Review of Our Extraordinary Monsters

Our Extraordinary Monsters

When we met for the first time after a number of years, a poet mentor of mine greeted me with: "I see your poems are still bristling with German." One might be tempted to say this of Vanessa Moeller's poems, but that would be misleading, for some of hers are 'auf Deutsch' in their entirety. Moeller is perfectly bilingual. In the section "Shaping the Frame," pairs of German and English poems appear on facing pages; the English version on the left, the German on the right, and as we generally read from left to right, we might well assume that the poems in German are translations of their English counterparts. Yet I found it impossible to tell which came first — see this example: "corseted in the narrative of lives" or "verschnürt...in Schilderungen von Leben" (40-41). In the section "Schlucke Deine Stiche" ( swallow your pain), dedicated to her father, the poems in German are on the left. They are excerpts of letters her father wrote before she was born. The English poems on the right are her responses, an imagined conversation between the father, writing at the age of twenty-nine in 1968, and the daughter, writing thirty-eight years later in 2006, also twenty-nine years old, in a kind of beyond-the-grave call and response.

English is the language of the poems in the book's five other sections, although Moeller sprinkles a few Spanish terms through "Signed Sincerely Yours." What's important is that in either English or German, the poems are exquisite — burnished to perfection and asking to be read again and again.

The collection's title comes from the overarching epigraph: "We are ourselves but we are also that extraordinary monster made up of bits of someone else's longings, memories, dreams, fears, needs, experiences and hopes" (Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary, 2004). Many poems in the collection explore the meaning of this postulation, but by pluralizing the key phrase "extraordinary monster," Moeller broadens her focus to include not only speculation on how we appear in the various conscious and unconscious states of others, but also how others appear in ours.

This book is written by a poet in love not only with German and English and their interrelationship, but with language itself. And, concomitantly, with sound. Her poems ring with subtle reverberations occasioned by half rhymes and interior rhymes, alliteration and assonance. The first section, "Sea Grounds Sky," contains ten sonnets that so adroitly employ an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme it is practically unnoticeable on the first reading. Inspired by two lines from Yehuda Amichai — "How do you say 'to love' in the dialect of water? / In the language of earth, what part of speech are we?" — the poems cleverly consider and explore those two questions. For instance, from "The Keening of Icebergs":

      ...each iceberg weeps its own lament
      when crevasses inside flow with water
      and set its walls vibrating. (16)

These poems are by no means only autobiographical. Many demonstrate Moeller's ability to look inward in order to look outward, to insinuate herself sinuously, to think herself almost mystically, into the essence/existence of another...I am disappointed that this book has not received a literary award so far, as Moeller's Our Extraordinary Monsters is an extraordinary achievement.


The Fiddlehead

More Reviews of this title

Our Extraordinary Monsters

Heather Spears, Rob Winger, and Vanessa Moeller have written books full of sensual clutter. All three poets, like magpies, collect images and words and pile them in shining, enticing heaps around us. At times, we feel buried—we can hardly feel the floor beneath our feet. We walk between the towering walls of words, syllabus, and images, looking for some kind of foothold into story or meaning, and only sometimes do we find one. It’s best to read these poems with eyes closed, hands out, letting our fingers rather than our hearts and minds read. . . .

[. . .] If the other two have collected images, Vanessa Moeller collects words and facts. She translates her own poems, and even the poems in English feel like collections of words—esoteric, rich words collected and pooled on the page. “A pentatonic scale of metatarsals, / slight glissando shifts as I carve / ocean with board fins, etch curves across / fluid viridian rising above me, over me,/down.” The early poems in this collection have a seductive plethora of facts: the way divers used to gather oysters, the length of veins in a human body, the mythological names of winds. These facts compel us to pay attention—to see our bodies and the world around us in a fresh, vivid way.  The latter half of the book is all about correspondence—postcards, letters, and “found” scraps of writing. We can see a loose thematic connection of correspondence through the book, but it feels as if we’re seeing parts of the whole—entire letters, entire stories, are missing. The partial letters, the brief postcards, the moments of memory are enticing enough that we want the whole picture. Ultimately these poems are satisfying one by one, but taken as a whole, make us hungry for what’s missing.

