Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner





The Monstrance
Poems by Bryan D. Dietrich

Review by Gina Wisker

It is hard to avoid Monster related comments! Bryan Dietrich’s latest book, long in gestation and the making, is something of a masterpiece. One of the very special things about The Monstrance is the way in which Bryan Dietrich expertly deepens and matures the initial ideas and insights he had about the presence and the influence of the Monster. He does this, building upon the Frankenstein tale and taking it into his own life and ours, making a new fable which is sometimes delicate and sometimes abrasive, both threatening and carnivalesque, disruptive, troublesome, entertaining, dangerous. Such development is the mark of a major talent operating at a new level of imagination, a richly honed skill with language and its effects on our imaginations. The poem also operates on our sense of pattern and deviation, form and presence. I have seen some of these poems earlier, and heard some of them – read. Some sidle off into the nuances of story and character, some grab your sense of the everyday and the Gothic qualities of the monstrous, and throughout the whole, very cohesive, narrative there is a finely linked spine of form, and of concern about identity, belief and love.

Despite one interpretation of the title ‘Monstrance’ ie a Monster – rather than the offering of ‘the host’ – this fine collection is not bodged together with odd leftover pieces – nuts and bolts like the Monster Frankenstein put together. It’s demonstrably a perfect whole, although written over several years. Asking Bryan about some of it, I was informed that it is a ‘midrash’ – a Rabbinical form which aimed to fill in gaps in the Torah – and so here it is used to fill in gaps in the Frankenstein story.

The Monster, the Gypsy, the lame priest and the master all take voices and parts in this physical and psychological journeying and growth through love, religion and self development. The poem is in two main parts, with Part One introducing us to the Monster, learning, development, meeting the Gypsy, joining the circus; then a subsection concentrates on the Gypsy Letters – different locations over Europe, including Transylvania. It is followed by the Lame Priest section, then diary entries from the master. Part Two returns us to the Monster – and growth, considering mass, retirement and his last lesson. The poem ends with the epilogue and the Monster’s return.

This poem sequence concerns an everyman wandering or in flight through confusion, rejection, self-development, love, growth and journeying. Yet it is also the Monster’s coming to consciousness, which takes place with the notable absence of a father, the master. This questioning for a father figure runs throughout the book, linking issues variously about parenting, religion, nurturing and social justice. Initially the father/master rejects his creation and the Monster experiences instead some undermining bullying from the hunchback, who reminds him he doesn’t have a brain. Although he is stitched together from fragments stolen from corpses and other bodies, he has now a sense of questioning about form and wellbeing. As soon as the villagers attack the castle with fire, he and the hunchback are sacrificed to their anger – but he can repay the meanness of at least one of his tormentors. The hunchback, less than a Monster, in this economy, never makes it from the roof.

Some of the poem sequence is a love story. The Monster finds true love after meeting the Gypsy in her caravan. She is also an outcast, and unites the unusual, she too is ‘piecemealed’. He is both found and finds himself, realising ‘how masters can be chosen, how shadows can take you in, how songs, Gypsies, Monsters, all, are cobbled from desire’. This is a form of freewill but very much bound in love. And there are some fascinating moments when the erotic – two blue wet bodies – is suddenly intruded on by the strange – no idea where the Monster’s heart comes from, and imagining he has a range of influences each from his body parts so when ‘the Monster nodding’ dreams and imagines, the Gypsy, the Monster and the readers wonder ‘whose grasp, whose penchant for eggs and broccoli’ affects him.

There are some amusing moments then, poignant, and the strangeness is simultaneously too familiar, as his fears and discoveries – love, fire burns, the importance of mutual care – are juxtaposed with various elements of his strangeness and, at times, abject body – too big, clumsy, stupid, but also learning, fearing and dreaming like the rest of us. Bryan Dietrich manages to couple defamiliarisation with the painfully familiar. He also fuses the narrativity of the long work with his skill, with the lyrical, the intertextual, the evocation of sense and sound in the exact wording.

‘Daguerreotype’, the arrival of the carnival, as a symbol of revolt and celebration, of alternative energies, is a favourite of mine. Here, the carnival itself is brought to life, texture, colour and sound in the intermixing of words such as ‘limb’ and ‘breath’, ‘seminal’, a new start – with the disruption and offer of the ‘hurdy-gurdy/and conch music’, the sudden arrival of the senses in the sound, thealliteration and richness of sudden colour:

And seminal in that seeing
Came color: Motley and mahogany,
Turquoise and teal, orchid, apricot, shades
Of cerulean, of green and reddish gold.

