Reviewed by Gary Leising
Whenever reading David Kirby’s poems, I have always thought that, when a press decides to put out a scholarly edition of his complete poems, I want the job of editing that volume since I can’t imagine how much one would learn writing the footnotes for his poems, with their references to so many kinds of texts and happenings. This holds true with his latest collection, A Wilderness of Monkeys, with, for example, allusions to Ben E. King and Walter Benjamin, Shakespeare and the construction of the Eiffel Tower, Keats and Robert Louis Stevenson and E.L. Doctorow and Doc Pomus—and those all appear in just one poem, “Good Boy, Buddy Nelson,” one of the collection’s shorter pieces. Though this book uses the methods and techniques of juxtaposition, quotation, and humor familiar to Kirby’s readers, the poems seem less narrative than his earlier work, and more about the mind revealing its own process of thinking. It also seems the case that Kirby’s use of juxtaposition here most often presents us with paradox, doubt, and mystery, which is why the appearance of a familiar quote from the aforementioned Keats in “The Things We Can’t Have” may best describe the book’s workings: the lines from Keats’s letter about Negative Capability which, quoting his grad school roommate, Kirby describes as a “good scoop.”
“Good scoops” (defined in the poem as “solid ideas of every kind”) fill this collection. In the opening poem, “Do the Monkey, Yeah,” he describes lovers trysting in a neighborhood park with the museum description of Michelangelo’s slave sculptures: “these people are just captive souls inside their carnal / envelopes, though what they’re the Platonic symbols of, / I couldn’t say.” That tension between the soul and body resonates throughout these poems, in the zaftig woman who once played her ethereal instrument topless in “The Beautiful Theremin Player,” in the British shopgirl who innocently jokes that she has one when asked for a copy of The Golden Ass in “Cheeky,” or in the potential distance between what is heard and what is said between two young women in “I’m Kind of a Whore But She’s, Like, Way a Whore.” Yet in these poems, rather than pass judgment on their characters, Kirby is content to be—as he quotes Keats—“in uncertainties, / Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after / fact & reason.” These things aren’t Platonic symbols of one thing or its opposite; rather, they are rich, complex souls moving through the world of their bodies, just as in “Love in Vain,” a poem which meditates on (among other things, of course, because this is a David Kirby poem), the narratives of different versions of the song “John Henry.” Rather than merely mourning lover of the steel-driving man, Polly Ann is also fierce laborer: “Looky, she’s / spitting into her hand, the woman with the hurt in her face, yeah, / but the sunburn, too, the work shoes, the muscle.”
In such contradictions, Keats may be one of the guiding spirits of this collection. But as “Love in Vain” also says, “the way I see it, / each of us is all of us,” and this kind of democratic idea may connect to another guiding spirit, Walt Whitman (also mentioned in the collection). Whitman’s thematic presence may be felt strongest in the absolutely brilliant “Ode to My Backyard,” a meditation on (among other things) Kirby’s author photo, with its small view of his “backyard /or at least a little piece of it, a square yard or so of lawn.” As Whitman says to look for him under your boot-soles, Kirby here tells us his “little patch of grounds” is as lovely as Shelley said Keats’s grave was, and, so he thinks, when “last scud of day…coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk, and I depart as air,” we can look for him as molecules dispersed through the elements, “visit[ing] Paris and Florence, cities where I’ve spent some / of the happiest days of my life, not to mention other cities / that I’ve never been to or even heard of. I’ll land lightly / on the head of the baby in the park” and on other people, in their drinks and on their food. In these poems, Kirby has been touched by so many before him: famous folks like Keats and Whitman, Montaigne, Stendhal, and an unnamed recent poet laureate, yes, but those anonymous shop-girls, the students outside his building, the Theremin player, the authors of “John Henry” and its variants, and the poet who’ll be writing two billion years from now when the sun goes out, who’ll “write a poem that blinds us.” But we need wait until then; here is David Kirby, dazzling and blinding us with poems, landing lightly in our hands in the shape of this book, not beneath our boot-soles but right here with us, bringing all of his poetic powers along.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 17, Issue 2.
Gary Leising’s poems have appeared in many literary journals, including The Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and Sou’wester; his fiction has appeared in River Styx. His piece, “Toenails Diary,” won the 2008 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize. Gary’s reviews and essays have appeared in The James Dickey Newsletter, Pleiades, and Chicago Review, as well as in the book The Way We Read James Dickey: Critical Approaches for the Twenty-first Century.