Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck, published by Brick Books, 2012
Presented in five segments (and yet working easily as a whole), Monkey Ranch begins with This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin. The famous island prison site, located in the San Francisco bay area, directly plays a role in only a single line, where it is casting “its sharp light.”
The poem is more about the narrator’s daughter transfixed by a “singing monkey,” as she calls it, witnessed earlier in the day at the zoo. The fact that the poem is focused on the child’s mantra of such, briefly touching upon the author’s husband recovering from illness, underlines the understatement that serves as the foundation for this poem and which thunders from its title and yet barely makes a whisper – saying far more with nothing than it could ever hope to in a didactic eulogy.
This effective style is revisited in At the Music Concourse, where the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide is described only in morning-after Tai Chi, coffee-drinking police officers, a dog in the park and a potted ginkgo, “its little fans the hammered gold / they turn at the cusp of winter – / trembling, though there is no wind.”
The author concludes the opening section with The Change, and sounds eager for some sort of spiritual self-improvement, “even if I stop short / at crystals and meet-the-plankton music.” She struggles with her battle to not hate or desire to kill the mouse that darts across her kitchen floor, vowing to set it free in the park after capture if a humane trap works – “I’ll be better than I am, / pretend to love / this creature I’d rather drown.”
In the second section, there is the pure poetry of “What gives this day such perfect pitch, / a held note against the usual desolations?” in Gold Coin, with its sights and sounds of Chinatown. From San Francisco, Bruck’s hometown of Montreal appears in the flashback of The Trick, with its mix of childhood fun and tragedy. Montreal again in Entre Chien et Loup, with its fascinating, enthralling insight into the fall of a marriage conveyed through her mother’s painstaking efforts to dress for a party while a father and husband fumes with impatience. The descriptions are vivid, clear and memorable. Its ending, glorious in metaphor.
The less-is-more comes back to the page of A School Night in February (section III), where the deceptive normalcy of evening will soon be replaced by a mass shooting in a school, and the fact that the whys are left unsaid makes the poem speak louder with its lights left on for “ ... someone / who must have been inexplicably delayed.”
Bruck is the master of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, which are simultaneously found in a vagrant’s blanket, “which gives him the weight of a weathered sage. / Or would, if we could stand to look at him / the way our children do, when they’re still / too young to strip the world of miracles.” (Section IV’s Cold Cases, Adult Division).
Parental disconnect is evident in Girl in the Yellow Cardigan (a mother’s insistence on her daughter’s use of an outmoded lunch container in the schoolyard) and in My Father’s Clothes, where the paternal parent is unaccustomed and unable to offer suitable affectionate touch. Bruck’s narrative role flows seamlessly from that of daughter to one of mother in these vignettes of verse that span three generations, seen most effectively in Ocean Ridge, where her daughter’s ear reveals “delicate runnels and inlets / shaped as if by water.”
References to the animal world, while most obvious in the title poem and in Great White, Released (Section V), also peek through as “complete stamps from Borneo with wax-paper / hinges frail as insect wings” in Girl in Her Brothers’ Bedrooms and during Barack Obama’s first presidential victory relived in Election Night with Dog.
Dead Air, toward the end, gives the kind of acute vision to an auditory event that crowns so many of Julie Bruck’s poems in this collection. Read with one sense and you’ll have the other four absorb the penetrating beauty residing throughout this splendid offering.
– Andreas Gripp