I read Monkey Bars initially while on vacation with my family. It was a warm, pine-and-campfire-scented weekend, full of moments like the one described in Matthew Lippman’s title poem, “dying from laughter, / the joke funny / the bust-the-gut hysteria, hysterical.” I read the poetry as such, too; when I reached the author’s biography – “He teaches English and Creative Writing to high school students” – I even thought to myself, holy cow his students must have a blast!
But this second time around is a bit different. Back to the grind, I read Lippman’s poems for what they really are: lamentations of a suddenly-aware child. Some of the speakers of Monkey Bars are grasping, groping behind for either a lost innocence, or the childhood idea of the adult world (“All I ever look for in a movie these days / is something akin to Pacino,” Lippman writes in “Akin to Pacino,” “How in the hell can I be like that? I wondered, / ten and all”).
Others are too busy to grasp, their hands held up in shielding their eyes from the hideous world. From “The Fraternity,”
That’s when I close my eyes
all the way down on the gas
The common denominator is this other character that keeps showing up: “my kid in the back, saying, Daddy, check that out” (in “The Fraternity”), “My kid cries because her hands are wet” (“Marriage Pants”), “and I missed my daughter; asleep” (“At Keelers”). It’s the daughter’s presence in the book – and in life, too, I imagine – that brings Lippman and his poems to question the absurdity and horror of the world, which both creeps in and leaps from our own hands. “We bring these kids into the world. / We have no idea what we are doing.” So opens the closing poem, “The Spread-Legged Horror.”
Comparatively, Lippman is enrolled at the same school as Tony Hoagland (who even provides a blurb on Monkey Bars’ dust jacket), but Lippman’s getting his test answers on the sly from Cormac McCarthy (or Mr. Kurtz). The result is humorous and horrifying, yet, in a way, touching.