by Julie Doxsee
96 pages—Black Ocean, 2013
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Behind the pale, hauntingly austere cover of Julie Doxsee’s third book of poems, The Next Monsters (Black Ocean, 2013), lurks a throng of prose poems as lithe and treacherous as any living, breathing beasts. This is a world of temples filled with “cut-off rabbit ears,” of stray dogs and cheetah’s teeth and birds “with heart shards for feathers.” It is a world—inspired in large part by Doxsee’s observations and experiences while living in Istanbul, and narrated by a speaker who seems always on the verge of madness—of juxtaposition and disjunction and violence, of the surreal alongside the mundane, of transience and flux and everything just slightly out of place. This is a book about un-making and remaking the self, about being half-made. It is a book about birthing oneself into and out of the landscape, about never really knowing who or where you are. To read The Next Monsters is to feel as if you are simultaneously on the brink of drowning and yet only seconds away from swimming safely back up to the surface for air.
The book opens with an epigraph by Cole Swenson: “everything that fingers touch / has to be retold,” and this notion seems to lie at its heart. Retelling—loss of self, re-creation of the self—is the price that must to be paid for existing in the world, for touching the world around you, for being touched by it. And it is the price that must be paid for loving someone and for being loved by someone, for all the ferocity that entails. “The poet in The Next Monsters knows violence intimately, and sort of toys with it eerily as a means of forgetting and reforming identity,” writes Doxsee in an interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson published in The Conversant.[i] Indeed, this re-sculpting of the self through violence surfaces throughout the book. Sometimes it seems almost playful, as in the book’s opening poem, “Lightning,” in which the speaker seems eager to reject her own identity, delighted to be anyone other herself: “Sometimes I hope for new blood while trying to start my birthday. Any suit of yours I slip into is a nice birthday.” But in the very next poem, “Holy Dogs” we see this process instead as a visceral and gory “stripping away,” a terrifying mixture of dissection, rebirth, and sacrifice:
I am left monsterless, I am a red river in surrender. I am you: my head gone, my head against. Beastliness was routine to me, the kind my heart was against all these years. I have sprouted from the universe, from a broken loudspeaker no one hears. The extra stripping away is a beast wrenching the lovers apart and wrenching the holy dogs from the temple. The dew trees spill water from me and from me.
The themes of sacrifice and rebirth resurface yet again in “How Beautiful the Horses Will be When They Turn into Real Horses:” “I grew a second heart and buried it by the base of the volcano. Now it leeches into the soil of the whole world. My heart your bread. My heart your water, my heart your sandcastle.” Here we see the speaker figuratively and literally giving herself to her world—birthing herself into her landscape, offering her body up to be eaten by the ones she loves, to be remade by them.
Just as Doxsee’s speaker is entangled in a cycle of shifting identity—of losing and finding and reconstructing herself, of writing and re-writing the self and its book of myths, of tripping through obstacles and over symbols—so, too, do reader and writer seem to lose and find and lose one another again. “Some of the work is written in fractured fugues,” observes Doxsee. And her employment of the fugue form organically reflects her overarching motif of monsterness: themes, sentences, and lines moving as tentacles—threading and rethreading themselves through and around one another in a serpentine coil. The Next Monsters seems to know, instinctively, that linearity obscures the real shape of the thing itself, that it makes too neat a package. That to be truly seen in all of one’s beastliness, a place, person or experience must be depicted with as many visible surfaces as possible—as many ragged, exposed nerves. Seeing, after all, is the goal. And a monster is, at least, seen for what it truly is. In the poem “Monsterless,” the speaker confesses that invisibility is her greatest fear: “It terrifies me that the world contains the sentence: No one here has to see me.”
Words are terrifying because they demand choice, and every choice comes with a cost. At its essence, The Next Monsters is a sort of psychic chain reaction. Everything touched must be retold. Telling is both a gift, because it provides the opportunity for a new identity, and a curse, because to tell it is also to necessitate touching and thus to perpetuate an endless cycle. And telling, really, is a form of touch, as in “The Key to Moving Correctly Without Running into Obstacles:” “Words should find the physical and let it bruise, and they do bruise after one cuts them open to learn or to never learn how they tick.” Doxsee sets each poem down in front of the reader in vivid detail, laying them out one after another like specimens at an autopsy. Hers is a world rife with details, littered with objects—they are everywhere, as tangible as “a dead bird with one shot-out eye,” as precise as “a jar with a baby sweater stuffed inside, three-dozen broken lighters, and the feeling of the door.” It is impossible not to reach out and touch these details, to hold them in one’s hand and examine their curious, distorted forms. But, for everything that has been touched—everything that has been named and held by writer and reader—there is always a consequence, an equally tangible, parallel unsaid. This a book haunted by possibilities, both by its choices to tell and by the ghost-spaces these choices leave behind. Or, as Doxsee writes in “Vapor:” “Words usher button-pushing ghosts from room to room and leave them there long enough for each door to open and close once.”
Perhaps, more than anything, The Next Monsters is simply shape shifting at its finest and most primal. And Doxsee’s prose poems are a series of fun-house mirrors, incorporating the oldest and most unsettling aspects of myth alongside the non-sequiturs and anxieties of the modern era. Over and over, we see the story and the self giving shape to one another, reflecting their dangerous, careening light off one another like looking glasses—exposing the medusas, turning them to stone. We see the speaker’s mind moving in patterns, creating patterns for herself in her drive for survival; we see the speaker fallen and drifting, her safe and familiar patterns stripped violently away. And we see, ultimately, that for all our fears, we need our monsters. That in the continual and crucial process of writing and rewriting the self, they are a constant source of power, primordial and ever-beckoning. They will change—surely—it is their nature to change, their blessing and their curse, but they will never really leave us because, in the end, there is really no distinguishing. As Doxsee reminds us, “…when I reach inside I feel my breath turn hairy and my bones turn wool. It is rainbows, it is angel fumes, and I own them all.”
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Still: The Journal, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.