Reviewed in this essay: Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck, Brick Books, 2012
Julie Bruck’s poems have the transparency of fingerprints on glass. The achievement of Monkey Ranch, her Governor General Award-winning collection, is not obvious. Her third book, it contains poems about rituals and family life–a son at a window, a lover sleeping through the noise of a vacuum–and the simple language that belies the ambivalence of everyday experiences.
Bruck’s diction is so unassuming that the difficulty of her task is not immediately apparent. Her poems are lucid vignettes that render run-of-the-mill moments and “small complications.” Modern readers may tend to associate density of language with depth of feeling, as though impenetrable or obscure writing necessarily corresponds to ideas of greater substance. But Bruck’s admirers love her work for its accessibility, and it can be much more challenging to craft poems that convey a quiet empathy while resisting sentimentality. Bruck’s poems, with titles like “Milk Teeth,” “Goodwill,” “Missing Jerry Tang” and “Common Goods,” prompt us to question how we distinguish the banal moments from the extraordinary.
With their deliberately conversational tone, Bruck’s poems place you in the middle of a story before you know it. Almost prosaic cadences and straightforward images–“gnarled as shrub,” “ashy, lunar lawns”–are appropriate for the plain yet troublesome truths she presents. Bruck relies on found texts, bits of dialogue and idioms to create dramatic tension and shifts in mood. The poems’ anecdotal quality feels immediate yet, simultaneously, their pronouncements are ambiguous, leaving the final word up to the reader. A verse of Kay Ryan’s is placed as an epigraph to the book, and Bruck shares Ryan’s take-it-or-leave-it manner. There are pinches of Billy Collin’s storytelling, Dean Young’s humour, and Bruck she shares a lineage with Canadians Bronwen Wallace and Phyllis Webb.
Indeed, attempting to pinpoint Bruck’s position can become a game for readers. Her speaker is interested in contemplating the “street’s bright offer,” asking, “What gives this day such perfect pitch,/ a held note against usual desolations?” She views how “certain afternoons/ are islands”, and each poem attempts to isolate and survey particular moments. In these moments, parents watch their children with helplessness, a shopper wavers between “Chicken or shrimp,/ sell or keep,/ cerulean or indigo,/ go, stay?” while “the world/ drums/ its fingers.”
Contrasted with poems that address the “monkey ranch” of social relationships, are poems about the aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad, or a newsreel after Armistice Day. Bruck lets us see household details in instances of war, and the insidious, emotional violence in our bedrooms and kitchens.
The book as a whole is stronger than individual poems, some of which are fleeting. Near the end of the book, the poet-as-daughter says, “I didn’t want/ to be told what to look at, how to see.” If you’re the kind of reader who wants to look for themselves, Bruck shares that inclination.