Moving into the viewpoint of the Gypsy takes place immediately after we’ve seen her dicing with her naming of him as freak, and creating the unfamiliar through the eyes of the Gypsy works well. She’s also aware of how he is ‘too much like a circus himself’, a living palimpsest of different bits and pieces – too much a mix.

Theirs is a love story in which he is seen as ‘awkward’ but full of grace, his Gothic mixture of loving ‘lightning, lace/graveyard picnics’, part of his own monstrous conglomerate of parts, but also very human – (‘Constantinople’). Whenever the tone becomes highly romantic it can then be undercut by the ironic comic, such as, ‘Okay, maybe we weren’t made for each other’, particularly appropriate given the Monster’s origins, but it does mean for the Monster and the Gypsy that neither forces a version of self on the other.

The Gypsy is aware of the danger and of his need, and equally keen on ending up ‘half-axled off some precipice, lost in wood’ (‘Ingoldstadt’), like a version of little red riding hood – offering a new view on the attraction of the Monster. The crossroads and contracts she mentions are about behavioural rules, as much as the norms of appearance and laws.

While the poem talks of disturbance, the flinging free of the imagination is also balanced by the recognisably tight structure of the whole, the rhyme, alliteration – so ‘destination’ and ‘hesitation’ – the reversal of the normal way round, suggests disturbance and options.

But only this couple could picnic in an open grave (‘Belgrade’), a delightfully gruesome image.

They are very varied, these poems. ‘Florence’ is about the moment when the Monster left, possibly for the lover of the doctor, on whom he first imprinted, in ‘God’. The poem hurtles through fairy tales, the oddness, the edginess, echoed in the rhyme: ‘girls seeking sex, axe, something perilous to nuzzle’ and tales of an old wizard. It goes deeper and deeper into myth and legend as it gets closer to ‘Transylvania’, then ‘Venice’, recalling previously making men out of clay or crypts and wrestling with the dead, burning out, alienating.

The Lame Priest’s Exegesis series is not as celebratory. It focuses on treachery, trickery and power games, but here Bryan Dietrich explores the themes of sexual awakening seen as deviant, of mortality and ageing, death, life from life or death and the role of religion, whether Christianity, in the main, or at one point, a fling with Satanism, which ended up with stealing a goat. Life is a card game which you cannot win, ‘what then, when God of Trumps demands his borrowed portions back?’ (‘On the Anastasis of Monsters’).

Reading The Monstrance as a whole reminded me that with Bryan Dietrich’s work you need to pay more attention to the complexity of the poetry, because he is a master of his craft, and the tricksiness, the facility with complex rhyme, lurks beneath the surface of the story, nurturing it along, intertwining and reiterating, revisualising, reminding with reference, rhyme. ‘On the Anastasis of Monsters’ set me off exploring back to the poetry of my student days, asking, is this Virgilian? Or Dante?, suggesting the descent into hell, referencing Dante’s wood, and I wondered if this indicates that the priest is in purgatory? I realised I had spotted terza rima, favourite of Dante, which find was corroborated later by Bryan. The priest’s tale is of splattered toads, girls who believe their drowned bodies will float back to land, dismembered corpses, despair, then mortality, brought up to date with references to slipping in the shower, body fluid, brain matter perhaps going down the plug hole, the little that’s left of us as we die and the way in which, while the body renews itself bit by bit, the brain never does.

In ‘Absalom’, brother eats brother, the strangeness evoked by ‘mandible’, the everyday by ‘sleep strange sandals’. This concerns one reason for going to hell. His childhood lies undercut his potential for getting to heaven, when actually you cannot ‘buy your way into someone else’s/mansion’. This priest is a doubter. Every thought he has had of sex is underhand, seen as deviant, hidden. So in ‘On Connections’, death is wound, Gothic, swamp-like, satanic, into birth and temporary life – it’s hard to credit his claim ‘I found Jesus’, when the embrace of death is always so close in the lame priest’s view of things:

Strange how we wind up embracing corpses,
The ones we’ve tried so poorly to embalm;

His is a claustrophobic and negative view of life, with walling up, death of unborn children, thick fog. In his view, as people grope through life there is little to celebrate or grasp and mostly it is a contradiction. So the thoughts of life and death in ‘On Darwin, on Wholes’, leaves us with the sense of decaying and dying bit by bit, since we are little more than vulnerable, old minds on refurbished frames.

Questions and quests for religion and belief run throughout the poem sequence. For the Lame Priest, his own darkness undercuts that hope – so the line, ‘It should be a bigger mystery than it is’, reveals his own searching, the deceit of the journey, where religion offers some answers, ultimately undercut. Mystery and mortality underpin the whole, but beyond the Lame Priest section there is both a sense of investment for the Monster and Gypsy in love, temporary and threatened and patched though it might be, like Monster himself, and an underlying desire for established religion to offer something greater.

