The poems in Méira Cook’s fifth poetry collection, Monologue Dogs, give voice to a variety of well-known fictional and historical figures. Interestingly though, the monologues delivered by these familiar figures work to defamiliarize them. As a result we are made to experience their significance anew. Renewal and recovery are underlying themes in this volume, which in every line demonstrate the mind’s capacity to view the world in a fresh and meaningful way. This thematic interest is established early in the opening series of monologues when Young Eve, expelled from Eden, realizes the indifference of the world now surrounding her — “You’ll find sympathy / in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.” It’s a world that has lost its paradisal splendour: “We needed a garden or the idea of a garden, / an annihilating, green-shaped thought / to cast some shade.” Monologue Dogs is Cook’s response to this fundamental need, a need that extends beyond archetypal Eve to the core of the human psyche.
Monologue Dogs is divided into four sections, each waggishly titled. In the first three sections, the reader is audience to Cook’s renderings of such figures as Adam and Eve, Hansel and Gretel, Vasco da Gama, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to name but a few. The final section is the book’s end matter, comprising notes and acknowledgements and, coming as it does at the tail end of the collection, is titled “Crooked,” as in “crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
Cook’s innovative use of language and her unique, often humorous, turns of phrase are the book’s modus operandi. The title, for example, both evokes and defamiliarizes the phrase “mongrel dogs.” The interplay (“cross-breeding”) of “monologue” and “mongrel” in the reader’s mind is a pattern repeated in the monologues themselves, where the speakers are evocations and defamiliarizations (“mongrel” versions) of the figures they represent. They are meant to disrupt, even shock, our habitual way of thinking about them: “Come my darling, my mongrel, my father / we are what’s left, you and I,” Lear’s daughter (“Cordiality”) beseeches him in the poem series “Lear in Africa.”
Of course, Cook’s intentions here are broader than delivering a few famous (and infamous) personalities from dulling habitualization. Hers is a poetry concerned with breaking down the automatism of perception while demonstrating the mind’s capacity to respond to the world at a level of consciousness that restores the sensation of living. As such, the poems in?Monologue Dogs function in ways analogous to the work of the hoofed and captious client in “The Devil’s Advocate,” pointedly the collection’s opening poem, whose nature it is to kick “up dust and all the limping platitudes / of this earth, our home.”
And a better poetic model is probably not to be had in this instance, for the mongrel heart pounding in Monologue Dogs is willful and rebellious, forever refusing to conform to the deadening unconsciousness of habitual thinking. In the poem “Young Eve, All Grown Up,” Eve exhorts: “Disobedience is the way back: a lie, a lapse, a bite / of something plucked / not fallen.” Language, as linguists and literary theorists have taught us, plays a central role in how we perceive and process reality, and, as our use of language becomes rote and dully practical, so too can our perception of the world. Art is conceived as a way of kicking up “all the limping platitudes,” and poetic language of Cook’s variety disobeys all prosaic norms to enable us to see, taste, feel, smell and hear the world around us as if for the first time. The effects may not be long lasting, but they can be repeated time and time again through the experience of art, satisfying our need for a saving “green-shaped thought.”
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