There are Monsters in this House, James O’Leary
Southword Editions, 2018. €5.00
What do we understand by ‘monsters’ at this point in the twenty-first century? If given this title in isolation, with no other clues, I’d guess at a children’s book, reinforced by the reassurance of a full-sentence title. It has a jokey, smiley feel to it, as though this house is inhabited by likeable, lovable versions of the Wild Things —large, woolly but good at heart. Some people even refer to children as ‘little monsters’. If there’s any menace left in ‘monsters’, it appears mainly in news media as a label for humans who are criminal or abusive.
The opening poem (‘It Gazes Back’) begins:
I’m a closet optimist. One day
I’ll come out to my family and friends
This bounces the reader’s expectations in one direction before they’re overthrown when the page is turned to the blunt opening statement of ‘Talking You through Morning’: ‘The rope broke / instead of your neck.’ The pamphlet’s title comes from this same poem:
There were monsters
in that house. There was one.
When I see pigeons, I remember
your fear of them
and my teasing.
When I want to kill myself,
I think about what you said.
Nothing is specific, even though the poem has already given clues with its list of ’firsts’ — ‘first fight, / first drink, first arson’, followed by the real gun, sirens, an alias. Who or what was the monster? Perhaps it’s better left unnamed, allowing readers to bring their own deepest fear into the narrative. It could be the attempted suicide, or it might be the list in ‘Admitted’: ‘IV lines, doctors, benzodiazepines. / Flowing walls, dancing jesters, spiders under my skin.’
Is the final poem — with some lines so long the whole has had to be printed sideways — autobiographical, with the first-person narrator ‘three years sober and just out of a half-way house’? There’s an attempted suicide here too.
Monsters indeed, making the ‘closet optimist’ an ironic commentator.