Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Monkey Time by Philip Nikolayev

I bought this book because of the title. Had Philip Nikolayev named his collection of poems anything other than Monkey Time (2003 Verse Press), it probably never would have wound up in my hands. And that, as it turns out, would have been okay with me.

I won't say I hated it, because I didn't, but I can't really say I liked it, either. What I can say is that Nikolayev is very inventive. Sometimes to distraction, but inventive none the less. He also loves language. That is clear. But this love often transforms itself into the linguistic equivalent of stupid pet tricks ("language (land gwidge)"). His word gymnastics in poems like "A Polemic" and "Soup" make them virtually unreadable. There are also a lot of "poet poems" in this collection. I understand that poetry is a lonely pursuit and the only other people who read poetry tend to be other poets, but self-referential poet poems most often feel like the very naval gazing that so many readers find off-putting about poetry. Hell, I'm one of those readers and I write the stuff. To top that off, one of his self-referential poet poems rhapsodizes about his penis, another poetry-ism cliche ("... my dick / that elegant utensil reaching for its sugar basin..." What?).

Not that there's nothing to like about Monkey Time. He writes sonnets that are sort of entombed in surrounding, unrelated language. They look really cool (There's an example of one of his "immured sonnets" in Jacket). And there are flashes of wit throughout the book (there's "the butterfly is a flying sandwich of pollen" as well as "Found Sonnet," which is made up primarily from the text on the back of a can of air freshener).

The poems I liked the best were the two that weren't like anything else in Monkey Time, that being the title poem, which is about a temple in Tibet where monkeys live, and a prose poem called "Can You Hear Me?" which is written as if from a boy to his father. Both of these poems follow a much more narrative path than the other poems here and that's more my bag. But while I liked the title poem primarily because I liked the subject matter, "Can You Hear Me?" has a music to it that seems to be missing from the less narrative poems. Perhaps it's the prose form itself, but there's a definite tug from word to word, sentence to sentence. It's one of the better prose poems I've ever read.

Overall, I can't help but wonder if Nikolayev's eye and elbow got sore from winking and nudging so much during the writing of the poems in Monkey Time. Frequently I felt like I was reading an inside joke and I was on the outside. I was curious at first, but after awhile I gave up, eager to go write a few jokes (or maybe poems) of my own to get back on the inside again.

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