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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Family Archaeology

Ian Monk

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To purchase Family Archaeology

Title: Family Archaeology
Author: Ian Monk
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2004
Length: 79 pages
Availability: Family Archaeology - US
Family Archaeology - UK
Family Archaeology - Canada
  • and Other Poems
  • Also available directly (and probably cheaper and more quickly) from Make Now Press

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining selection of constrained poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Ian Monk is a member of the Oulipo, and the poems in Family Archaeology are written under a variety of formal constraints. Most are fairly long, too, sequences that show just how far Monk can go. The results are somewhat uneven, but there's no question that a lot of the poetry gains from the tension of being pushing to the limits, the creak of them near the breaking point make for a satisfying frisson.
       Among the most impressive is the title poem, a sort of cubed super-snowball. In it, Monk offers a sequence of stanzas, each consisting of x verses of x lines of x words each with x letters, whereby the value of x begins at one and progresses through ten. The first stanza is fairly obvious -- "I" -- but the constraint poses considerable challenges quite quickly (and it's no wonder he has to get a bit creative in finding the requisite ten-letter words at the end).
       It sounds forced and artificial, but Monk uses even that to good effect -- and he manages, for the most part, to convey something in the verses as well, effectively utilizing sound as well as meaning. So, for example, one of the seven-stanzas goes:

Sonnets' weirdly natural numbers, Sicily's mafioso poetics,
planted Surrey's English meadows, Sydney's stellar seeding,
archaic Spencer amoroso, Milton's braided Italian beading;
adopted foreign rhyming diktats, secular limping iambics,
enforce twisted gambits, inspire cowards' curious heroics,
nourish however Queneau (hundred (British) billion), feeding
present aborted scheme's chopped moiety's drastic weeding.
       There's poetry in the lines -- "Reason rhymes across verses' spiral tangle" -- and there's also a true sense of the snowballing poem, the increasingly long words (and longer lines and stanzas) making for denser verses, a progression that builds and builds. It's a game, but it's more than a game too
       Monk often isn't satisfied with a single constraint: "A Ladder with Butterflies" is a 'pananagrammatoum', "Each spiral's shell" is another expanding poems, feeding on itself, and "Tell me about it" is a sonnet-sequence.
       From straightforward (more or less) narrative to self- (and constraint-)aware observation, the poetry is often compelling:
In this sudden exaction, necessity's brinkmanship, I rig exuberance's framework, weaving ropes' / intertwined measure, what a sailor harvests fathoming in those astronomical multitudes and / that mythical pisciculture, our anchorage rests on florid seaweed.
       "Tell me about it" and "There is a time" are also more readily accessible, their constraints not as obviously dominating the poems.
       These are interesting and largely satisfying exercises, sustained efforts that again suggests what can be done with constraints. Worth a look.

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Reviews: Ian Monk: OuLiPo: Other books by Ian Monk under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Oulipo books at the complete review
  • See Index of Poetry

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About the Author:

       Ian Monk was born in 1960 and has been a member of the Oulipo since 1998. He has translated numerous books from French into English.

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© 2006-2009 the complete review

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