Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck (Brick Books)
“My husband said he felt human again.” (15) It is a simple line, calm and measured, broken perfectly in the natural pattern of speech. With this composed statement, Julie Bruck opens her third full-length poetry collection Monkey Ranch. She then calmly and methodically proceeds to dissect our human experience, what it means to be human, to the very core.
The book’s cover, of course, appears at first whimsical and fun. The title, on the other hand, underscores a deep, unsettling sense of permanent captivity. The reader gets a hint of what’s coming in the opening poem “This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin”:
Tonight my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so) about what she
saw in the raised cage.
Monkey singing, she will tell him,
and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
and fallen asleep on her knees. (15)
When the reader encounters “The Mandrill’s Gaze,” Bruck leaves no doubt as to the title’s terrifying implications:
. . . [The mandrill] bears the same expression
children have, small children who
must accept the hand that’s offered
with neither trust nor suspicion – look,
the zoo is full of them today . . . (22)
Prison images persist throughout Monkey Ranch. In the poem “Elizabeth Bishop’s Room,” Bruck describes the space as “An immense, sibilant, / glistening loneliness. // The narrow bed / pressed / under the eaves.” (27) She continues this theme with “Milk Teeth,” where the child feels trapped in her own body:
She tests each stubborn vestige
of baby-self with a finger, craves
to plumb sweet and sour crevices
with her tongue, to taste
her own blood, which we’ve tried
to contain in that small body,
calling it protection. She wants
them out now. And all that comes after. (29)
As a matter of fact, domestic scenes house many of the prison settings. From the entrapment of matrimony in “A Marriage” to the tentative escape the speaker perceives in “Girl in Her Brothers’ Bedroom,” the home is the most common jail mentioned.
Bruck finds evidence of these imprisonments everywhere. “Dead Air” beautifully captures the savagery of our collective incarceration. Listening to a radio talk show on the subject of art, the speaker hears:
. . . ten
seconds of Line Two’s sad breathing:
This is how a person who can’t paint,
someone with a hook in the heart, sounds.
Here is the wind whistling through
that particular canyon. And it’s live. (75)
But through it all, Bruck’s voice is so calm, her breaks are so natural and effortless, it almost seems she is narrating a documentary film on the hidden horrors of Alcatraz. (“. . . and here is the cell of The Birdman . . . “) In “Boy at the Window,” she blithely explains, “Let’s just say he fell because / he was up there in the middle / of the night . . .” (62) Similarly, in “The Winningest Jockey,” the poet opens with, “He could hold that assumed prayer position, / be plucked as gently as a lifted cricket from / the foam-slicked, heaving winner . . .” (66) Such detachment allows Bruck to discuss, even experience, these situations firsthand. The reader can be forgiven if he detects the ghost of Weldon Kees, resigned and slumping somewhere in the volume as he writes,
These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
The sort of thing that gives one pause.
The crack is moving down the wall.
We must remain until the roof falls in. (Kees, 65)
And in this respect at least, Julie Bruck and fellow San Franciscan Kees share common ground. Escape seems impossible, a daydream, a crazy idea detached from reality. In what is perhaps the most moving piece of the collection, the speaker witnesses a bookstore conversation between an old woman and a man dying from AIDS:
. . . Maybe you should visit
your sister on a Thursday, he suggests.
Behind the register, the clerk checks
his watch against the store clock’s time.
Sweetie, she says, my sister’s in Delaware.
They are moving past Used Poetry, closing in
on Travel Lit: Honey, says the frail man, we can
leave right now. Darlin’, let’s drive all night. (35)
Even when escape is attempted, however, there is much danger, much to lose. The speaker notes in “Please,” “Paul, you’ll / leave four children, don’t start that car.” (41) Bruck painstakingly records loss in the heartbreaking “Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad,” as a missing boy’s father finds his son’s shoe amid the carnage of a car bomb in Iraq:
. . . [The father] clutched a black chunk
of leather melted by the heat. I bought it for him.
He kissed the piece of leather, placed it gently
next to the flower, the eyeglasses, and the book.
Come and see it . . . (47)
Escapees are “everywhere and nowhere,” (56) she observes in “Cold Cases, Adult Division.” Bruck catalogs them all in her exacting, gentle style.
While the poet formally divides Monkey Ranch into five sections of roughly eleven pages each, some of the poems act to further split the book internally, something akin to a long symphonic piece containing bridges within each movement. For instance, the poem “New, Used, & Rare” indicates the speaker’s shift away from the opening, more familial, works such as “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972” (. . . “there is the daughter, fifteen and not / quite as sullen as she’s going to be . . . “ (17)) to a public setting of secondhand shops and parks. From there, the pieces slowly become detached, even grainy as old film in Section III’s “Newsreel.” Bruck changes tempo shortly afterwards, however, in the chaos captured in “Live News Feed,” where, she gasps, “I am watching my mother’s neighbourhood / explode on live TV . . .” (50) This particularly emotional bridge corresponds to the physical bridges the speaker observes in the next poem, “Island,” where she notes:
. . . empty cabs start
to rattle the avenues, angling for fares,
straining for the tunnels, the bridges. (52)
And while a series of escape-themed works stitch the latter third of the book, “Dead Air,” five pieces from the close, serves as a vivid reminder of our captivity, with its awful hook, and its awkward pause, and its windswept, empty canyon.
