Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gerstler’s themes in “Montage of Disasters” are similar to those in the other poems of Crown of Weeds, which continues strains of thematic concern found in her earlier books. “Montage of Disasters” implies that the conscious and the unconscious are more connected than people think. The surreal narrative, with its clips from nightmares, horror films, and newsreels, may suggest that there is an unconscious, shared script for the disasters people fear and that this script, cribbed from the same sources she uses, is filled with clichés.

In any case, the wild flinging together of disparate images in “Montage of Disasters” asks that readers revise their concept of what is ordinary and expected. In Gerstler’s poetry, the unexpected is the expected, and anything may follow from, or cause, anything else. The strange is so close to the surface that it may poke through at any point. Nothing is predictable or reliable, but everything is reported as though it were. “One lesson we learned was this:/ you cannot cut corners when building a dam.” Gerstler’s poetry often has a social dimension that comes from her emphasis on offbeat characters; although in this poem it is really situations rather than characters that are eccentric, the poem may telegraph a message of egalitarianism through its equivalence of all disaster scenes and all social upheavals. In this surreal landscape of disaster, all are equally victims. The world falls away beneath the feet of humankind.

“Montage of Disasters” is also memorable for its sheer narrative pyrotechnics. Several reviewers have referred to Gerstler’s style as “acrobatic,” and there is skill in her narrative leaps and loops. As the story jumps from one scene to another, it seems to deconstruct itself. Humor replaces horror. The humor has a sting; the reader is complicit in laughing at all these exaggerated horrors, but what does this say about the reader? The conclusion has a hint of euphoria as the couple wanders through the ruins, having survived and reported upon all these natural and supernatural events. Influenced but not overwhelmed by postmodernism, “Montage of Disasters” is a superficially simple poem, but underneath it is subtle and teasing and defies closure.