Review by Adam Houle
THE WOMAN YOU WRITE POEMS ABOUT
by Danielle (Dani) Montgomery
Civil Defense Poetry
PO Box 11812
Berkeley, CA 94712
2009, 75 pp., $12.00
Dani Montgomery’s first collection is a strange homage to the broken, the decrepit, the still-somehow-managing amongst us. The opening poem, “December 7, 1977,” offers us a snapshot of genesis, of an inauspicious beginning conspicuously (and wisely) absent of woe:
Seven months pregnant
My mother smoked a pack of cigarettes
Drank a pot of coffee
And scrubbed the floor on hands and knees
This immediate conflation of an inner impurity with a concern for external cleanliness would lend itself toward cries at the pregnant mother’s hypocrisy, but it is the poem’s restraint on this front that keeps the movement taut and evocative, avoiding the prescriptive posturing of a “don’t do this” sort of poem. Though the beginnings detail a roughness, a neglect, the poem doesn’t linger here long, and by the final line we’re reminded that “dirty and live” will have to do for now.
“Dirty and alive” might just be the best we can hope for, suggest the poems that follow in the collection. And Montgomery is working best when the work stays local, stays close to a speaker who lives and breathes, a speaker who is part chronicler, part live participant, part mourner and reveler in the speaker’s private sphere. Glimpses here offer us a cross-section of America we might otherwise romanticize or trivialize or all together ignore. In “namesake,” we witness the lingering effects of a mythic father-figure who, like the carnival barker he brings to mind, is brilliant and broken and playful in ways we’re at a loss to explain. The poem reckons with something akin to the numinous when the speaker “still wonder[s] / if he won’t show up on the doorstep one day / lazarus in a powder blue coat / smoking a cheap cigar.” Though the “cheap cigar” feels mailed in, the absence here is palatable, and the blending of two biblical references (Mary wore blue after all) stretch for a transcendent significance that contrasts nicely the snake oil on which the departed made his living.
Other poems that achieve a biblical resonance in the everyday should also be noted here. “Sunday Evening” ends with a surprising and sturdy vision of the outer cold as it “builds up / like a pile of old splintery wood, full of nails.” Internal evidence from throughout the collection suggests the simile here hums with crucifixion, with the weight of redemptive powers both from a theological as well as interpersonal level. Interestingly, it’s also one of the few places where Montgomery uses punctuation in the collection, and it’s also one of the most successful turns in any of the poems. Elsewhere, we see a god who “has problems / who loses sleep / over family dramatics and work” which hints at a Jeffrey McDaniel-esque sensibility that, although mildly interesting for a quick bit, does not hold and ends up feeling gritty and “real” for its own sake. And I have a difficult time understanding why such a god would be desirable. The poem, sadly, offers up no answers.
And it is those moments when the wheels of the collection start clattering, shaking loose from their axles. The poems at times are political seethings, a register of social ills, cast in broad and glancing blows that feel more didactic than poetic, with stand-in characters we sense are meant to represent the unrepresented but end up feeling like pawns or silhouetted lawn-art. In “a love song for walt whitman,” the listing technique doesn’t illuminate and only catalogs generic concerns without offering up any insight: “our america / gets up each morning / even though today she may be arrested / and he may be deported / even though she can’t afford rent / and he can’t pay to see the doctor.” Yes, all that is true, but should the shifting pronouns all find their worst fears realized—she’s arrested, he’s deported, she’s evicted, he stays sick—America will still wake up the day after all that happens. The poem moves toward resilience, but the stock images turn the tone tinny and shrill; it feels more like a poem to yell out at a rally then to read. If that’s part of the goal, and at times I sense it is, then poems of this sort might get a bit of a nod from an audience who already believes what they’re being told. In “what the living do,” a similarly underdeveloped poem, the speaker rejoices to “the sound of a man pissing / out back behind the dumpster,” pleased, we learn, that “we lived through another night”. The unstated conjecture, of course, is that things certainly could have been otherwise, that one or the both of them might not have made the morning, but it is not clear why this is of imminent importance in this specific instance. In that way, Montgomery seems to take her readers’ stances as a given, and the poems preach to a choir who’s preaching the same thing right back.
The middle section, “cerulean bruise,” is hit or miss like the rest of the collection with this one exception: a few of the poems here, like the best of the other two sections, simmer with the fallible love of a speaker who we immediately recognize as a part of ourselves. Two poems from this section have haiku intensity:
trying to save you from a fall
bursting beneath your forehead
my hand not quite quick—
As haiku go, I don’t see why a poem approximating haiku doesn’t just go for the whole haiku construct with its season terms and precise images, but these two poems endear themselves to us with their honest humility. The movement in the third line of “social worker” taints the previous smiles above, but that’s all it does. That restraint here is admirable, especially in light of the other excesses throughout the collection.
The difference between poetry as art and poetry as catharsis is a shifting shoreline, and there’s that middle space where the poems can be both. In the woman you write poems about there’s more catharsis than craft, though, and the poems drift closer to that cathartic shore where the poet has purged or grappled or railed. And we are left wanting craft to help us anchor it all together, to steer us back to the poems for their structure and technique as much as their content.