Reviewed by Jenn Houle
Ink Monkey is Diana Hartog’s first volume of poetry in over 13 years (as indicated on the back jacket), and as one would expect, each word is carefully measured and well-considered. Obviously in the Imagist tradition (although not Imagism, quite), each piece is cut as precisely as a diamond, and indeed, the collection contains a suite of poems inspired by Japanese prints.
There is a tensile quality to the poems here, the sensation that what is being said is being communicated from a great distance, Hartog having pulled back from her material—both physically and temporally. There is recalcitrance, a hesitation between stanzas, an unwillingness to comment which, of course, is a key tenet of the Imagist school: no passion. Calm, clear, precise. The image speaks for itself.
On the back jacket: Robert Stroud compares Hartog’s work to a plunge “into an ice-cold mountain stream: the old familiar world is washed away, and we are startled into a fresh, new clarity.” He likens her ability to meld the ordinary with the visionary to Emily Dickinson’s, and I would agree, although the Dickinson line that occurred to me over and over as I read the pieces in Ink Monkey was “After great pain—a formal feeling comes.”
There is a great formality to these poems, tremendous consciousness, and, at times, the formality is almost too much for the subject matter, as in the collection’s title poem, “Ink Monkey.” The poem is inspired by tiny monkeys once thought to be extinct but recently rediscovered in China, and as Hartog explains in an introductory note,
The ‘ink’ or ‘pen’ monkeys were once kept by scholars to prepare ink, pass brushes and turn pages; the highly intelligent creatures, who slept in desk drawers or brush pots, evidently added to a scholar’s reputation for eccentricity.
The tone of the poem that follows can only be described as tongue-in-cheek reverence. Told from the point of view of the ink monkey, a doddering old scholar is described as
A strange hunched creature, trembling at every task.He can't write. Not poetry.Oh, he can wield a brushand stroke a character —even a string of characters—rewarding himself with a raisin for every pageturned. Scribble scribble.Scribble scribble scribble. Off in his own world.
I believe that Hartog intends the reader to believe that the speaker of the poem is the scholar. That way, later, when the poem shifts, and it becomes clear that the monkey is the speaker, describing his master, we’ll have to double back and reread. I won’t spoil the ending. The trick is just not quite pulled off. There has been too much formality leading up to it, not enough jocularity. Hartog hasn’t done the work of befriending the reader, instead remaining detached. What we have been shown is a series of still-lives, with very little commentary on what we are being shown. Suddenly, there’s point of view trickery going on, and the point being made is just not clear, particularly after the very formal introduction we’ve been given to the titular creature, via the introductory note. This lapse in tone weakens the collection as a whole.
And yet, what a fascinating little creature. Fascinating sights and scenarios abound. They’re just very poorly tied together. They drift, like the lone moon jellyfish in “Section IV: Jellyfish Suite.”
A Moon Jelly
Rare—since they commonly drift in swarms—
To view a lone moon jelly
The whitish-opaque bell
doubly veiled: picture
a light mist across
seen through eyes
clouded; one’s thoughts elsewhere.
There’s no denying this poem’s accomplishment — it’s simple, beautiful, analogy. In fact, the collection is worthwhile for the Jellyfish Suite alone, striking image following striking image. In “Quince Jelly”:
. . .the thinnest of skins, the membrane between
being and nothingness: transparent,
is compared to paraffin wax, cooling and hardening, the jelly
pale and translucent,
the colour, say,
of the soul
freshly entered through the top
of an infant’s skull,
the soft fontanel finally closing
to the light streaming down
as the bones knit together: That will have to do.
There’s no arguing Hartog’s ability to convey her images just so. The technical control, and the precise, imaginative attention she brings to her subjects, is impressive. The book’s back jacket makes a point of informing the reader how long it has been since Hartog’s last excursion into poetry, and positioning the work as such places the contents of this collection under tremendous pressure, and the contents, as it turns out, are very fragile. Fragile in the way that beautiful things often seem fragile; that they could be held together just so—infant’s scalps, jellyfish, curious, miniscule creatures. Hartog hones in on these small images, and takes great care to describe them exactly.
And though her analogies are invariably spot-on, at times the strain of it is palpable, particularly when Hartog attempts to use Imagism to depict moments of human interaction. In the poem “Cup,”
Tears serve a woman less as weapon
than a means to cup pain, and hand him the cup—to quaff
before he goes.
When a man is moved,
he will sometimes sit terribly still
and look away. No, he isn’t thirsty.
Somewhere, you’d think, the poetry would have to burst the banks, spill over and gush for even one moment. So much is repressed here. Usually, we criticize our poets for saying too much, going too far, telling instead of showing. Does anyone ever get it just right? When will Imagism and Romanticism unite?
Perhaps I am uncomfortable with human emotion being “imagized”; it seems something is lost there, anesthetized. Imagism’s power lies in its ability to elevate an object, or a scene, beyond the ordinary. But in the passage above, the opposite occurs, and the potency of the moment is, effectively, diminished, much in the way a photograph can cheapen a memory.
Overall, the collection is quirky—unevenly paced for a work in which each individual piece is so carefully controlled. Nevertheless, it is worth the read simply for the mastery of “Jellyfish Suite,” where Hartog’s economical technique is put to its best use.
Jenn Houle lives, works and writes in Shediac, New Brunswick. Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and is forthcoming in Carousel and CV2. She is currently working on her first collection of poems.