All three poets remind us of what a chaotic world we live in, and how easy it is to disconnect ourselves from any true sense of connection: to each other, to our own bodies, to language, to one another’s stories. We cannot deny the honesty of these poems, but the reading of them ultimately leaves us searching for a path out of the chaos, for some kind of order to the piles of glittering objects heaped all around us.


— Emily Wall Canadian Literature

Our Extraordinary Monsters

How can this be Vanessa Moeller's first collection? Her glowing, sensuous 'language of amber' only emphasizes the power of these poems. They form a Möbius strip revealing one language, then another, as she puts us in a world of magical possibilities. Anything can happen, and does happen, inside the pages of this marvelous book.


— Anne Simpson

Our Extraordinary Monsters

As a rule, readers should be very wary of poems with titles that offer two nouns linked with the word "of " -- for instance, "The Topography of Love" or "The Ontology of Solitude." This device is usually a warning that what follows will range from blandly familiar to comically overwrought. In Our Extraordinary Monsters, Vanessa Moeller commits this titular transgression not once but 10 times, with each of the 10 poems that make up the first section the book. It comes as a welcome surprise that these openers (among them, "The Hydrography of Memory" and "The Archeology of Air") do not share their titles' facility.

They do, however, possess an almost conversational casualness: to Moeller's credit, the reader may not immediately realize that these seemingly effortless poems are, in fact, rhyming sonnets. The next section is far freer in form, with crisper lines — "I cannot confine marzipan's cloying melt" — though the unfortunate titles persist ("Evanescent List," "Linguistic Obituary").
Some of the poems read as though they have been translated from another language and, indeed, on reaching the book's third section the reader finds that each poem appears twice, first in English and then, on the facing page, in German. With little indication of which is the original and which the translation, it is tempting to imagine Moeller writing in both languages, going back and forth between English and German as it suits her, as the book invites the reader to do.

Other people's words, and words addressed to others, occupy a central position in Our Extraordinary Monsters. The book is cluttered with epigraphs — at least one for each of its sections (in the second section, one for nearly every poem) — and unified by an epistolary impulse. Moeller writes German poems based on letters written four decades earlier by her father (English translations of which are included in an appendix), and then responds to them with her own letter-poems. She also, in what is perhaps the book's most luminous sequence, presents fragments of letters written from 10 of Italo Calvino's invisible cities. Though the seven sections occasionally read like excerpts from separate books, Our Extraordinary Monsters is nonetheless a superb demonstration of Moeller's creative breadth.


— Daniel Marrone Broken Pencil

Our Extraordinary Monsters

Heather Spears, Rob Winger, and Vanessa Moeller have written books full of sensual clutter. All three poets, like magpies, collect images and words and pile them in shining, enticing heaps around us. At times, we feel buried—we can hardly feel the floor beneath our feet. We walk between the towering walls of words, syllabus, and images, looking for some kind of foothold into story or meaning, and only sometimes do we find one. It's best to read these poems with eyes closed, hands out, letting our fingers rather than our hearts and minds read.

[. . .] If the other two [poets] have collected images, Vanessa Moeller collects words and facts. She translates her own poems, and even the poems in English feel like collections of words—esoteric, rich words collected and pooled on the page. "A pentatonic scale of metatarsals, / slight glissando shifts as I carve / ocean with board fins, etch curves across / fluid viridian rising above me, over me, / down." The early poems in this collection have a seductive plethora of facts: the way divers used to gather oysters, the length of veins in a human body, the mythological names of winds. These facts compel us to pay attention—to see our bodies and the world around us in a fresh, vivid way. The latter half of the book is all about correspondence—postcards, letters, and "found" scraps of writing. We can see a loose thematic connection of correspondence through the book, but it feels as if we're seeing parts of the whole—entire letters, entire stories, are missing. The partial letters, the brief postcards, the moments of memory are enticing enough that we want the whole picture. Ultimately these poems are satisfying one by one, but ken as a whole, make us hungry for what's missing.

[. . .]


— Emily Wall Canadian Literature

Our Extraordinary Monsters

Vanessa Moeller, Our Extraordinary Monsters. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Signature Editions, 2009. Paper. Pp. 112. $14.95.

Barbara Myers, Slide. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Signature Editions, 2009. Paper. Pp. 80. $14.95.

