Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck
Reviewed by Barbara Carey (The Toronto Star, Saturday, April 14, 2012)
In a recent interview, Julie Bruck commented that her poems get their start on wheels, as it were. She writes in her car: “Once or twice a week, I park, put the keys in the glove box, activate the automatic locks, and write in longhand for 30 to 40 minutes. The windshield lets in just enough of the world.”
The Montreal native, who now makes her home in San Francisco, goes on to compare the experience to “being gently lowered in a small submarine,” an image that’s an apt metaphor for the poet’s sense of being immersed in the world yet somewhat sheltered.
In Monkey Ranch, her third collection, Bruck makes use of her observer’s “bubble” to delve into a wide range of experiences, from marital discord to a car bombing in Baghdad. She’s particularly attuned to the danger of desensitization. In the disturbing title poem, the speaker looks back at the time when her father, “tired of monkey/farming, took a job in town./We starved our monkeys…It took them a whole year/to die off while we watched.” Revealingly, it’s not this cruelty that lingers on in the speaker’s memory, but that the animals “used to wear such/cute little monkey hats — red, white, yellow and green.”
Elsewhere, Bruck often deftly juxtaposes cozy domesticity and the world’s turmoil. In “Live News Feed,” she describes being in the surreal position of having a personal stake in breaking news: “I am watching my mother’s neighbourhood/explode on live TV, when Ruth, my father’s/girlfriend, calls from her renovated kitchen,/reports she is baking an apple cake.”
Given the book’s title and its cover image of a dolled-up chimp, you might assume it’s a comic take on our relationship with animals. In fact, a light thrum of wit runs through many of the poems, but at heart, Monkey Ranch is a wise, multifaceted look at humanity.
Toronto writer Barbara Carey is The Star’s poetry columnist.