I might have discovered an example of terza rima and sniffed out something like a Petrarchan sonnet with a difference, but the interlocking nature and the deliberate extension and difference enabled by tight control of innovations in established poetic conventions and forms was more unlocked in email dialogue. As most of this review is my own thoughts on and responses to the poem sequence, I will use Bryan’s elucidation of poetic plan and enactment to offer ways into further exploration of the rhyme and form. He says: ‘the great majority of the poems use a pretty strict syllable count, there are Sonnets and Double Sonnets, "The Monster and the Gypsy" uses a weird reverse backward rhyme scheme where the last line of section one rhymes with the first line of section two (and so forth), all of the Gypsy Letters are a new kind of Double Petrarchan Sonnet unique to me as far as I know (each with two double sestets and a double couplet for a total of 28 lines), I have one Terza Rima, one Ballad, one Pantoum, a run-of-the-mill iambic rhyming poem, and then the penultimate poem, "The Monster's Last Lesson", which is based on "The House That Jack Built" (or on Elizabeth Bishop's "Visits to St. Elizabeth's"). Lots of forms, but also lots of influences, particularly Bishop and Shelley (both of them), but also Anne Sexton and Cynthia Macdonald and William Trowbridge and my mentor at the time, Scott Cairns.’(March 15, 2013).

Petrarchan sonnets are suitable for the love the Gypsy explores. Returning to one of my favourites, ‘Transylvania’, in the Gypsy’s own poem sequence, for instance, we see that it has two stanzas, one of 12 and one of 16 lines, so a kind of double Petrarchan sonnet (thank you Bryan!). This is for more than playful creativity, however. ‘Transylvania’ is a powerful poem of otherness and the distance yet closeness of family in the middle of racist xenophobia, which turns to Monster and victim anyone seen as different. The internal rhyme emphasises this movement between familiar and defamiliarised, returned closeness, family clan, so ‘pregnant’ rhymes with ‘revenant’, the drowned and stoned Uncle an imagined returner. The reference to ‘our love of night’ and emptying their ‘eyes of the moons full/cup’ links them in the otherness of the love of night, which might be deemed monstrous (werewolf, vampire, escapee, refugee) by those who attack them. They, the Gypsy’s family, and Gypsy and the Monster might be ‘motley’ like their evolving clothes, but the real culprits are the xenophobic villagers: ‘They see Monsters in nothing but heads too flat, skin too tan’. Half rhyme enables ‘beastly’ to be disempowered into something more celebratory ‘at best’.

By the time we reach the Master’s poems we know the loathing of difference and the inner guilt at taunting that difference have emerged in the construction of the Monster. The form of the villanelle locks in the prejudice with the production, and the hemmed in personal story – so the form forces and echoes the sense:

They come as fallen offspring of the sky’s
horizons; midnight’s colloquy of lies.

We finish the poems of the Master with his musings on books to take should you be on a deserted island, and his awareness that his relatives are losing limbs and his own are also falling away. Ironically?, fittingly?, someone who dismembered corpses to construct a creature he rejected is himself fearing dissolution and dismemberment .

The final sequence is for the Monster. ‘Monster and little Miss’ takes us into his thoughts about blame and accident, the death of the little girl picking flowers, which haunts him as later he picks up parts of bone from corpses in the Franco Prussian war. The poem linking him with master and windmill, ‘The Monster, the Master and the Windmill’ returns to another night of fire and banishment, which in effect enables his escape, since he is ‘as always, presumed dead’. In retirement he paints blue nudes, having contemplated the complexity of poetry – Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge.

The whole poem sequence, The Monstrance, is a ‘midrash’, and a triumph. It fills in gaps in tales we know, and extends them, so it is equally innovative in its effective, creative play with a vast variety of poetic forms, and in its challenges to and speculations about life, belief, love, identity, journeying, mortality, change, metamorphosis of form, of life, of story. At the point at which ‘The Monster’s Last Lesson’ takes place, the verse turns to ‘This is the house that Jack built’. He’s a ‘raggedy man, a man man-made’, but death frees him in the build-up of this poem, which releases him till his last word seems to be ‘Gypsy’. But it cannot end this way. Of course, he does not die, he has been made from resurrected parts, so the poem ends in laughter, in fact, in new life. ‘Hubris’ though this re-creation might be, it leaves ‘them both in stitches’. Like all good Monsters created from our own faults and fears, this one, as we know, never lies down and dies, so the last poem fittingly, is ‘The Monster Returns’.


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
Website maintained by Michelle Bernard - Contact michelle.bernard2@ntlworld.com - last updated March 21, 2013