“A list of favorite books is always more a snapshot of a moment in time than it is some unmoving, monumental thing: if you asked me to assemble this list ten years ago, it would look a lot different, and undoubtedly it will continue shifting as I continue aging and reading and aging and reading.”
With the 2019 release of Inside the Castle, Josiah Morgan announced himself as a transgressive and exciting new voice, and Circles is further evidence. A freewheeling blur of poetry, film criticism, and visual art, Morgan’s latest work urges its readers to question what defines a text, and even what it means to read. Morgan pursues these complex problems through the attentive and varied use of typography, offering a mixture of blank-verse, concrete poetry, and essay fragments that gesture to the book’s title shape and its implications of auto-cannibalism and endlessness.
The content is as fascinating and rebellious as the form. Morgan draws on disparate media, religious references, and allusions both coded and explicit (I was particularly pleased to see one of my favorite lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and a reading of the vegan ethos in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The author lays bare his frame of references in an appendix labeled ASSISTANCE [IN RESEARCH AND ERASURE], and his array of sources is fascinating and unique.
The result is not nearly as daunting or unapproachable as it might sound. In fact, I easily devoured the book in one quick sitting. Morgan’s work is energizing, animated by a vital and authentic voice, threaded with both coldly ironic observation and real despair. The author engages in some hilarious interplay between artificial designations of “high” and “low” art. Consider, for example, a prose-poem near the end of the book that describes a speaker masturbating to urolagniac fantasies of shock-punk icon GG Allin before reading Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Plath.
Much like Morgan’s excellent Inside the Castle, Circles is a powerful testament to this brilliant young writer’s talent. Keep your eyes on him.
Alessandro Manzetti’s Whitechapel Rhapsody offsets the deluded grandeur of Jack the Ripper’s psychological world against the vivid despair of his environment. Written as a series of thematically connected, free-verse poems, Manzetti’s collection functions as an interesting exercise in depicting this core dissonance: the serial killer’s self-aggrandizing, romantic view of his own violence versus the true horror of its consequences. By setting these ideas at the center of his book, Manzetti offers a worthwhile study of longstanding tensions and ideas central to the horror genre: namely, the aesthetic merits and problems of braiding beauty with violence, and the destructive potential of artists with God complexes (in an abstract way, this brings to mind Lars von Trier’s excellent and similarly complicated The House That Jack Built ).
The book boasts a breadth of reference that is fascinating and, in line with its central concerns, conflicted (not only key characters from the New Testament and Greek mythology, but also Rembrandt, Poe and Dickens, among others). The book is rich with sensory detail, showcasing Manzetti’s penchant for invoking brutal imagery via gorgeous language. Taking the form of something close to prose-poetry, the collection’s verse is accompanied by evocative black-and-white illustrations by Stefano Cardoselli.
Interestingly, the final poem, “The Dark King,” deviates from the book’s fixation on the Whitechapel district of 1888. Presenting the book’s most explicitly psychosexual elements, this piece dehistoricizes Jack the Ripper and imagines him as a cipher for man’s social rot, transcending time and place: “I am … / … Bukowski’s drunk stomach,” Manzetti writes, before urging the reader to “take between [their] teeth / this ticket to a grotesque Musée d’Orsay / full of iridescent French and Tahitian vulvas.” The poem (and collection) closes with a disturbing final line that implicates the reader in this uneasy marriage between cruelty and aesthetic attraction: “I am your dark side.”
At a slim length of fewer than one hundred pages, Whitechapel Rhapsody is ambitious, richly developed, and well worth your time.
Josiah Morgan and I have been online acquaintances for several years, bonding initially over our mutual passion for film. I recently read his debut poetry collection Inside the Castle and was stunned by its formal sophistication, thematic complexity and breadth of reference. I sent him a message asking if he would like to publish a chat with me about writing, genre and influences, and he kindly agreed.
Earlier this year I had a very belated introduction to Marge Simon’s work with Satan’s Sweethearts. Like War (Simon’s newest, co-written with Alessandro Manzetti), Sweethearts (co-authored by Mary Turzillo) is a dense, rigorously researched collaboration in historical horror poetry. Maybe this comparison makes War and Sweethearts sound like extremely particular (even niche) sub-genre pieces, but they benefit equally from clearly defined senses of focus, cohesion and specificity.
War has provided me with another long-delayed introduction, this time to Alessandro Manzetti. Like Simon, Manzetti is an extraordinarily prolific and celebrated force in the contemporary genre field; and like Turzillo’s poetry in Sweethearts, Manzetti’s style in War meshes intuitively and powerfully with Simon’s.
This collection’s title implies a far-reaching, even macrocosmic thematic thread; but Simon and Manzetti wisely choose to lend attention to the tangible, the microcosmic, sometimes even the horrifically banal. Written as a series of free-form pieces (some collaborative, some solo), War is comprised mostly of brutal and uncompromising vignettes and tableaux. Both Simon and Manzetti demonstrate aptitude for calculated and disturbingly descriptive language, making use of poetry’s formal confines to hone exacting depictions of human cruelty.
This focus on the particular does not overshadow War’s considerable ambition: spanning time, place and point of view, this collection approaches its title topic from the terrifying angles of imperialism, post-traumatic stress disorder, misogyny, fear, racism and ignorance. Sometimes slipping into their speakers’ perspectives and sometimes writing with chilling omniscience, Manzetti and Simon offer no reprieves. This book delivers blunt-force impact to match its subject. Fitting for a contemporary world that feels more apocalyptic with every passing day, War demands attention and makes no compromises.