As a rule, readers should be very wary of poems with titles that offer two nouns linked with the word “of ” — for instance, “The Topography of Love” or “The Ontology of Solitude.” This device is usually a warning that what follows will range from blandly familiar to comically overwrought. In Our Extraordinary Monsters, Vanessa Moeller commits this titular transgression not once but 10 times, with each of the 10 poems that make up the first section the book. It comes as a welcome surprise that these openers (among them, “The Hydrography of Memory” and “The Archeology of Air”) do not share their titles’ facility.
They do, however, possess an almost con-versational casualness: to Moeller’s credit, the reader may not immediately realize that these seemingly effortless poems are, in fact, rhyming sonnets. The next section is far freer in form, with crisper lines — “I cannot confine marzipan’s cloying melt” — though the unfortunate titles persist (“Evanescent List,” “Linguistic Obituary”).
Some of the poems read as though they have been translated from another language and, indeed, on reaching the book’s third section the reader finds that each poem appears twice, first in English and then, on the facing page, in German. With little indication of which is the original and which the translation, it is tempting to imagine Moeller writing in both languages, going back and forth between English and German as it suits her, as the book invites the reader to do.
Other people’s words, and words addressed to others, occupy a central position in Our Extraordinary Monsters. The book is cluttered with epigraphs — at least one for each of its sections (in the second section, one for nearly every poem) — and unified by an epistolary impulse. Moeller writes German poems based on letters written four decades earlier by her father (English translations of which are included in an appendix), and then responds to them with her own letter-poems. She also, in what is perhaps the book’s most luminous sequence, presents fragments of letters written from 10 of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities. Though the seven sections occasionally read like excerpts from separate books, Our Extraordinary Monsters is nonetheless a superb demonstration of Moeller’s creative breadth. (Daniel Marrone)
by Vanessa Moeller, $14.95, 109 pgs Signature Editions, P.O. Box 206 RPO Corydon, Winnipeg, MB, R3M 3S7