Review of Because the Stars Shine Through It by Geoff Munsterman. Lavender Ink, November 2013.
While reading Geoff Munsterman’s first collection, Because the Stars Shine Through It, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been dropped into some strange summer party in the swampy woods of Louisiana where everyone’s a little drunk and desperately aware of it. There’s a creeping toward that angsty near-nostalgia of kids who’ve grown up someplace, left for a year or two, and then come back, so now their talk rings with tones that sound like some grief-heavy meandering through a shared haunted past.
Munsterman works this heavily throughout these poems, and there always seems to be lurking—whether in the mind, the history, or the landscape—some monster or specter or drowned corpse (or piece of corpse—“a pair of legs with the soggy / wallet still inside the pocket”), it is seen through a cloudy folk-tinged reminiscence. Death and loss in their myriad forms punctuate nearly every poem of the collection, so much so that everything the poet works with, everything dredged up from the New Orleans suburb at the heart of the book, carries the scent. This might be what he is fighting with in this book: that one big, looming specter of all specters and what to do with its inescapable presence.
The answer seems to escape, or at least avoid, capture, so we’re left with a voice that, at its best, finds that magic coalescence of the sagely and sonic, like in the first section of “Resurrecting Fish & Other Mysteries” where a vision of home recognizes “[t]his place is tar or marsh. / Oil or soil.” and that “[m]en wake early & work. / Even the thumbless among them / lift crab traps at dawn.” It all manages to couple the reality of the area to an image (a youthful one) that is very likely fading away.
In fact, the way most of these poems handle this cracking (or clearing?) vision of things is in the wordplay Munsterman splashes throughout. These are a sticking point in many spots of the book, though. It often feels like a way to manage—or mitigate or cope with—the deaths and losses that haunt the poems and people and parts of town they elicit. And when it works, it really works; the long prose-y “Tunnel” rattles off and conjures up, in seven pages of a single, almost stream-of-consciousness column, a mythos for the town’s under-river passage that stands (Ginsberg knew it, too) as the perfect gaping metaphor:
Cinder and smoke artifact, dead scab up,
bleed the shore black
them guardrails out, think tonight the dead
come out to keep their loved ones up,
keep them company. In this company
best not to ask questions. Ask a question.
Dare you. Ask tonight. Never ask again.
Yellow lights flicker tilesflicker…flicker.
Hollow tunnel bursting ghost shine alive.
But when it doesn’t work, we’re left wondering what’s actually hiding, what’s actually being hidden behind the obfuscation and sonic gymnastics (and to what end): “your eyes lucid juices lapping ashen / bulkheads” and “Strict as mathematics, nervous / as asthmatics in the smoky bar” and “My bare toes smitten in grime / wiggle & chirp like wind-chime” and
the tickle of your eyelashes
flapped like whiskers
as music rolled your tongue
until its rough buds buttered
like parsnips the eclipse
glistening in our shared sky.
all work more to just drape some blanket of comfort over what might otherwise be some pretty disturbing or affecting or gut-wrenching stuff (we’ll never know). We hear a voice somewhere out there in the woods; it’s out there, like the origin and moral of every urban legend and ghost story; I think it’s trying to call to us, but it’s still too muffled—by booze and distance and the fog of grief—for us to make out everything. The stars may be shining through it, but they, sadly, are mute.
Reviewed by Matthew Burns
Matthew Burns teaches writing and literature at SUNY Cobleskill in upstate New York. His poem “Rhubarb” won the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review, and his other poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Graze, Quiddity, Folk Art, Ragazine, Spoon River Poetry Review, Memoir (and), Camas, and others.