I Don't Know Do You
By Jessica Smith | published Tuesday, January 28, 2014 |
Thursday Review contributor
In the fall of 2011 I took my first workshop of my MFA at The New School with Craig Morgan Teicher. Roberto Montes was also in that class. He turned in mostly quiet prose poems, where gypsies and shamans and youthful speakers interacted amidst absurdity: policemen falling from the sky, say. His talent was clear but sometimes the work felt distant, holding the reader at arm’s length.
Near the end of that semester, Roberto took a distinct turn toward the intimate. He brought in a poem called “Love Poem for Secret Weather,” a meditative conversation on love set as a series of unanswerable questions that ends with the lines:
Where do I begin?
Was I just about to run my finger
down the bridge of your nose?
Roberto had managed to create a piece where the speaker seemed to be hiding something but was secretly allowing only you—the reader—to see behind the curtain.
When I read Roberto’s first collection, I Don’t Know Do You (to be published soon by Ampersand Books; see link below), I was glad to see “Love Poem For Secret Weather” included among a flood of other work that has a similar winking effect on the reader. The poems in this book are surprising but inevitable, playful but never joking. He manages to weave the personal into the political while illuminating the dark spots and absurdity of behaviors that we, as humans, have accepted as normal.
The third poem in the book is a prime example of Roberto’s talents. A devastating little prose poem called “One way to be a person is to only buy free-range”, Roberto writes:
I have a valid excuse. It manages the planet like a pill bug in an open palm, forsaking
everything. So much appears sensible among the plastic flamingos.
Without finger-wagging, this poem is filled with the anxiety of everyday life and the ways we bring that anxiety upon ourselves. To open with “I have a valid excuse” is to say the inverse: that, really, no excuses are ever valid. And what could be more unsettling than “sensibility” among the plastic flamingos? The poem creates great discomfort without sacrificing humor or – that great elusive poetic thing – beauty. In the closing lines, this beauty and humor weave together to devastating effect:
Up a freshly painted wall, I drag my lower lip. I argue
with a sea salt pillar. I shake the empty hive.
These images of self-inflicted adversity and futility that are still somehow unavoidable put the reader squarely in the place of the speaker, as if Roberto has broken the fourth wall easily and brought us into the speaker’s point of view. At first we are reading the poem, until suddenly we feel our own lip miserably dragging up a freshly painted wall—the Clorox, metallic taste of it in our own mouths.
In this manner, Roberto’s poems refuse to let you look away. Like Lyn Hejinian or Nick Sturm, he creates a hypnotic state by relying on familiar, often academic terminology to lull the reader into contentment before delivering his searing wallop. He deftly weaves daily colloquialisms (“make out,” “Hey, things happen,” “The weirdest thing happened earlier”) with higher, Latinate language. Sometimes the language pretends to be so direct that one is reminded even of a poet as disparate as Philip Levine, until it becomes clear that you have misread a word or misunderstood the point. Which is, in many ways, the point of the whole collection: that we’ve missed the point, that we may still be missing the point.
And the poems in I Don't Know You Do You never shy away from the point. They quietly illuminate the devastation done unto us and the devastation which we have done. What keeps them from being overtly judgmental is not only this fusion of speaker and reader, but that the poems are so often grounded in forgiveness.
Take, for example, the last lines of “Love poem for relentless democratic action”:
with the crosswalk, a real capitalist.
A sexy, auditorium capitalist.
A capitalist bending over the sink
washing your hair. When you wash
your hair like that I just want to
buy you five hundred glittering things.
I build a secret fort inside it. You take
me in with a pelican affection. Deliver me,
I chant, to Main Street please. You go
exactly the wrong way. It is so beautiful
that you know how.
Even within the absurdity of the scene, nothing feels unfamiliar. Roberto has struck a balance of the humane with the agonizing, of the ongoing with the momentary flash of light. Who hasn’t wanted to buy someone “five hundred glittering things” in the midst of some mundane and fleeting act? What is most exciting about this poem, though, is the forgiveness at the end. The “you” has not only gone the wrong way, but exactly the wrong way, and yet the speaker understands the beauty inherent even in this misstep. As if to go the wrong way one must have a very clear idea of the right one.
Ultimately, the reader and speaker are the same, each poem tells us. And ultimately we must all forgive and be forgiven the many mistakes we have made and may continue to make. As in “UFOs are real and they fill even us,” when Roberto writes “An unforgettable mistake to make / I am making it even now.”
To continually unify the speaker with the reader in this way is powerful. It is a method of demanding the best from humanity, of staring the self, the outside world, and even poetry directly in the face. In the few poems where the reader is kept at bay, where anxiety and criticism are more in focus, Roberto continues to level a steady gaze at the reader. As if to say: of course this is how it is. As if to say: I Don’t Know Do You.
For more go to robertomontes.com
Or to Ampersand Books