Puneet Dutt, The Better Monsters (Mansfield Press Inc., Toronto, 2017)
Review by Jade Wallace
To be among the poems of Puneet Dutt’s The Better Monsters is to be in a kind of desert. At first glance, the landscape appears sparse. The book is less than 70 pages long and words dot the blank expanse of pages like scant plant life. “We Built No Gardens,” for instance, is 57 words, all held at a distance from each other as Dutt makes liberal use of line breaks:
limbs and blood
go there there
but not here!
it is us again
Despite its meagreness, “We Built No Gardens” is nevertheless readily sufficient to invoke a narrative of diaspora, of alienation from the homeland by violence. This efficiency is characteristic of collection as a whole— the near-barrenness of Dutt’s text belies the same sort of complex ecosystem that hides in a desert’s shifting dunes. The observer, looking only casually, could readily miss the animating rhythms of life at work in the poems, but they go on existing regardless.
That Dutt’s poems manage to convey meaning so succinctly is not merely a feat of technical prowess, for her style seems carefully chosen to complement the over-arching thematic concerns of the book. In the opening poem, “Speak American,” Dutt implies a line connecting capitalism to state violence:
have we lived American until
we’ve held the clip of a
dreamt in shots
paid for the fantasy of elimination
in movie theatres
Here, Dutt subtly suggests how commodity fetishism can be part of a nation-building campaign that relies on the normalization of adversarial conflict. The symbiosis of capitalism and state violence is brought up again later in part VII of the suite “Over Whiskey and Cider in Hotel Rooms”:
in bombing campaigns
farmers would say
you’ve killed my goats
In both “Speak American” and in part VII of “Over Whiskey and Cider in Hotel Rooms,” Dutt cynically points out how money, how products, can be used to bring war’s destruction within the acceptable purview of daily life. In “Speak American,” children’s Nerf guns make violence familiar and mundane, while in part VII of “Over Whiskey and Cider in Hotel Rooms,” monetary compensation mitigates the damage of violence and renders it transactional and banal. Rather than revolt, the figures in Dutt’s poems are frequently resigned to the terror of war and do their best to survive in spite of it.
In this context, the Joycean “scrupulous meanness” of Dutt’s poems acts as form of contrarian aesthetic resistance. Rather than romanticize, valorize, or normalize capitalism and violence, the stinginess of Dutt’s language works to contradict the imperialistic, acquisitional logic of both systems and is thereby able to lay bare their ugliness. That this act is a significant coup is made clear by the titular poem in the book. In “The Better Monsters,” the speaker says:
we didn’t have
the better monsters
at Pershing Field
In this poem, the real horror of being on the losing side of violence is the way that violence obscures its own consequences. Death is of course tragic but it is disappearance, erasure, inscrutable loss that constitute the more frightening and grotesque side of war. Such erasures are a recurrent motif in Dutt’s poems, the most overt example being “Blanks”:
________ providing support to the
battling ________ extremists
in_________ and _________
_________ could be the next
a game-card history
The parallel here between waging war and playing cards offers a biting critique of the nihilism of state-led campaigns of violence, which treat peoples and communities as interchangeable, as mere permutations within a framework. The erasure of individuality, idiosyncrasy, nuance, is shown to be an essential affront to the humanity of those against whom war is waged.
Meanwhile, in part X of the suite “Over Whiskey and Cider in Hotel Rooms,” one of the speakers defeatedly observes:
can’t say i ever killed a man
but can’t say
This Baudrillardian statement on the unknowable reality of war and its consequences, even to its closest observers, illustrates another way in which erasure and obscurantism are at the crux of what makes war so devastating. The poems in The Better Monsters thus make visible war’s acts of obliteration and attempt to reincarnate some vestige of what war has tried to make disappear. In Dutt’s hands, poetry is a kind of political monster that subverts the successes and excesses of violence.
If there is any criticism that I can make regarding the effectiveness of The Better Monsters as a work of poetry, I would only suggest that it could be more audacious in its propositions and provocations. The final poem in the book is “Reasons to Throw Stones” and it ends with a question:
now i arrive in Canada i don’t know what to
do immediately when i arrive to Canada what
to do immediately?
The last gesture in the book is therefore one of uncertainty. Though of course none of the poems in The Better Monsters are facile enough to draw neat, moralizing conclusions, there is an element of hedging weariness present not only in this poem but also observable in others in the collection. However justified this hesitancy may be, I wished at times for the poems to be bolder, pushier, to move beyond question, reconnaissance, and appraisal of problematic systems, and to explore alternative realities.
Having said that, one must keep in mind that The Better Monsters is Dutt’s poetic debut and if the poet is at all reticent here it is perhaps because she is preparing us for her sophomore work, pointing us toward a line in the sand that she has future intentions to cross.
Jade Wallace is a writer from the Niagara Fruit Belt, currently working in a legal clinic in Toronto, Ontario. Their poetry, fiction, and essays, have been published internationally, including in Studies in Social Justice, The Antigonish Review, and The Stockolm Review. Their most recent chapbook is Rituals of Parsing (Anstruther Press 2018) and their most recent collaborative chapbook, under the moniker MA|DE, is Test Centre (ZED Press 2019). They are a collective member of Draft Reading Series and one half of The Leafy Greens, a band whose music has been incorrectly described as “psychedelic stoner metal.” <jadewallace.ca>