Review of Keith Montesano’s Ghost Lights

Dream Horse Press, 2010. 80 pages.

By Kyle McCord

Ghost Lights is not a book for the squeamish.  Among an array of other taboo subjects, the book features meditations on the public suicide of “Budd” Dwyer, an array of poems on the violent deaths of celebrated musicians, along with a vision of the apocalypse that could easily rival that of any Romero film one could dig up.  During an interview with “HTML Giant,” Montesano even noted “[In the book] there’s also a lot of destruction and decay. Like many writers these days, I’m pretty obsessed with the apocalyptic nature of the world…”  But while these aren’t the poems you will likely find yourself rereading on a sunny afternoon, they are poems that you will find yourself returning to weeks later for the poet’s capacity to deliver the intricate and unnerving details that deliver a truly gripping story.

Admittedly, the course of events and the range of subjects do not change dramatically from one page to another, and the camera doesn’t shrink away from the “black doll eyes perpetually glaring” or the “coke snorts behind bathroom stalls.”  However, what is compelling about this book is not just its intoxicating detail—though that is certainly one of the greatest assets of Ghost Lights—but rather the true payoff of this work comes in the shuddering voice behind these tragedies who twines the stories with its personal life in a way that is both candid and complex.  In an elegy on the death of the drummer from the band “Ra Ra Riot,” the poem winds back on itself with a lens hot enough that the voyeurism the work invites becomes deeply uncomfortable:


All these thoughts become tiresome like the effort

not at these words, and sometimes it’s simpler to just make up everything,
                  which is easier now
than listening to each fleeting fill, each snare roll, off-time beat,
                  and the guilt

of such a thing.”


But, Ghost Lights promises only the reportage of the events as they occurred, disconcerting though they may be, delivered by a voice who’s both deeply present in the work and distant enough to be empathetic to all the poems inhabitants: from musical legend Sam Cooke to “the trucker getting blown by a rest-stop hooker.”  Stylistically, the work occupies much the same tone and reality as Montesano’s former teacher David Wojahn, however, Montesano’s sense of the line and syntax force the pitch and pace of the poem to quicken by comparison to Wojahn.  For example, in “About Ravishment,” a poem which revisits Nicholas Roag’s Bad Timing, Montesano closes the poem with a torrent of image which accelerates from speculation to reflection to epiphany in the space of two stanzas:


“And somewhere she’s alive, walking among great crowds, her name
                  untouched, unlike the wings hovering over me, featureless
in their world now beyond reach, beyond vision and caving in,

                  trapped bodies writing until they become
only one: plummeting so far down it cannot be pulled back.”


Listing has always been a staple of the American lyric voice, and Ghost Lights certainly displays a voice which wields this tool deftly.  From the Whitman’s exultant declarations to the nearly Dada associations of Ashbery’s “How Much Longer Will I Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, it’s clear that the flexibility and alacrity allowed by lists is an imperative part of poetry.  At some points in Montesano’s work, listing becomes a way to populate the white space in a hurry:


“…air-brushed photos
of the dead, house frames in ash (or, somehow captured
burning) fire chiefs unwilling to comment, landlords
not going to jail.”


However, what is perhaps most intriguing is the way the lists begin to become punctured by moments of introspection or doubt on the part of the speaker as happens in the book’s title poem:


“It ends
with our bodies like machines.  Charred like paper—
singed like leaves.  Arms reaching out: Come.  Now.
Who says the arms of the dead don’t ask us
to go there with them?”


And while Ghost Lights is a book that does not skimp on the dark side of human lives and their sometimes grizzly conclusions, by the same token, it rescues these stories from the tabloids, which inevitably become their resting place.  In Ghost Lights, Montesano may invite the audience to grimace a bit at “Mothers// and whores and fathers and drunks all waiting/for the very last dance,” but he also invites us to marvel at the perspicacity and perhaps even loveliness of this, of our bodies shattering like stars “their light burnished archaically and infinite.”




Kyle McCord is the co-editor of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. He is the author of Galley of the Beloved in Torment, winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize; his second collection Informal Invitation To A Traveler is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press.






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