Monkey Screams

Monkey Screams by Robert Joe Stout, FutureCycle Press, 2015

      Monkey Screams thrusts the horrors, the idiosyncrasies, the fallacies of the War in Vietnam into the vividly personal reactions of participants whose fears, accomplishments and shame burst forth in descriptions that surpass journalism or propaganda. They are both confessions and recriminations, yearnings for home and struggles to make sense out of the senseless. In similar fashion the second section of these poetical narratives reflects the anxieties, conflicts, resolutions of the succeeding generation: life as it is contrasted with what life could or should be. Telephone linemen, football coaches, foreign-born account clerks wrestle limitations imposed by laws and society, proud of their achievements yet poignantly aware of what is missing in their lives. The third and final section pushes into the present through the eyes, thoughts and imaginings of a journalist nearing the end of his career. Poems of acceptance, of remembrance, little details of life that never important before become planks between acceptance and eternity. Facts give way to dreams and dreams to definition of what his life has been and why. The factual world—lentil soup, the cat asleep—offsets perceptions of monstrous fish, a boyhood unicorn that only he could see as he experiences existence beyond that apparent to routines of daily life.
         In Vietnam, the silence that followed battle was eerie, frightening, until the sounds of the jungle resumed—the monkey screams as one G.I. describes it. But the normal to which it returned was itself surreal, something to be apprehended intuitively, not understood by superficial observation. Throughout this book the intuitive pierces the commonplace, transforming the ordinary into something feared, loved, shared. 

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REVIEW

Monkey Screams by Robert Joe Stout

Poems to make you think, by Auntie AnnieVine Voice

http://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Screams-Robert-Joe-Stout/dp/193885375X/refhttp://futurecycle.org/index.php/en/catalog/by-title/item/333-monkey-screams

This, Stout’s second full-length poetry volume, is divided into three main sections each containing a set of revelations but all concerning in greater or lesser degree the ways in which our government supports or fails to support its citizens and disillusion at the core of our society. Through a series of vivid images and forceful dialog, Stout serves up late 20th century America for us to chew and digest.

The book’s first section deals with Stout’s time in Viet Nam. He sets up his premise in the first poem, “Hero,” in which a soldier about to receive a Purple Heart reflects upon what he will tell his parents of the ceremony, and events leading up to it, that will spare them the horrors of war. He also considers the major, standing among legless Marines, who has puffed out his chest to receive a medal for wounds received “when rocks—not shrapnel—bruised his legs and shin.” This is Viet Nam from a soldier’s point of view—not only the constant sweltering, constant fear, body count, but also the screw ups in supply lines, lack of intelligence (in both senses), selective news coverage, profiteering, and profound lack of humanity and respect for indigenous people. In the background, always, monkeys scream from the trees. Very visceral.

In the second section, Stout relates lives of American citizens, personal narratives of people like the man next door, an old classmate, someone you run into repeatedly at the neighborhood grocery. They are teachers, nurses, telephone installers. Each relates a bit about himself, how life is going, and how his dreams have moved out of reach. Again, it demonstrates weaknesses in our government and in our society.

In the final section, Stout becomes meditative. He reflects on his past as a husband and a writer, discusses the present—living alone in Mexico in a small apartment. He looks back on successes and failures, making an uneasy truce with the present and contemplating the future, always writing and rewriting. This book is a fascinating trip through late 20th century America designed to make the reader think, and rethink, his complacency.

 

EXCERPT

God’s Grandeur

 

These damned paths end. You think you know

just where you are and man you’re lost.

Like now. Trees with great big sweating leaves

drape rocks that gleam like jade. I crouch,

work past the leaves, crawl up a slope.

Safe here, they say, miles from the Cong

–you never know. The fucking jungle’s

like a song that just goes on and on.

I want to pray but nothing comes so I push on.

Find a place that I can sit. The sunshine

on the shimmering green is like a thousand

sparkling lights. Birds in the trees,

a gentle breeze–God’s grandeur, man!

The tears start in my guts, dry out

before they hit my eyes. I hate this place!

Hate it with intensity so fucking fierce

I think I going to come apart. Controls y’se’f…

That’s what my auntie used to say.

She talked her `Heaven’ all the time

and pictured this. Birds. Green leaves.

Clear endless sky. I bow my head but still can’t pray.

Open my pack. The letter’s there. The photographs.

Two comic books. Hurt flings hailstorms

through my chest. Who am I? Fuck!

And where? And why? I lift the books,

look at the pictures, try to read

the words. It helps. It’s home.

I close my eyes. Tears start to come.

I still can’t pray. Cong shaped like Batman,

Robin, Joker dance across my mind.

