The second sentence of “Lightning,” the first poem in The Next Monsters (Black Ocean, 2013), reads: “I drag you to a little room to show you 116 photos” (3). To some extent, I think, this is a productive way to conceptualize the prose poems that comprise Julie Doxsee’s third full-length collection of poetry: as “little rooms” a reader can enter so as to view the strange “photos,” images, ideas, and language that reside within them. Like the rooms of a house, each one is a discrete space with its own furnishings; yet, when regarded collectively, they work in conjunction with one another to form a complete residence. Take, for example, the poem “Mountain and Monster”:
A hailstorm comes out of the monster’s mouth and I spill my coffee with a jolt. We laugh and laugh as if we had come together for the only time and place when and where split coffee is funny. You are the only monster I know who wears a pink sweater I say to it as it pretends to offer me some cashews. We are on top of a jagged mountain, fingertips inches from the clouds. (47)
This example, like many throughout the collection, offers readers a rather fantastical image; in this case, it is that of the speaker and a “monster” spewing a “hailstorm” from his mouth while laughing, eating cashews, spilling coffee, and touching clouds on top of a mountain. To this end, it is a bizarre little room with an odd and somewhat surreal painting hanging on its wall. You enter the room, look at the painting, momentarily lose (or escape) yourself in its strangeness, then move on to the next little room.
Of course, not all of these little rooms are furnished with images. Others are more abstract and fill themselves with ideas. To wit, here is the poem “Lion Touch” in its entirety:
Something important is nothing. To be inside people teaches us inwardness, doesn’t it? A certain kind of me falls inside like an assumption. A certain kind of prayer finds a newborn you. Three days of water-only leaves a great pain in your chest without should to cover it.
Something important is wow. Perhaps we are coloring the bravery its takes to make love, to stay anesthetized outside. I think so. I think most people live in our chest without a way to get out. To feel them there is zoo-ish.
I’m glad people stay alive. I’m glad I am naked. (35)
The poem contains, primarily, a series of declarative sentences that focus on subjectivity and the complicated manner in which both internal and external forces work to create it. “To be inside people,” or to extend outside of ourselves, paradoxically, “teaches us inwardness.” Likewise, the Other lives “in our chest” and we “feel” them in this corporeal petting zoo. Yes, this little room is a far cry from the image-based surrealism of the previous example.
But, as mentioned before, these rooms work in conjunction with one another—not in opposition to one another—in order to create a larger, habitable structure. And in this structure, as Doxsee writes in the appropriately titled “Mansion”: “There are 22 rooms here your words inhabit—the twisted serifs I spiral up and corkscrew down and spiral up and corkscrew down every day. Wear my dizzy skin, please” (63). Indeed, as we walk through the mansion that is The Next Monsters, we enter each room so as to “corkscrew” through and around their “twisted” words. In doing so, we become “dizzy” with linguistic vertigo, as the poet designs a strange architecture of poetry.
In some respects, then, the rooms she constructs while building this house function also as a monument to language that is both poetic and utilitarian. In the poem “The Key to Moving Correctly without Running into Obstacles,” the speaker says:
I like words because they do anything right up front. I am a black cat with engorged nipples. My two babies are bats with goat legs. A third was born with white eyes—totally white—so it never saw my nipple and starved. For example. (55)
In this room, Doxsee manages to fuse what most critics find to be antithetical: functionality and the autotelic drive toward l’art pour l’art. Accordingly, “words” have the capacity to “do anything right up front”; but, at least in this poem, what they “do” is create a self-contained world wherein goats and bats suckle an “engorged” cat. Yes, the content of the poem maybe devoid of utilitarian value, but we can relate the act of creating that world to building a private study or den in which a home-owner can relax, meditate, or simply escape the anxieties stemming our daily quandaries about food, the rent, and bills.
That, to my mind, then, is the beauty of The Next Monsters: each poem is a constructed space in which we enter, so as to take leave of the world around us, and let words “do anything” to us they (and we) want. In the poet’s own words, it is “language that makes an apple an apple,” but it is “up to us to say that it is” (77). In other words, when we enter these rooms, we also enter into a symbiotic relationship with language; and such a relationship, when in assisted by a poet like Doxsee, has the ability to produce wonderful little rooms that contain beautiful furnishings such as: “I can’t shake the image, I can’t shake the full moon. It is the permanent, not the fleeting, that hurts” (41). Yes, the little rooms The Next Monsters offer a permanence that will leave you hurting in all the good ways.