Noel Sloboda’s collection, Our Rarer Monsters (Sunnyoutside, 2013), gives voice to the monsters, misfits, outcasts, and bit players of literature in poems that are funny, insightful, and sometimes, a bit heartbreaking at the core. Our Rarer Monsters appeals to fans of fairy tales, mythology, Shakespeare, and of course, monsters. The book is a slim volume of poems and short narratives that explore what is monstrous and what is human and the places where those elements intersect.
Sloboda, who teaches at Penn State York, isn’t the first writer to imagine things from the monster’s perspective or to speculate on the lives of Shakespeare’s characters after the curtain falls. John Gardner’s novel Grendel retold Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, and Tom Stoppard brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of the supporting roles and into the spotlight. But Sloboda’s poems not only tell things from the marginalized characters’ view, they also update the story and recast the worlds they occupy. The characters deal with the mundane and the modern alike—Pez dispensers, eye doctors, and marriage therapists. In the end, we recognize ourselves in the monsters, the mythic, and the Shakespearean figures.
Readers who are steeped in the literary traditions Sloboda draws from will delight in the poems that take us on a “what if” game. Characters Baba Yaga and Prospero drop into the suburbs where they deal with yard sales, retirement homes, in-laws, and just barely keep their secrets hidden. Sloboda’s work promises that there is magic in the world; there is also a hint that the magic—like the Slavic stories of Baba Yaga—is ambiguous, sometimes helpful, sometimes dark, and often overlooked in our “busy” lives.
In “Baba Yaga’s Yard Sale,” Sloboda conjures up images of the witch selling off her goods: a mix of the modern, with a dusty elliptical machine and stacks of Women’s Fitness, and mementos, such as the lamp made from the skull of witch-hunting Moroccan prince, of her ancient life. The young couple wandering among her tables before huffing back to their Hummer empty-handed have no idea of the fate they have escaped: Baba Yaga “exhales, fondling an incomplete set of nesting dolls—missing its outermost shell, diminished despite the bright lives hidden inside—overpriced at fifty cents.” (89)
Grendel’s wife laments marrying a “mamma’s boy” in “Mrs. Grendel.” In what appears to be a police interview after yet another attack on the villagers, Mrs. Grendel complains about the selfishness of her husband, “an only child…too used to getting his way, always.” She has had enough of waxing his back and filing his teeth; in her telling of things, Grendel is just another insecure bully who has charmed his way into her life and destroyed it. He is the monster next door: the loudmouth at the bar who gets in fights and shirks his duties at home.
While most of the book recasts figures from legends, myths, and literature, Sloboda has sprinkled in a few poems that focus on the mundane and the everyday lives of regular people. The effect is like a David Lynch movie—we are coasting along, looking at the beauty of the manicured lawns, and then—bam!—there’s a severed ear in the grass.
“Reception” tells the tale of a college girl who finds a blind rabbit by the roadside and brings it home during summer break. While there are literary references and jokes (she names the rabbit Homer and laughs at the way he uses his ears to “tune in” as she reads aloud from the classics), the heart of the poem tears away the innocence of summer in a few brief lines. The unspoken love between siblings is palpable as the young narrator describes his sister’s heartbreak when she has to send Homer away.
“For five nights straight, I could hear my sister crying through the wall between our rooms, no matter how tightly I clamped a pillow over my ears. And I knew then that there wasn’t going to be anything on television worth watching that fall.” (83)
These are the poems with shocking power because they uncover the unexpected in the everyday. The monster poems and the fairytale creatures will lure the readers, but it is the quiet poems that provide the emotional heft to carry the book out of novelty and into greater depths. These are the poems that general readers will revisit and savor.
Storytelling is part of the spell in the world of the poems. Nearly everyone—both monsters and regular people—is a storyteller in Sloboda’s book. Sometimes, the keenest stories are told by the most innocent. In “Strapped,” a little girl, the daughter of a widower, tires of her father’s stories and decides to tell him one about an alcoholic mummy who is hollow inside and whose trouble-making ways have nearly gotten him locked away in the museum for good.
“The widower confessed he didn’t like the story very much, but he felt bad for the mummy. Don’t, replied his daughter: if you knew him back when he was alive, you’d think he deserved even worse.” (69)
Sloboda’s child characters understand the world better than they are sometimes given credit for in real life. His vision of children brings to mind Roald Dahl, whose child characters are usually more perceptive about people and their motivations than the adults around them.
Part of the success of Dahl’s books were Quentin Blake’s illustrations; Sloboda has found a similarly great collaborator in illustrator Marc Snyder. Good illustrations illuminate the text and Snyder has a knack for finding the sharpest image in the poem and bringing it to life. He uses the first poem “Bequest” as inspiration to tie all the illustrations—and all the poems—together. Like the character in “Bequest,” each of the figures in the eight linocuts throughout the book dons a different hat and mood. The illustrations sit in balance with the writing and they share an essence that is darkly humorous on the surface, but full of tender emotion at the core; one such successful pairing is the illustration that follows “Semiotics,” a poem about a neglected girl who tries in vain to communicate with the dogs of her neighborhood. Once again, it is in her interactions with animals that the protagonist becomes most profoundly human. Whether pitiable or monstrous, the character of the beast is a compelling shadow against which to measure our deeds, our impulses, and our own humanity.
Noel Sloboda is the author of the previous poetry collection Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008) as well as several chapbooks, most recently Circle Straight Back (Červená Barva Press, 2012). His work has recently appeared in Gertrude, Redactions, and Modern Language Studies. Sloboda has also published a book about Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. He teaches at Penn State York.