The Available World
by Ander Monson
Sarabande Books 2010
Reviewed by Clay Matthews
“…even that was gone.”
It’s tough to imagine what Icarus might have felt when he realized his wings were gone. Fear? Regret? Or was the beauty of flying and being so close to the sun enough to keep a smile on his face on the way down, plunging into the vast water below. I’ve always been a fan of the elegy in poetry and in life for its ambivalent circumnavigation of what’s gone, what’s been lost. In Ander Monson’s new book, The Available World, we find a loose retelling of the Icarus story, and a speaker who’s trying to come to terms with a technological world where nearly everything is ephemeral except for the constants of human emotion and questions about our interaction with the world.
Brian Mchale wrote that the shift from modernism to postmodernism is best characterized as a shift from epistemology to ontology—from questions about knowledge to questions about being. I’ve never been that good with philosophy or theory, and for me, it’s tough to draw a line in the sand between the two -ologies. The ocean always comes back to wash it all away. In this book, Monson finds a way to bridge the questions and apprehensions that a technological world presents to an individual—questions about self, what’s real, what we can or should hang on to when everything seems to eventually wind up in code or buried under re-runs and Wal-Mart bags. In the poem “Sometimes the Air Surrounding Me Is Sudden with Flowers,” we find a speaker waiting with others in an emergency room watching E.R. What saves this poem, and the book, from falling into some ironical gesture toward an absolute hyper-reality, though, is Ander’s attention to the details of the other people in the room, and the circumstances of a tough world:
We are surrounded by: black eyes,
blood blisters, broken legs,
bruises in the shapes of circus animals,
a variety of burns.
The list goes on, and grows more strange and brutal, until the final couplet of the poem: “It’s as if I’ve never seen / the world in which I live before.”
There’s often a moment of awareness in these poems that shakes the speaker into interaction. This book is filled with sermons—“Sermon in Ribbons,” “Maybe Visionary Sermon,” “Work-Related Injury Sermon,” “Sermon for the Day After the Last Missed Apocalypse Prediction,” and so on. The sermon form here, though, is not didactic or easily described, much like Ander’s treatment of the elegy and the apocalypse. There are no easy answers, only the brief moments in life we find ourselves comfortable in—in laughter, love, sex, etc. Even Icarus can’t help out, come back from the dead (though never really gone) in “Slow Dance with Icarus,” as he states “This is not a lesson, / and I don’t know and haven’t learned or stayed / in school no more than him or you.”
Monson carries out a dappled narrative of a family in this book—traumatized by catastrophe, frequented by a brother with no arms and Star Trek and Stand By Me actor Wil Wheaton. There are plenty of laughs here, tragedy, and gizmos that scoop us up and spit us out as random digits; in short, you’ll find a buffet of the available world here: Suave, Chevies, zombies and getting hitched in Vegas, to name a few. This world presents itself in moments, and then those moments vanish, as in the final lines of the book, Monson writes:
Did I say sorry for the house? I think
it had collapsed already. There was a zero
there last time I saw it: then even that was gone.
But, I’m usually an optimist, so I see those things living on in memory—whether that memory is a hard drive, a mind, or some deeper collective memory of the world. That’s my take on it, though, and like Icarus, I don’t have any good answers as to whether or not that’s right. So buy this book. Find out for yourself.