 

The publication of a first full-length collection is always a significant event, doubly so when the poets in question have already achieved considerable success. Barbara Myers has published several chapbooks and won Arc Magazine’s Poem of the Year in 2006, while Vanessa Moeller has won the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia Atlantic Poetry Prize and has had her work appear in The Fiddlehead, Prism International, and CV2. Moreover, both poets have connections to Atlantic Canada, a region rich in poetic tradition: Myers grew up in Halifax, but now lives in Ontario, while Vanessa Moeller resides in New Brunswick. Given such similarities in achievement and regional influence, one might also expect that their poetry would contain points of intersection. Yet here the connection ends, for Myers’ debut collection, Slide, is an assortment of intense, traditional lyrics depicting seasons and family, whereas Moeller’s first book, Our Extraordinary Monsters, is an explosive, experimental triumph that spans memory, place, language and time. In the end, it is Moeller’s collection that will also find favour with readers.

Slide is a fairly slim volume and is divided into three sections, consisting mostly of couplets and short-lined stanzas. Generally speaking, the poems are accomplished and display few of the line-flaws typically associated with a first collection. There are no memorable lines, however, and only a handful of memorable pieces. The first section expresses mostly moments of contemplation in which the speaker focuses on aspects of light or the moon. Of particular note are “Selene” and “Light Writing,” in which the speaker explores the relationship between the image of the moon and allure of Marilyn Munroe. The second section shifts the reader’s attention to people and memories. Here the speaker’s attention is directed towards the weather and seasons, as in “Wasn’t It Hot for June,” “The Weight of Snow” and “The Beginning of Melt.” Here the poems tend to collapse under the weight of their own cleverness rather than evoke a feeling that readers can engage with. Also included in this section is the book’s title poem, “Slide,” which serves as a metaphor for the book as a whole, the impossible quest to capture life in a meaningful and eternal way:

 

a galaxy of light sheddings, inconstant

scatterings of children in near shorts

 

where’s the grammar

for this – this was you, wasn’t it.

 

For Myers, memory is not so much a question of remembering, as it is a recognition that moments can never be truly fixed in time, whether by language or technology. Comparatively, the third section explores themes of transformation, disguise, and movement. Again, the poetry is not particularly strong, although one can find a few positive chords, as in “Macdonald Gardens (Ottawa, 2002),” in which the speaker reflects on the idea of a park being built over a graveyard; the clarity of image and line makes it one of the best poems of the collection. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between.

In the collection’s final piece, “Yellow Calls Us to the Things of the World,” the speaker refers to “minor gods of luminescence.” Sadly, this description neatly captures the impact Myers’ book will have on readers: there is nothing vibrant or captivating about Slide; it is a safe book of competent verse.

Contrasting Myers` mediocre collection is Our Extraordinary Monsters. Divided into eight sections, it explores ideas of intimacy, loss and culture through a variety of genres as well as German translations. The first section is a group of modern Shakespearian sonnets in which elements operate as the central motif for the speaker’s reflections on love. ``The Keening of Icebergs,`` for instance, employs the element of water whereas ``The Diaphony of Dunes`` looks to the land for inspiration. More importantly, in each case the speaker is not so much interested in exploring the kinds of love found in human relationships, but of moments of connection that exist between earth and humanity:

 

                                          craters narrow

to gather the movement where energy pools,

tephra and lava escape the marrow

of the earth, rise until the quaver can be felt in

the foot’s arch, the pelvis’s hollow, the heart’s skin. (“The Vibrato of Volcanoes”)

 

At times whimsical, but never trite, these re-imagined apprentice pieces breathe new life into a timeless poetic form.

