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Monogamy Songs
Gregory Sherl
Future Tense Books, US$12

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reviewed by Ian Chung

This love will be your downfall

It can be difficult to properly describe Gregory Sherl’s Monogamy Songs to someone who has not read it yet. On one hand, it is a sequence of untitled prose poems, chronicling the evolution and dissolution of the relationship between the poet and a character only designated as Z. On the other, it is also presented as a memoir (the copyright page calls it ‘a work of non-fiction’), albeit with the most unreliable of narrators, e.g. Sherl introduces the book as follows, ‘All names and events in this book are fictitious and entirely coincidental […] What I’m trying to say is, none of this book is true. But that’s a lie. Some of this book is true’ (p. 6), and yet claims in the epilogue that he ‘tried to stay as close to the source material as possible. […] I have been lying to you before you even thought to buy this book’ (p. 128).

However autobiographical the material going into these prose poems, Sherl is still in control of it, preventing the project from lapsing into self-indulgence

These two aspects of the collection have a tendency to bleed into each other, thanks to the poems’ aleatory, free-associating, stream-of-consciousness quality. Or as Sherl points out, ‘There is no ordering sequence to my heart. Most of the present tense should be in the past and all of the future tense shit will probably never happen’ (p. 8). One might expect reading Monogamy Songs to be a frustrating experience because of this instability, but Sherl’s voice is engagingly frank, ‘Every poem I write starts with fucking or dying’ (p. 30), while also capable of making pithy, bittersweet observations, e.g. ‘Why do people always whisper the best things?’ (p. 25), ‘I Auto-Tune my emotions’ (p. 93).

In a review for The Huffington Post of an earlier Sherl collection, Heavy Petting (YesYes Books, 2011), poet-critic Seth Abramson hails him as ‘the post-confessionalist we’ve been looking for, which is to say that there’s nothing smarmy, self-important, or false about these poems or this poet. Sherl is that rare author who can speak earnestly about the vagaries, pleasures, and discouragements of living and still charm your pants off’. Accordingly, part of the appeal of Monogamy Songs stems from a sense that however autobiographical the material going into these prose poems, Sherl is still in control of it, preventing the project from lapsing into self-indulgence. This mastery is signalled throughout the collection in the form of self-reflexive moments: ‘I break the fourth wall in this book too much’ (p. 59), ‘Did I say that exact line in a different part of this book? That’d be weird, book’ (p. 94). The latter plays on the echoes and repetitions throughout the collection, e.g. near the end, Sherl writes, ‘Sometimes chemical hugs are greater than or equal to real hugs’ (p. 101), and then again more definitively in the epilogue, ‘Chemical hugs are greater than or equal to regular hugs’ (p. 128).

The matter of chemical dependency crops up elsewhere in Monogamy Songs, with multiple references to anxiolytic drugs like Valium. (In one poem, Sherl essentially lists all the various prescription drugs that he has ever been on.) Sherl has been open about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and in light of that, one might draw parallels between Sherl’s relationship with medication and his relationship with Z. There is a frenetically obsessive quality to the latter, especially in the earlier poems, flush with sex and the honeymoon throes of love. Even here though, Sherl writes, ‘Emotions are everywhere and that’s scary’ (p. 14), seemingly pointing to the seeds of the relationship’s demise being sown. Another section in a later poem seems to place the blame for this squarely on Sherl: ‘Sometimes feelings are for sale but it turns out you can only rent them and most of the time they’re broken. I have been broken for so many years I thought I was built this way. Part of me is here, part of me there—some parts were just left out of the package. What happened is my parents lost the instructional manual. They did the best they could’ (p. 40).

This notion of being fundamentally defective also comes through when Sherl declares, ‘There is nothing healthy about my heart’ (p. 36), and later on, ‘There’s something dangerous growing inside my heart’ (p. 105). However, reading through the end of the collection, it becomes clear that at least with the relationship chronicled in Monogamy Songs, Z has to shoulder some of the blame too, with her repeated pregnancy threats and erratic behaviour, e.g. ‘Z says I can’t talk to C because of monogamy. I have never met C, but I’m told that monogamy is important and not talking to C is important for monogamy’ (p. 74). Hence, a relationship that began with the promise of ‘domestication’ (p. 34) and pleas to ‘Please be permanent. Like a marker. Like an expensive tattoo’ (p. 27), ultimately implodes: ‘She wakes me up by sketching our future in my chest hair. She’s always erasing and starting over because we keep fucking up’ (p. 85).

In the end, for all the material that Sherl crams into Monogamy Songs, the collection’s greatest achievement is actually that the poems are never boring. This might seem like faint praise, but given that ‘Modern poems are sold in costume stores. They’re on the clearance rack by early November. […] Modern poems give me stomachaches. It’s always Thursday right before Friday. Modern poems are boring as shit’ (pp. 36-7), it is refreshingly satisfying to encounter a poet whose writing brims with such naked feeling, the poems edged with an unpredictability that means even as they tear Sherl’s own life to shreds for the reader’s pleasure, they also offer this thought in consolation: ‘Other people are weird too, you know’ (p. 120).

Ian Chung is a graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme. He edits Eunoia Review and reviews for various publications, including Sabotage Reviews and The Cadaverine. He also watches more TV than is reasonable for one person.