David Kirby, A Wilderness of Monkeys.
The title of David Kirby’s collection appears to indict humankind. Is Kirby insulting the reader? Are we implicated in some grand conspiracy of dunces? The leaflet page quotes Shylock from The Merchant of Venice: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Shylock’s daughter Jessica, in addition to squandering her father’s money, traded her mother’s turquoise ring for a monkey. Traditionally, audiences give Shylock a bad rap, but in this scene he reveals his love for his dead wife. The heirloom’s sentimental value is beyond price. Like Shylock, each of us contains the duality of love and evil. If Kirby indicts humankind, he includes himself in the indictment.
In the first poem, “Do the Monkey, Yeah,” Kirby invents the neologism aardvarking as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Kirby does not “want aardvarkers to take over my local nature preserve,” so he devises a plan to “discourage this sort of activity” which he runs past his wife Barbara Hamby. His plan is to dress in a tuxedo and jump out of a tree while a boom box plays James Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong.” Barbara’s wise reply is, “Umm, I don’t know about that one, Dave!” If we, the readers, and the many personalities and victims of Kirby’s poetic jabs are monkeys, then David Kirby is the self-proclaimed grand monkey. Kirby never preaches to us. His good natured self-deprecation establishes a surreal upbeat tone throughout the book.
In “Fat Dope Dealers,” the argument analyzes terrible characters like Jefferson Davis and dope dealers before comparing such miscreants to “the seven big Tobacco presidents, three of whom were Harvard graduates.” By the end of the poem, Kirby asks the dope dealers, “Here, let me try some of what you got there. / Wow, is that good!” The dope dealers rise in cultural stature above the nefarious cigarette manufacturers.
All the poems mimic Walt Whitman in two respects. The long, flowing lines ramble from margin to margin and cascade down the page and onto the next page and perhaps the next page. This is why the eighty-page book contains only twenty-four poems. Also, as Whitman embraces humankind on the Brooklyn Ferry with love and respect, Kirby sees the good in everyone, even the idiots among us.
In addition to his Whitmanesque love for humanity, Kirby’s poetry rambles through mythology, religion, ethics, and politics with ironic waterfalls of words and metaphors.
Like the playwright Bertolt Brecht, Kirby breaks the fourth wall several times to converse directly with the reader. In “The Hate Poem,” to warn the reader of an imminent long list of negative adjectives that describe his brother, Kirby writes, “And what follows here is quite a list, / so if you want to jump in the shower before your date arrives / or get your dry cleaning while they’re still open or start / dinner or watch the last quarter of the game live…” Kirby continues with a list of adjectives he borrowed from an 1866 Virginia newspaper. In the manner of Marianne Moore, Kirby regularly borrows from high and low literature.
A Wilderness of Monkeys, in its entirety, contains a lengthy, fun litany of Who’s Who in literary culture of the last four-hundred years. Among others, the chosen personalities include Walter Benjamin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Baudelaire, Buzz Aldrin, Christopher Hitchens, Cornwall, Descartes, E. L. Doctorow, Franklin Roosevelt, Friedrich Engels, George Clinton, Hamlet, Hieronymous Bosch, Houdini, James Ingram, Janis Joplin, Keats, Lear, Macbeth, Mark Twain, Montaigne, and Sarah Bernhardt. This entertaining mix never feels like name dropping. Two celebrities, Jesus and the Devil, are honored with their own poems.
“Legion, For We Are Many” recollects Kirby’s encounter with the Devil at the Atlanta airport. One conversation involves relationships. Speaking of the devil,
…he says “Boo!” and throws up his hands and jumps at me,
and when I start back, he says, “Sorry, I tried that a few
too many times with a girl I used to date,” and I say,
“You’re single?” and he says, “That’s what hell is,
brother. Staring at the wallpaper. Smoking cigarettes.
Watching network television. It does make you want
to fuck things up.”
Kirby calls the Devil, to his face, such names as Arch-Fiend, Prince of This World, Adversary, and Power of Darkness. And just like that, the Devil disappears.
This book could have been titled A Wilderness of Dogs, but monkeys are nearer our species, are admirable in their social nature, and are adored in their wacky physicality.
Yet, the most memorable animals in the book are dogs.
“Jesus’s Dog” is a parable. If we are monkeys in a wilderness, we might also be dogs on a leash. We are Jesus’s dog, Li’l Butchie. Jesus, Kirby, and Li’l Butchie descend into Hell to retrieve the great poets, such as Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid, who Jesus says “never knew my love.” Kirby calls Jesus, to his face, such names as Savior, Righteous Branch, Lamb Without Blemish, Firstborn Over All Creation, Capstone, Bridegroom, Rabbi, Morning Star, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Bread of Life. At the end of the poem, Kirby is trapped in Hell for a few months. Li’l Butchie keeps Kirby company.
If one dog comforts the tortured poet stuck in Hell, then another dog represents the pathos of humankind. In “Good Boy: Buddy Nelson,” Kirby’s first lines read, “A brown and white terrier is skittering this way / and that in the art gallery as he strains against his leash / in search of something…” The dog is named Buddy Nelson. In his wonderfully demented mind, Kirby carries on a conversation with Buddy Nelson about musicians, Paris, writing, and sex. The pursuit, not the finish line, is where the fun lies. The finish line is death, and Kirby writes, “You want to think about working, progressing, / advancing, not completing.” The joy is in the process, not the epiphany.
A Wilderness of Monkeys is an ode to humankind. The collection of poems is a tornado of language without the possibility of reader death or harm. If you choose to commune with David Kirby’s exuberance, you will not be disappointed.
Ramsey Mathews is the eternal student. Way back when he wanted to be an astronaut, he graduated with a BS in Industrial Management. Calculus and physics shut down the space exploration idea. Then he earned a BA in English Composition and Rhetoric. That’s when he started writing drama, prose, and poetry. After an MFA in Poetry, he is currently earning a PhD in Poetry at Florida State University, where he teaches Composition.