Following section one is a short, bridging group inspired by lines from other writers, such as Karen Connelly and Earl Shorris. Of particular note is “Perfumed Sentence”, which captures beautifully the ability of language to envelope the senses. But it is in the third section, “Shaping the Frame,” that Moeller begins to demonstrate her reach as a poet. Presented as a series of mirrored poems, each left-hand page is a piece in English, followed by its German translation on the facing page. Not only is this section an expression of the powerful connection that exists between mother and child: it also bears witness to the reality that “the idea for my life was written / in a double-helixed script, a correspondence / between bodies that led to my birth” (“Growing the Voice”). There is something new and original going on here, especially the presence of German translations that collectively beckons the reader to discover the kinds of chasms and connections that language can offer. A similar experiment occurs in the following section, in which Moeller presents reformatted excerpts from letters her father wrote in German in1968, as well as her contemporary poetic responses in English. Moreover, she includes an instruction that the section is meant to be performed rather than read silently, and that the pieces are meant to be read aloud simultaneously. Such an instruction may trouble some readers, but the idea behind such an instruction is philosophical rather than utilitarian in nature, and fits perfectly with the overall structural theme of the collection. The result is a remarkable play between language and time that captures Moeller’s desire to connect with her readers as well as her father’s past.

The next two sections may be described as postcard poems, but not in the traditional sense; that is, they are not short, choppy stanzas meant to sound like a person’s rushed scribbles while visiting an exotic land. Instead, the title of each poem presents an image to the reader, which Moeller in turn uses as a creative springboard for the remainder of the piece. At times the poetry is enrapturing, as in “Postcard of Initials Carved into Dragon Tree” and “Postcard of Avenida Jardines del Duque.” But in truth these pieces become repetitive in experiment; fewer poems would have made a much stronger impression on the reader. More successful is the penultimate section, in which she presents a series of archival letter transcriptions, purported to be “ten letters written in an unidentified hand found in a box in a burnt-out mask-making shop named La Moretta.” Included are “archivist notes,” as well as visual cues such as strikethroughs that when combined create an aura of intimacy and authenticity. It is not only the content of these “found letters” that help to reveal Moeller’s literary maturity, but also her choice of medium and exacting verbal play that serve to highlight her startling poetic energy.

The final section, “Notes on Poems,” contains the English translations of the letter excerpts by Moeller’s father that appeared in the earlier “performance” section. These translations are not supplemental works, but operate both as a stand-alone section to end the collection as well as a playful poetic mechanism that invites the reader to go back and rediscover section three from a new perspective. It is a wonderful closing to an exceptional book of poetry, and the poet, as well as her editor, is to be commended on both the shape and content of this vibrant and original collection.

Moeller’s first book is mature beyond expectations while that of Myers ultimately fails to inspire. Whereas Slide is a solid, albeit safe book of verse, Our Extraordinary Monsters is a stellar poetic debut. More importantly, Moeller’s book signals a new direction in Canadian poetry, and readers across the country would be well-advised to pay attention to her work.


Journal of Canadian Poetry

Our Extraordinary Monsters

An Extraordinary Achievement

           

Our Extraordinary Monsters, Vanesssa Moeller. Signature Editions, 2009.

 

Meeting for the first time after a number of years, a poet mentor of mine greeted me with: “I see your poems are still bristling with German.”  One might be tempted to say this of Vanessa Moeller’s poems, but that would be misleading, for some of hers are auf Deutsch in their entirety.  Moeller is perfectly bilingual.  In the section “Shaping the Frame,” dedicated to her mother, pairs of German and English poems appear en fas, and as the English version is printed on the left, the German version on the right and we generally read from left to right, we might well assume the poems in German are translations of their English counterparts.  But it was impossible for this reader to tell which came first, as in the following example: “corseted in the narrative of lives” or “verschnürt…in Schilderungen von Leben” (pp. 40-41).  In the section “Schlucke Deine Stiche” ( swallow your pain), dedicated to her father, the poems in German are on the left, excerpts from letters her father wrote before she was born, and the English poems on the right are her responses, an imagined conversation between the father, writing at age 29 in 1968, and the daughter, writing thirty-eight years later in 2006, also at age 29, in a kind of beyond-the-grave call and response.  English is the language of the poems in the book’s five other sections, although Moeller does sprinkle a few Spanish terms through “Signed Sincerely Yours.”  What’s important is that in either English or German, Moeller’s poems are exquisite – burnished to perfection and asking to be read again and again.

            The book’s title comes from the overarching epigraph to the collection: “We are ourselves but we are also that extraordinary monster made up of bits of someone else’s longings, memories, dreams, fears, needs, experiences and hopes” (Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary, 2004).  Many of the poems in the collection explore the meaning of this postulation.  But by pluralizing that key phrase “extraordinary monster,” Moeller broadens her focus to include not only speculations on how we appear in the various conscious and unconscious states of others but how others appear in ours.

