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Allie Rowbottom on Amanda Montei & Jon Rutzmoser

Amanda Montei & Jon Rutzmoser’s Dinner Poems

Bon Aire Projects/ September 2013/80 pages

 

“If only we were better poets,” reads one half of the first entry in Amanda Montei and Jon Rutzmoser’s Dinner Poems, “we could write a poem for each other every day.” “If only you were a better poet,” the alternate half replies, “if only you could write a poem every day.” And so, gauntlet thrown, the conversation begins, performed over sixty-seven pages representing sixty-seven days, each marked by a poem in which the writers speak (or think) in concert, their voices delineated by a poem-length caesura. The effect is a compilation comprised of diptychs, words hemstitched together to suggest the potential for simultaneous separation and collaboration.

 

Dinner Poems takes collaboration as a given” reads the book’s preface. It seems fitting then, that the shared suppers which structure the text give way to its thematic concern with the everyday mandates of shared living quarters, shared lives:

 

            5.01

 

he fears                        i think

the cold                        we will

                        be alright

rawness                       

the exposure            he thinks

 

the meat            being

in our hands            in santa’s

billowing            lap

 

possibility            his first

                        time

the terror           

of consumption            kneeling

                        in the

what if                         kitchen

our mothers            stink

never stop            arriving

talking                        as a

                        surprise

 

Mothers and moves, childhood, the weather; these mundanities - seemingly the same ones hashed out over dinner tables everywhere - are transformed in Dinner Poems into the questions of great literature: who are we and what are we doing here in this house, this marriage, this life; what will become of us as we unravel the pretense of separation between each other; what will sustain us?  

 

The resultant poems and the resultant answers (or lack there of), are at once deadpan and depressing, full of interrupting voices and incursions on the reader’s wish for linearity and a clearly identified speaker or tone. But like any good puzzle, Montei and Rutzmoser’s Dinner Poems ultimately fit together, comprised of fragments but grounded by each poet’s alternating pleasure and disgust with both language and each other.

 

It is, at least in part, this interplay of attraction and revulsion that drives the text. It seems obvious that the speakers of Dinner Poems are lovers, which automatically risks sentimentality and cliché. But Montei and Rutzmoser are poets too aware of the complexities inherent in anything to fall into such a trap, and throughout the text their authorial relationship is one confident in its own proteanism. Indeed, the inconsistencies of the mind (and of two minds thinking at once) are elevated in Dinner Poems to a topic of fascination, certainly for readers, but also, one senses, for the poets themselves:

 

 

             8.26

 

                        thirsty           

                        absent

what will

sustain                         belly

us

                        her torso is

not                         missing

organic                       

lettuce

                        her arms

not

free range            her eyes

hormone

free                        useless

                        busy

just                         rain

                        quiet

don’t                         in this

                        city

worry

                        the water

                        must

                        be soft

 

 

Montei and Rutzmoser are married, a fact that might seem incidental if the conceit of the book was not so dependent upon the questions of enmeshment and autonomy pivotal to communal life. The text suggests that these questions are by nature unanswerable, in part through its opacity, its brevity, and the transience with which it shifts from one thought, one word, one day, to the next. Little is said of the particulars of the world Montei and Rutzmoser have ushered readers into and certainly little is offered in terms of answers to the questions it poses. Still, the questions are themselves written with a kind of truth often inaccessible to poets working in isolation. In other words it is the duality of voices in Dinner Poems, the multiplicity of thoughts, that excites the text’s approach to familiar questions:

 

 

            6.08

                        just fucked

                        a vibrator

in old age

they’ll have

sex parties            my feet

                        are sore

not because            my arms

they’re good            scratched

                        from

special                        remembering

                        the guy

they like                        screaming

a challenge            about our

                        communist

body                        book

parts                        at the

                        post office

so many

surfaces                        anarchy

                        anarchy

they                         the women

still                        oppose it

know

nothing                        stinking of

                        a magic

                        eraser

 

 

At its best, Dinner Poems performs the phenomenon of human thought, the way it ceaselessly operates as an undercurrent to every word uttered, every silence. At times the interiority of each speaker’s lines results in poems true to the realities of language and life (missed connections, scattered or fleeting thoughts) but challenging for readers to access past the point of appreciating their impressive performativity. In these places, the formal arrangement of the text guides readers forward. Each ascending date atop each individual poem reminds readers of time, helping to craft a coherent collection based not in change over time - as is often the case with more traditional collections - but in the simple fact of time’s passing.

 

I’ve seen Amanda Montei and Jon Rutzmoser read from their Dinner Poems, seen them serve words back and forth, vying for the audience’s attention. The audience, in turn, sits like spectators at a tennis match, silently shifting their attention from one player to the other, and back again. But within moments, the length of a poem or two, the poets’ voices begin to merge. Their bodies too, appear to meld together, less separate than whole, and yet, still distinct. Dinner Poems absolutely shines in front of an audience. After all, the text itself, with the closeness of its speakers, asks of its readers a kind of voyeuristic complicity. Here, in the flesh, the poets compellingly perform what may be the central preoccupation of their collection: the erasure (or stubborn persistence) of individuality in the face of intimacy. If you can see them read, do so. If you can’t, read their book yourself. Either way, you won’t turn away; no reader would be wise to. The questions asked by Dinner Poems are pivotal to poetry and, by extension, to ourselves. 

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