speaker’s interactions with N. They are non-persons, not because they are insignificant, but because we can sense the poet’s gaze fixed on the centrality of N.’s position in the poems. All other interactions are influenced by this principal relationship.
His monograms, both specific and general, make their point right down to the final page on which we learn of his letter “Q.”:
I imagine myself standing
in front of a mushroom cloud,
looking engaged: Q. lives near the
crater with his two mutants and
what used to be a cat.
There are many endings.
Most of them atomic. This is one.
Monograph is a testament to the fine line between poetry and prose. If we are afraid of sinking into everyday speech, Berry tells us that the sinking is okay. He demonstrates poetic attention to everyday life. Berry’s poetry is teaching us that how we pay attention to life can make our observations poetry. Berry addresses this directly:
This is why I don’t write prose.
I hate choreography. Just fill up the
bong with Delphic smoke, please, and
I’ll find a way to get out of the stanza.
See? Like that.
Berry promises us the end from the beginning. His first page ends:
Fairly certain we were
doomed as a couple. Repeating
this to myself every night as I
walked home in darkness through
the close, suburban streets, the
smell of sea infiltrating the
fog, Utterly ecstatic with rage.
Berry’s refracted memoir never forgets this promise to offer us story. We might say this is about a star-crossed love affair. But understanding the story as part of the elegiac nature of speech seems more appropriate. Something is shortened, something abbreviated, something known only by recollection never fully present on the page.
Again, I am reminded of Coleridge, whose notebooks are generally understood as plans for further texts, including his major unfinished work on logic. But the aim of the notebooks can slide easily into Coleridge’s poetic project as expressed in “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison”: to train the imagination in order to turn the incarnation of everyday existence into the pleasure of the operations of the mind, directed toward the extraordinary conditions of life.
Why invoke a melancholy Romantic to understand the record of a lost love of a 21st-century poet? Like Berry’s wide-ranging collection, Coleridge’s notebooks are full of thoughts on poetry, politics, and science. They contain everyday observations and concerns as well. They are the precious primary record of his imagination. In this tradition, Berry too preserves something more than the memory of one particular relationship: he preserves the particulars of his mind. Berry’s Monograph has this incidental quality directed by similar motives to Coleridge’s. His method is no accident; his poems produce a record of love that revels in the life of the imagination necessary to it.