Atlas of Essential Monsters
dancing girl press, 2016
Poetry chapbooks are the jewels of the literary world. Often they exist as warm-ups or previews of a poet’s forthcoming larger work, sometimes being stand-alone experiments, younger poets can use them to test the waters of the industry, and their production can build community. For many and most, beloved chapbooks are usually handmade by some micro-press rarely consisting of more than a few souls, which means they are not just literary works but craftworks of art.
The quality of the poetry in chapbooks is intimately connected to the persona of the poet. Work of a poetry chapbook is a gorgeous mixture of desire, for anonymity and recognition. Because chapbooks tend to overwhelm the already over run poetry market and literary libraries, it’s far too easy to overlooked them. There are a slew of brilliant presses and publishers shepherding the work of some truly innovative poets via the chapbook format. One of these is dancing girl press run by Kristy Bowen.
Published last year, Melissa Severin’s Atlas of Essential Monsters is a shadowy collection, one bristling with a dark that is witchy and industrial. Over the brevity of a chapbook it is difficult to develop a theme if the poet doesn’t already have one that binds the poetry. For example, Joanna Valente’s recent chapbook Xenos explores home and foreignness through the foil of the poet and her grandmother. Severin’s poetry is slightly more elliptic but still intensely lyrical.
These poems occupy space yet are obsessed with how we frame ourselves and our experience. In this collection, Severin has written some brilliant philosophical poems that are so because they are not concerned with concepts or theories rather they embody a kind of phenomenological reduction, a bracketing of experience. In ‘Had It Coming’ the speaker body is adrift moving “Downriver current where arms like branches/ line the shore, disassembled and distant, hands/ hoist paper birds to soak up the rain.” showing how Severin is able to see the natural world as framing experience but awaiting someone to see it.
Framing, bracketing, or the establishing of boundaries not so much borders seems to be a central theme of Atlas of Essential Monsters. The speakers of these poems hold back judgment of the world. ‘without frames’ grants us an estranged corporeality (“what’s defined by another body/ sovereign nation with borders shifting) as does ‘Keel Calling Hull’:
When I’m gone you feel it
in your palms. And since we won’t
touch, the rest of life
In a wonderful lyrical manner bordering on the pastoral, the subjects let the world rush over them taking it all in and trying to let experience speak for itself. Suddenly, what one is feeling becomes stripped of meaning as the weight of the experience is felt with full force. Then, with this bracketing of experience accomplished, comes the poet’s prerogative to name and, thus, discern not the value of the experience but the impact of it. Take for example the opening poem ‘New Permanence’ where Severin writes “It’s called apple orchard, this sky, and in May or September light lasts so long/ it breaks your heart and you leave every city you lived in, again.” So as we move to the end of the collection, a poem like ‘Silent Service’ is not just sensible but exacting, “Back to maps and time/ lapse text encoded, wired across air// bridges with incalculable density./ That it exists at all is a question// for space.”
The blending of urban and rural, of subjective and objective experience is deftly done by Severin making these poems beautiful and unsettling. The individuation here is as intense as the language and metaphor is imperative.
Melissa Severin (@Melix) has a MFA from New England College. She has published several poetry chapbooks, is a business executive, and lives in Chicago, IL.