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COMMENTARIES

Hi Jimmy,

Good questions. In the early 70s I was involved with an interactive veteran’s support group (as a writer/journalist not as a counselor) in Austin, Texas. One of the things we did was get those involved to talk about their experiences, or write about them. At one point we mimeographed the comments, experiences. For a while I had the mimeographs but they long ago disappeared; however, I had a version of them that I’d typed, thinking I might sometime publish something using them. Later in the 70s after I moved to California I taught an off-campus writing class sponsored by a university connected group. Several of the participants were Vietnam vets and wrote about their experiences—or brought poems they’d written when they were in Vietnam. As a magazine journalist I was then writing for a number of military magazines—Army Magazine, Retired Officer Magazine, Vietnam Magazine, American Legion magazine, etc. so I was tied in to military experiences (my own having been rather mundane) and wrote a few poems about Vietnam. Much later, in 1997, I wrote the poems that were included in Monkey Screams intending it to be a chapbook. I based the poems on the old ‘70s accounts of events in Vietnam and decided to make each poem a separate narrative told by a participant. The events described—the jeep hitting the buffalo, the return to the town burned by the Cong, the missing supplies, the marine’s trip to the monastery, etc. all actually happened though not exactly as narrated in the poems. The one exception is the four-part poem “Good Reports” which is based on experiences related by a friend and was written a year or two before the others but like the others is not an accurate journalistic account but a poetic rendering of the events described.

I hope this clarifies rather than obfuscates. Bob Stout

*   *   *   *

 

In the formative years that are high school for the majority of Americans identity is not just a personal “I” but a linking to a “we,” an expanded self that connects one to others both physically and conceptually. As a friend of mine told me, “I left high school years ago but high school never left me.” Or in the words of a high school football coach, “Even those among their classmates who’ll go on to property and wealth won’t forget these players’ names or what they did out on the field. When they become old men on canes or strapped in convalescent beds they’ll still hear high school trumpets blare, feel blood surge as crashing pads fill their universe with victory cheers.” (From Monkey Screams, poems that define Americans, by Robert Joe Stout, available on Amazon and from FutureCycle Press.

*   *   *   *

Who reads poetry?

Mostly other poets.

Some years ago a writer who’s published frequently in poetry and literary magazines nodded affirmatively and countered, “Well, I never read engineering magazines.”

Poets read poetry publications, engineers read engineering publications. The same holds true for politicians, horse breeders, gourmet cooks and hair stylists, each of whom read publications focused on their specialties. Many of each also read novels and a certain amount of nonfiction, particularly self-help and how-to. A few perhaps also read poetry and of those few even fewer contemporary poetry. Which brings us back to poets reading other poets.

It’s not a small readership. And there’s plenty out there to read. Among newpages, Poets & Writers and Duotrope listings for over a thousand poetry publications exist, most of them online. Practically every university, college and junior college in the United States now publishes a literary or poetry journal, most of them edited by their English and/or creative writing departments. If each online or print journal publishes ten poems annually—most publish more—that means that at least 10,000 new poems appear each year, many more than most poets are able to read.

So whose poems do poets read? Those of friends one presumes, associates, poets published in the same journals in which one is published. If it’s a print journal there’s a high probability that the published poet will read the other poems in the journal. If it’s an online journal the probability is less. One can keep a print journal beside one’s desk or easy chair, on a bedside stand, in a backpack, browse through it over a period of time. The same is not true for online publications. It’s not easy to read poetry on a mobile device and many writers having spent hours on a computer shy away from reading non-work online. On the other hand, few print journals issue more than 500 copies, a real limitation to readership that online journals don’t have.

So who reads poetry? A poet I know who’s been teaching creative writing for over thirty years punned, “Why, creative writing students, of course!” There are thousands of them, he added, in the hundreds of college and universities that have creative writing programs.

And who reads engineering journals?

The written word is a strange and wondrous thing.

*   *   *   *   *

Uh? Poetry?

It was a serious conversation about immigration and cultural values: Syrian refugees, Mexicanindocumentos, the Diaspora. Newcomers to a strange land always had to struggle, to reinvent themselves, to adapt without losing their integrity, their sense of who they were and who they wanted to be. I mentioned having written about immigrants to the American West: miners from Cornwall in England, from Wales, from Montenegro in the Balkans, German beermakers, Chinese railroad workers. Peoples from separate cultures that clashed but also merged, as did a Welsh miner’s widow and a Jewish peddler who established a life together despite hardship and discrimination in a desolate Nevada wilderness. Those with me were fascinated, they wanted to read what I’d published, but when I said it was a section of a poetry volume called A Perfect Throw: “Oh! Poetry…” Not history, not fiction, but… poetry. No longer were they interested. Poetry was, well, poetry. Novels could tell fascinating stories . Nonfiction could relate engrossing true accounts. But…poetry? It was, well, different.

         Unfortunately poetry is different for many who write poetry. One academic trend advocates transforming language (often to something unintelligible). Often members of linkedin, goodreads, google poetry groups debate whether prose poetry is really poetry. Or Christian verse is really poetry. When I mention that the portrayals in an award-winning poetry chapbook of mine are members of a Mexican semi-pro baseball team people think I’m bullshitting them. Or that the first section of poems in the volumeMonkey Screams are Vietnam War testimonies. To both poets and non-readers of poetry such poems are three-headed cats—something not to be meddled with because they don’t conform to the murky ambience that shrouds real poetry, as if a definition of real poetry exists.

Certainly it didn’t seem to for the group I mention above. Nor for many readers (and writers for that matter.) This lack of definition creates a nebulousness that in most people’s perception seems esoteric, akin to mysticism or dreams. Better a predictably entertaining romance novel. Or self-help guide to making money. But…poetry?

How about a soap opera instead?

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