            This is a book written by a poet in love not only with German and English and their interrelationship, but with language itself.  And, concomitantly, with sound.  Her poems ring with subtle reverberations occasioned by half rhymes and interior rhymes, alliteration and assonance.  The first section, “Sea Grounds Sky,” contains ten sonnets that so adroitly employ an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme it is practically unnoticeable on first reading.  Inspired by two lines from Yehuda Amichai – “How do you say ‘to love’ in the dialect of water?/ In the language of earth, what part of speech are we?” – the poems cleverly consider and explore those two questions.  For instance, from “The Keening of Icebergs”:

 

                        …each iceberg weeps its own lament

                        when crevasses inside flow with water

                        and set its walls vibrating. (16)

 

And writing of the shifting hills of desert sand in “The Diaphony of Dunes”:

 

                                                The operatic bravura

                        begins an avalanche where each carom

                        is heavy with natural coloratura.” (18)

 

            The second section, “Six Lost Butterflies,” is a lyrical reflection on language, pointedly lamenting in “Linguistic Obituary” (30) the irrecoverable losses occurring when a language dies.  She addresses her own divided linguistic heritage in a poem occasioned by a letter from her friend Katia Grubisic that Moeller received while visiting her mother’s home town in Germany.  Speaking in her own voice, she writes that the city

 

                        …contains half my language,

                        halb meiner Sprache, halb meiner Stimme

                        [half my language, half my voice] (27)

 

Moeller explores more extensively her experience of bilinguality in the section “Shaping the Future,” dedicated to her mother.  Most explicitly in “Untying the Breath,” the first stanza of which reads:

 

                        When I was six I learned

                        to unbraid my vocal chords,

                        weave them into an angular

                        pattern of English instead of the

                        familiar orbed syntax of German

                        that had sheltered me since birth. (36)

 

And in the deeply affecting back and forth between her father’s letters and her own responses, she captures the inarticulateness besetting her father stranded between German and English, master of neither.

 

                        I don’t know which language to write in, you admitted.

 

                        When you came here,

                        you still dreamed in German

                        but slowly English seeped in

                        and left you adrift. (49)

 

Her solution to his dilemma is: “Write in both, flechte sie zusammen” [weave them together], the very thing she has accomplished in Our Extraordinary Monsters.  And, as if to console her father for his sense of failure as a writer, Moeller writes, gesturing to Amichai’s “In the language of earth,”

 

                        There were other languages

                        you were already writing:

 

                        You took

                                    367 acres of land

                        and turned them articulate,

                                                fields,

                        a green calligraphy, (51)

 

 The apostrophized father sometimes serves as a stand-in for her own self-doubting self, plagued with questions of whether s/he can write, whether his/her words, his/her ideas, have any value, whether s/he will be able to bring something Gescheites [clever, intelligent] to fruition (56).  Most poignant are the daughter’s memories of being the only one who could “translate” her father’s mute, dying self –

           

                        puzzle out the gesture of your eyes,

                        the cadences of your breathing

                        into sentences

                                                of need or want. (p. 57)

 

And, as her father’s daughter, it is his words more than her mother’s (though German is her Muttersprache) that she would have her words intermingle with:

 

                        I want my words to

twist through

                                                yours

                                        like a vanilla trumpet vine

                        our meanings interlaced

                                    until sepal protects petal. (53)

 

            But these poems are by no means only autobiographical.  Many demonstrate her ability to look inward in order to look outward, to insinuate herself sinuously, to think herself almost mystically, into the essence/ existence of another – in the one case I’ll cite, squid dashed against a rocky shore.

 

                        They have no bones

                        to break, no clean snapped

                        entry into death

                        but something embogged –

                        a defeat marked

                        by tentacled stillness

                        by the abandoned grasp

                        for stones

                        or any anchorage. (66)

 

I must confess I am disappointed that this superb book has not, to my knowledge, garnered the deserved attention generated by a literary award, for I think Moeller’s Our Extraordinary Monsters is an extraordinary achievement.


— Ruth Roach Pierson The Fiddlehead