Nervous Universe, by Kate Monica. Electric Cereal, June 2015. 72 pages. $11.95, paper.
At the end of March, I was in Charleston, West Virginia, with my high school theater troupe for the State Thespian Competition. It was raining. My best friend Jordan, a burly, bear-shaped senior, was having legitimate relationship issues. He had just been on the phone arguing with his girlfriend for several hours, they were both going crazy, he punched the chifforobe in the hotel room and muttered that we should go lift weights and blow off steam. We walked down the hall and turned right, into the weight room. Some guy in there was totally jacked, but his eyes were wide, and when we came in, he ran out. I watched him go.
Jordan picked up some dumbbells and started doing curls, and I took to the treadmill for ten minutes or so. This was around midnight, and our high school’s guidelines for school-related excursions state that students can’t be out of their hotel rooms after 11:30 p.m. We left the weight room, went into the lobby to get coffee, and ran into James, the PRO officer from our high school, who was there as a chaperone. He was wearing a black T-shirt and had heavy bags under his eyes. When we all had our coffee, we walked outside. It was cold out there, and wet from the storm. We sat on a bench beneath the eave of the hotel roof and watched the lights from the streetlamps shimmer in the rain.
“Jordan’s encountering some relationship issues,” I said.
“It’s impossible,” Jordan said. “It’s all impossible.”
James let out a long sigh. “It’s hell, man.” He said.
We sat, drank our coffee and heard the rain.
On the Fourth of July, I was with my family at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. There were hired photographers at the park entrance to ask families if they wanted their pictures taken. Three of these people ran up in front of us when we came in, and my mother told each of them, “No, thank you.”
In a herd of people, we started walking. Everywhere I looked, there were shoulders—tattooed, bare, slouched, protruding, etc. At some point, we broke from the current, and I found myself standing beside. I looked to the left. An old woman with white hair was sitting on a bench, alone. She was crying.
My stepfather made a suggestion as to what we should ride first, and we went wherever that was. A thing about amusement parks is that you see three thousand people only once.
in the corner of the room do you see him the boy from my 9th grade science class is sucking cock for coke
for the past 15 years I have felt like a hollow skull with an unhinged jaw and a football helmet on
—from “Jean-Michael Basquiat’s Last One-Artist Show at the Baghoomian Gallery”
The poems in Nervous Universe prompted me to reexamine the way I use the term “heavy.” “Jean-Michael Basquiat,” for example, is a heavy poem. By saying this, I don’t mean what is usually implied by “heavy”: that its subject is deep and thought-provoking (which is also true). I mean that in this poem, and every poem in Nervous Universe, Kate Monica transcribes the burden of experience and successfully puts 100 percent of it onto the page.
In reading these poems, there comes an acute notion of narcotic, swampy sadness; before these words were made palpable, they were carried invisibly through a barrage of long, long nights. This is clear.
The voice is abrupt, impulsive, honest, and perpetually nervous. At times, lines seem to tremble violently, but with a consistency that makes it so that a brief cessation comes as precipitously as the edge of a cliff. From “Sunday Afternoon, New Apartment. Mid-Conversation”:
I promise this will only be true the first few times we hang out but
I have been thinking about how to organically say I have to go
if after a brief but torturous episode of silence
we both try initiating a new topic of conversation at the same time
‘no, you go, it wasn’t really anything—’
I didn’t know cancer could grow there
Monica can make a blank space between lines every bit as powerful as the words it separates. A cancer does grow there, just as it does on those nights before a poem finds shape.
Despite its brevity, Nervous Universe took me an entire week to get through, because the emotion can overwhelming. I could only read one or two poems at a time. Traces of Walt Whitman, as well as Allen Ginsberg—one of Monica’s major influences—can be seen in the poet’s apparent tendency to pour herself into her work, while her bold, excited phrasing is unprecedented in its capacity for vivacious emotion.
Kate Monica’s poems take their reader into a terrifying, uncertain, adolescent existence, while the vulnerability of the voice itself might invoke personal memories. They took me back to an endless night in Charleston; they took me back to an old woman crying in a crowd. And these poems are made of memories.
Monica’s constant invocation of new situations and objects (i.e., “Jenny likes to spit lethal and tobacco through her teeth”; “I am tearing all the nets off the tennis courts”) suggests that her memories are like shards in a big, confusing pile. They are strange objects on shelves as she falls down a rabbit hole of time. Here, she is reaching out to grab them as if her life depends on it. This is desperation. This is self-consciousness. This is profound, profound empathy.
That’s what lies at the core of this book: empathy. Kate Monica saw something hurting in a landscape that’s always fleeting. In Nervous Universe, she is trying her hardest to find it again.
Luis Neer is a poet and high school student from West Virginia. His recent work can be found in Maudlin House, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, and elsewhere. He tweets @LuisNeer.