Strength, Sweetness, and More: The Available World by Ander Monson

Ben Purkert

Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2010. 85 pages. $14.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

True to its name, The Available World is vast in scope. To enter this compendium is to lunge into “all our collected layers”: a space littered with dropped candied hearts, disposable cameras, and “bodies / sprawled out like petals at a wedding.” By cataloguing our environment in such up-close detail, the book functions as a kind of extended list poem, a labor in fine recording. More than simply a work of documentation, however, The Available World is a project of full-scale creation. Its epigraph from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” sets out this rather ambitious vision, declaring, “Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball.” Of course “strength” and “sweetness” constitute only a fraction of the total human experience. Monson’s poems strive to encompass humanity’s less savory parts as well, including its many wastes, its various husks tossed aside.

Monson’s interest in society’s discards may recall the work of A.R. Ammons, in particular his 1993 masterpiece, Garbage. Like Ammons, whose name surfaces in the poem “More and More Availability,” Monson arrives at startlingly fertile images by digging through what has been scrapped, asserting “all the world is filtered / light and trash beneath the bleachers.” The world and its refuse, however, have changed considerably since Garbage’s publication: our lives increasingly intersect with virtual environments; we pass through “shimmering nets of wifi everywhere.” Monson’s poems attempt to coalesce tangible and digital, and thus to reconcile, as Monson puts it, memory disks and memory.

Monson is a writer uniquely equipped to reimagine these borders where technology and human experience meet. His body of work blurs traditional classifications, spanning nonfiction, fiction, poetry, as well as other media such as broadsides and a decoder wheel. A user-curated web experience accompanies The Available World; as Monson explains in an interview with his publisher Sarabande Books, the reader is intended to navigate the text “based on recurring images and ideas in the poems, so you can click on ‘blood’ and it’ll take you to another ‘blood’ poem.” This stringing together of hyperlinks accentuates the thematic undercurrents that buoy these poems, so many of which concern the mind’s confrontation with cyberspace. “Avatar: Eclogue,” for example, presents a virtual form and renders it tactile, ordering us to “Pry it wide and climb / into the suit of it.” Monson radiantly bridges poetry’s pastoral tradition and our current high-tech reality.

As one might expect in a book about creation, The Available World frequently employs the language of religion and myth—the word “sermon” appears in many poems’ titles. These allusions help establish a kind of double register: at once the speaker flaunts irreverence (“my Bible memory is slow and rusty as a sad / abandoned car”) and yet displays a profound observance for the world’s vital beauty even though Monson knows “the eye sees patterns where there are none.” Perhaps the book’s lone sacred cow is not Genesis but Katamari Damancy, a Japanese phrase meaning “clump spirit,” and also the name of a popular video game in which the protagonist creates the world anew by rolling varied objects into a ball. Here, Monson finds a modern-day analogue for what Marvell envisions, re-animating lines from poetry’s past with technological effect.

Discussing his methodology with his publisher, Monson sounds half-poet, half-computer programmer: “Part of the process of these poems . . . involved entering the text of the original poem into translation software, then re-translating it back to English . . . leaving only what I thought was meaning-making.” There is a fine line between delightfully surprising and simply random, but Monson’s operations yield significant returns, such as playful near homonyms (“silence” juxtaposed with “science,” “levers” with “lovers”) that pack real philosophical punch. Monson also experiments with form, even attempting a few calligrams, as in the poem, “Can We Get to the Center of It,” which includes the line “each layer a parenthesis” and molds itself to depict that punctuation’s curvature.

Readers familiar with Monson’s earlier work will appreciate that his newest collection still weaves in images from his Northern Michigan upbringing. In addition to capturing human experience at a grand scale, these poems are also tender portraits of the accretions of one’s own life: the ice and what’s beneath it, the shuttered schoolhouse, radio frequencies in the night. Monson succeeds in combining personal and collective memory, and this is what makes the book at once so available to readers and yet so expansive in the space it occupies.

This push for expansiveness, which at times makes Monson’s more pat lines feel out of tone, gives these poems their breathless urgency and their impression of inevitably falling short; even a book that enumerates excess can’t include it all. Yet the strain between the desire to encapsulate everything and the assured limitations of such an endeavor is precisely what makes the collection so compelling. In this wild effort to, in a sense, beat the clock—Monson admits in his interview feeling a pressure to “count what [he] can while [he] can”—the poems buzz with a consciousness struggling to fit a broad vision in a narrow window. The Available World rushes brilliantly and out of necessity, for eventually the hourglass peters out, the video game player runs out of lives, and as Marvell laments, “Had we but world enough, and time . . . ”

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