Far-flung Travels: Other Romes by Derek Mong
Travel involves both physical movement — planes and buses and feet — and internal movement — dealing with unfamiliar food and different customs. Flexibility, adaptability, and a spirit of adventure are all necessary characteristics of a good traveler. Among the most confusing places to navigate are those strange countries of the past, the imagination, and art. There are those who can navigate these environments fluidly. They tend to be observers not only of external difference, but also of their own emotional weather. Derek Mong is one of these observers, and in his debut collection, Other Romes, he tackles Ohio with as much verve and apprehension as he does the more exotic locales of Fellini movies, Roman catacombs, the first century B.C., and his mother’s womb.
The book as a whole, moving as it does across a range of topics, levels of diction, points of reference, and poetic form, is almost carnivalesque in its enthusiasm and presentation of wonders. Glance over the table of contents — “Octopus,” “Fellini’s Cabiria,” “A Priest to Paul Russus,” “At the Johnsonville Bratwurst Eating Competition — Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2006,” “To My Older Sibling, Miscarried” — and we know that we’re going on a journey that isn’t linear, but rather explodes out from a center of gravity that may or may not hold. Fortunately, each poem offers its own center of gravity, a clean, clear-eyed take on whatever world it is asking us to enter. It helps that Mong is also a wordsmith of the highest order. Consider, for example, the beginning of “Vitruvian Man”:
Dear symmetric bloke, Mr. Hub and Spoke, what is desire
Regular as pillars, fit in patterns, or can we consider
They haven’t tasted: my flesh wallows, yours knows flavors.
— p. 18
Leonardo’s painting of a man inscribed in a square inscribed in a circle is appropriate for a modified villanelle, as the image lends itself to repetition. Mong demonstrates in this book that he is a master of form, using the villanelle, the sestina, blank verse, and syllabics. Some villanelles gather strength from their repetitions, but Mong is after a different effect, and he uses off-rhyme (desire/measure, specimen/incompletion) and variation to keep the form fresh. The emotional power in the poem comes from humility as much as from humor: “I am a creature of incompletion.” Like Frost’s oven bird, the question is what to make of a diminished thing, of this imperfect human body. The speaker’s resolution at the end of the poem is to do more than sing the body electric, although he too sings “of bodies, extremities, and measures.”
Leonardo’s painting is far removed from this scene:
Gentlemen, let’s prep our guts
— p. 33
We have traveled from Renaissance art to jumbotrons, and the range is enviable, though not without its hazards. There is sometimes a sense of whiplash moving through this book; the rhetorical ground is constantly shifting, along with the diction. But why begrudge a poet his virtuosity? Why begrudge him brilliant turns like the following, in the same poem, “At the Johnsonville Bratwurst Eating Competition — Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2006”:
Sure, folks starve for lack of what will stain
a bear and he’s pulling past
— p. 34
“Which explains / why” is the implicit subtext in many poems: the poet wants to understand, not through a scientific gathering of evidence, but through direct observation, metaphorical resonance, a turn of phrase that illuminates. And so the gas stations and TVs really do explain hotdog competitions, those modern marvels of excess and gluttony. The speaker’s sense of disconnect comes not from a rejection of the dominant culture, but from his consciousness of his own participation in it. And let’s not forget (as the poet never forgets) that this is Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Like James Wright and his great poems of the American Midwest, Mong loves the place as much as he despairs of it; he is attached to the comfortable, even beautiful, ordinariness of it, while he can’t prevent himself from wanting to escape.
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