Review | Ghost Lights, by Keith Montesano
Dream Horse Press, 2010
“Who says the hands of the dead don’t ask us / to go there with them?” inquires the speaker in the title poem of Keith Montesano’s first collection. Though, out of context, these lines suggest a portentous summons, Montesano’s poems often nudge, rather than force, the reader to follow the dead. Suicides such as Joe Bolton, an unnamed punk drummer, and Pennsylvania politician Budd Dwyer, as well as murder victims, criminals, and characters afflicted with emotional or mental tumult, take turns in the poet’s elegiac spotlight, but that’s not to say that Montesano plays a Virgilian guide into the afterlife. Rather, he looks at the figures without turning away so that he both paradoxically hardens the reader against the violence and tempers his or her judgment of those involved.
The association with violence and, even more so, the function of Montesano’s work recalls Carolyn Forché’s idea that a poem often provides the only account of an experience and, therefore, is evidence of its occurrence. But no poem in Ghost Lights presents a single, decisive piece of evidence. If that were the case, the project of the book would have been averment through reportage. Instead, each poem offers multiple leads, so to speak, dividing the evidence into the tangible (images) and the alleged (account or speculation).
This division mirrors the nature of all poems: each, both a “thing,” an object on the page, as well as a speaker’s account. Consider how the beginning of “Elegy Ending with the Voice of Edward Van Dyk,” shifts between a speculative or imaginative account of the double murder committed by and the suicide of Van Dyk and the imagistic debris of his downfall:
Quickly the children plummeted from his grasp—
someone mouths each flawed word after white sheets
shroud bodies below makeshift tents, as if interred
on the street among gray eyes of every person
passing. Two small sheets. The third for a man. No more
suicide note scrawl, as if it’s even less important now
for everyone to know why. And who knows how
they fought? If he accused her of affairs she was finally
unable to cover.
Then, the speaker, spurred on by this narrative fragment, reveals that he is trying to piece together the rest of the story—“his website’s accessed”—and then, a description: “In the small photograph, [Van Dyk’s] eyes / rim the frames of his glasses, his mouth a dull O and empty.” But even after the next few lines, speculation about Van Dyk’s last words to his eldest son, the speaker’s voice splits and simultaneously addresses the murdered son, the speaker, and the reader: “What can hide in the mind so long / that it ends with this audience, this sacrificed blood?”
Ultimately, the poem concerns knowledge, about the ability to un-know, and although the speaker wishes to hear, almost out of obsession, the answering machine message—“You’ve reached Dr. Edward Van Dyk”—the final word of the poem is the command, “Erase.” But why would the poet both preserve the knowledge of such violence and desire to destroy it? Perhaps because the evidence, however telling, can never present the entirety of the experience and both misleads an audience and gestures toward truth. Elsewhere in the collection, in “Dual Portraits: Sam Cooke,” Montesano reveals the inherent incompleteness of evidence:
Now, scans of the used gun,
smudged receipts, defendant claims. But still his face
we cannot see: the light pale white on half-closed lids.
Montesano is a kind of anticubist. His poems contain an authenticity in point of view in that, though the reader receives much of the narrative, it never arrives complete. Montesano never appears omniscient. The poems are then less about the actual circumstance of violence and more about how one reckons with its presence in the world: an individual’s attempt to connect the self to, reconcile the self with, and absolve the self from the violence, but in the process, the questions arise, “Where // did this world” capable of such violence “come from, and how did it appear?” and, does the mere act of inventing “paths toward / the unimaginable” make the unimaginable real?
Because many of the poems do not contain an overt first-person “I” but rather gesture toward the “I” in a third- or second-person narrative, the identity of the self, the poet-speaker, remains spectral with the speaker both haunting and haunted by his narratives. “They do not see you there, waiting, leering—,” Montesano writes in “Meditation at Pymatuning Lake,” “watching them until, like the dawn, they vanish again, // fading slowly past the pier, the darkening edges of the lake.” Both the addressee—perhaps the speaker addressing the self in the meditation—and the “they” are illusory and unpredictable and, therefore, ominous.
Even in the collection’s only love poem, “Poem to Jess in Maine in the Song of Great Black-Backed Gulls,” the speaker seems dually tender and perhaps threatening:
you flipped the lights on at 4 A.M., I’d like to believe
that as you glimpsed their flocked wings
from the whipped beams of the lighthouse,
I woke hoping the waves destined to shroud
that stretch of coast would break before the crash,
finally fade, and let me have my way with you.
In this gesture, Montesano follows two of his influences, Larry Levis and David Wojahn, both of whom develop a narrative momentum that pushes beyond a poem. The self, which outlasts the moment of the poem, faces the exterior world, both what is seen and what is imagined.
Montesano pays tribute to Levis and Wojahn not only in the way he deals with the narratives, but also in the titles—the long “elegy” titles, such as “Ostinato: Elegy Beginning on New Year’s Day” or “Two Halves: Elegy for One Summer’s Dawn,” that echo those of Levis’s posthumous collection, Elegy, as well as “Days of 1994,” itself an homage to Cavafy, a nod toward the poem of the same name by Montesano’s former teacher, Wojahn.
Despite this, Montesano resists imitation. In much the same way his poems gesture beyond their endings, the poet throws his shadow off-kilter from those figures he studies as in “Self-Portrait Ending with Slow Fade to Black,” wherein the poet both participates and excludes himself from those around him: “I was there . . . / and under the black silhouettes, locking themselves out of the frame.”
Whatever evidence accrues from the debris of others’ violence only demonstrates what the imaginative and empathetic poet is capable of, and Montesano’s collection illuminates that which haunts us the most: those specters of ourselves.