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Monkey Ranch

by Julie Bruck

Montreal native Julie Bruck’s third collection of poems is also her first since 1999. The intervening years have seen seismic shifts in aesthetics, but Bruck, now based in San Francisco, has produced a timely reminder that there is still room for excellent poetry in a mode that is no longer deemed fashionable.

Whereas foregrounded technique and verbal razzle-dazzle characterize much new poetry, Bruck favours a plain style in her free-verse lyrics, the prime virtues of which are clarity and subtlety. In less successful poems, her approach leads to prosaic flatness. For the most part, however, Bruck manages to load her work with tension by means of narrative economy, judicious phrasing, and startling juxtaposition.

A beautiful example is the book’s first poem, “This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin.” The execution isn’t mentioned beyond the title. What unfolds, rather, is a small drama involving a couple and their young daughter. Prison imagery recurs in the form of a zoo monkey’s cage and, at the end of the poem, the daughter’s crib, in which she’s “run out of joy, / and fallen asleep on her knees.” This terminal image resonates with the poem’s title, calling to mind the image of an executed inmate. The poem could have been mishandled a dozen ways, but Bruck lays it down masterfully, keeping the connections implicit, in the process creating what another poem aptly refers to as a “thickened atmosphere.”

The strongest work in the book tends to be focused on family, whether looking back at the poet’s own childhood or at her present. She sometimes moves backward and forward in time simultaneously, and draws striking parallels and contrasts between the fragile family unit and the world that harbours and occasionally threatens it. Domestic verse gets a bad rap – often deservedly – for being trivial, but Bruck freights her household scenes with such emotion and latent danger that they are never merely about herself and her relationships. She is less successful in a handful of overtly political pieces, but the best poems in this book are so stark and moving as to render any such reservations negligible.