However, no work captures the horrors of imprisonment and its consequent, intentional neglect, better than the book’s namesake poem. Abandonment and death dominate the landscape:
We starved our monkeys.
Day by day, they slowed,
and when I picture them now,
or dream of how it was,
they stagger in the black
and white of old newsreels.
It took them a whole year
to die off while we watched. (55)
The cover is exposed for what it is: a final image of the condemned, a photo in the Tuol Sleng Khmer Rouge Museum’s Gallery of the Dead. The flowers are wilted, the leaves browned and curling in neglect. The speaker confesses at the poem’s close:
. . . they used to wear such
cute little monkey hats –
red, white, yellow, and green. (55)
Bruck achieves her calm tone, in part, through lines which, as stated earlier, are patterned naturally in everyday speech. She crafts many line breaks to correspond with punctuation (comma, period, etc.), similar to the early poetry of Susan Astor in her book Dame. But the author also stitches a theme of coldness through the book, which helps to underpin the placid surface of the pieces. Changes in weather, especially the introduction of cold air, initiate a sense of dread or death in “This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin,” “At the Music Concourse,” “Cold Cases, Adult Division,” and “The Help.” In “Girl in the Yellow Cardigan,” the cold is physically manifested:
A mother shouldn’t witness her clutch
that neon green container, which she’d
begged to forego today (so she could slip
lunch inside her book bag) and which
I’d insisted she take to keep things cold. (60)
And later, to close the poem, the speaker explains:
. . . here’s what mattered: the thing
is insulated, has a special compartment
for its little block of cold, blue ice. (60)
Bruck ends each section with pieces addressing different ideas of escape: commuting a death sentence (“The Change”), disappearing (“Missing Jerry Tang”), riding in a taxi (“Islands”), racing a horse (“The Winningest Jockey”), and buying a truck (“Greater Good”). It seems the speaker is asking, “If not this way, how about that way?” Eventually, however, she concludes that escape is simply not a viable option for a sane person to attempt. In “Great White, Released,” upon freeing the shark in open water, the aquarium scientists are reduced to:
. . . five yellow-slickered
figures staring at the vanishing point, like
those airport workers who herald the big jets
out to the runways with their fluorescent,
hand-held cones, and restore them to the air. (73)
Escape is for others. Weldon Kees might conclude, “No death for you. You are involved.” (44) So the speaker must settle for life, its tiny releases in “The ‘World Famous’ Lipizzaners” and “Election Night with Dog.”
Monkey Ranch is similar in tone to Bruck’s earlier books The Woman Downstairs and The End of Travel. While the poet has always displayed acute and compassionate powers of observation, however, Monkey Ranch contains an undeniable feeling of distance, though without the formality of Adrienne Rich’s “asbestos gloves.” This detachment is evident in “Newsreel,” where the film’s narrator declares, “’And those who have died / have died to make the world safe for democracy, / they’ve swept in the victory of war to end war.’” (48) Section II of The End of Travel, titled “Kate’s Death,” addresses a friend dying after a long illness. It is personal and wrenching, beautiful poetry. Monkey Ranch, however, employs no such extended personal narrative. Bruck includes the deterioration and breakup of the speaker’s parents’ marriage in Monkey Ranch, but this disaster correlates with other catastrophes surrounding and coexisting around it. Not insignificantly, Bruck closes The End of Travel with the observation, “I’ve never been so hungry in my life.” (67) And Monkey Ranch expands her focus radically to the outside world, to the things which continually move her, the struggle of others, and their commonality with herself.
“Greater Good” closes the volume perfectly. The speaker concludes there is no escape, but there is life, and ways to improve the lives of others. Action can be taken to lessen the ongoing struggle. “Hell, I need / a truck,” the speaker declares. “With a truck, everything / would be much improved. Won’t / you buy me a truck?” (79) The second person the speaker uses here, and the way Bruck enjambs the line, is extremely important. The speaker addresses the reader directly for the first time with a confiding sense of trust, essentially asking me, inviting me, imploring me, to get involved with improving the life of another, seemingly insignificant, person. It seems she’s saying, “We’re all in this together.” “New, Used, & Rare” rings true – “let’s drive all night.” (35) And it is such a simple request. She just needs a truck. And a dog, of course, to ride in it:
. . . air[ing]
his piebald gums to the delight
of all those we pass or who pass:
a most excellent truck and corresponding
dog, on the road to the greater good. (79)
Who knew? Sometimes, that’s all it takes to live a bearable life: a truck, a driver, a woman waving out the window, and a dog keening in the wind, barking, Barking his fool head off.
Paul David Adkins grew up in South Florida and lives in New York.