The Poem

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

“Montage of Disasters” begins with an italicized query: “Where’s the eloquence in all this?” The question is followed by, as the title indicates, a montage of disasters—train wrecks, fires, earthquakes, bombs, viruses, biblical plagues, mutant spiders, and sinking ships. The poem is like a series of newsreels spliced together in a random fashion or a collage of cover stories from old newspapers, a few copies of The Star and The National Enquirer thrown in with The New York Times. The narrative begins with the train wreck: “The train lurched, shuddered, and snapped in two.” However, the train story is abandoned there, and other disconnected scenes follow: “No one knew for sure how the fire started./ Then the virus got into the milk supply.” As cataclysm is piled on cataclysm, the report becomes oddly and blackly humorous as reality merges with fiction and nightmare blends with horror story. After bombs destroy the zoo, setting the animals free, “grinning crocodiles new orphans watched/ slither into fountains by the ruined library.”

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The poem begins in the third person. However, somewhere around the middle the first-person point of view finds its way into what was hitherto a report by an unidentified narrator: a meteorite is described as crashing through the window and turning “my side/ of the bed to a tidy pile of cinders.” Once the first person surfaces it remains until the end of the poem, and the events become continually more bizarre and absurd. Murders and scenes from science fiction horror films are slipped into the mishmash of natural disasters. The dog keeps lunging at the trash barrel until “he tipped it over and out fell/ this manicured hand.” Typical film monsters are produced by radiation, which causes “tarantulas in the basin/ to grow hundred of times their normal size.” The effect is of fireworks of terror shooting off in rapid succession and then all at once; at the end, “the dead bodies” begin to “glow, bluely” and looters begin to “work the ruins.” The final scene changes the “I” to “we” as it invokes the last scene in so many horror movies in which the heroic couple is left over in the debris at the end of the nightmare after the monsters have been killed. The city is still aflame, but the fires are dying:

We first metoh, it seems lifetimes ago, staggeringthrough fog banks, dodging columns of oilysmoke, wandering the city in singed pajamas.

This last scene summarizes the conclusion of all the horrors, real and imagined. At the beginning, the poem asks: What kind of eloquence, what kind of verbal beauty, can appear in such a bizarre sequence? There is no answer, only the strange pileup of odd miseries that suggests the collection of disasters chronicled by Voltaire in Candide (1759). The poem has a Voltairean kind of humor throughout. “Montage of Disasters” is similar in tone to Amy Gerstler’s other work in her 1997 collection, Crown of Weeds. Gerstler’s poetry is known for its eccentric jumps, weirdly on-target associations, and oddball personas. Her works tend to begin with startling announcements or scraps of hair-raising action. This poem is another of her thrill-ride narratives. Riding the edge of surrealism, “Montage of Disasters” makes the reader question the smooth surface of the ordinary. It also demonstrates that terror has its own clichés.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

“Montage of Disasters” is a forty-four-line poem in blank verse. The tone is relaxed and conversational. Most of the lines have three to five accented syllables, or six to eight words, which give a vague uniformity to the poem’s slightly ragged rectangular appearance on the page. There is, however, no clear pattern of rhythm, and there is no obvious reason for the positions of the line breaks except to maintain the overall appearance. The enjambed lines are not pulling against an underlying rhythm, and this informality enhances the flat, reporter-style tone of the poem. The flatness of style is also emphasized by the lack of simile and metaphor. Language is simple and direct, with some colloquialisms and some deliberately vague expressions that create the impression of casual understatement: “The women/ caused an awful lot of trouble/ in the lifeboats that night.” There is a preponderance of short words, even monosyllables. The sentence structure is intentionally unvaried, with verb predictably following subject. The reader has a sense of being given “just the facts,” although the facts themselves are strange and shocking and combine the improbable or mythical with the ordinary: “Nuns poured stiff jolts of whiskey/ into paper cups for sooty rescue crews./ Later, it rained frogs.” When the ordinary is consistently and repeatedly combined with the peculiar, the reader tends to blur them after a while, and this blurring contributes to the effectiveness of the poem. Traces of postmodern technique appear in this superficially coherent, though bizarre, narrative. As does much postmodern work, the poem effaces boundaries, allowing material from one world to flow into another. Here the immediately obvious violated boundary is between fact and fiction, but there are others—dream and experience, self and other, night and day, human and animal. The picture is finally something like Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s paintings of hell, but this hell is painted with tongue in cheek.

What is most compelling about Gerstler’s style is the distinctive voice. The reporter style challenges assumptions about observation and reporting. The reader can almost hear the voice of a newscaster describing horrific events in a determinedly cheery timbre and with a certain standard rhetoric. The mismatch between tone and content becomes even more obvious when the first person enters the story: The speaker exhibits only mild curiosity about the untoward events she is witnessing, and perhaps now and then a certain satisfaction creeps into her own observations, such as when she sees “a tidy pile of cinders.”

The way the disasters merge and overlap allows them to lead off in all directions from the central narrative, posing unanswered questions. The montage form itself, in its piecing together of parts of things, has both a limited surface and a wider implication beneath the surface as each piece also implies the rest of the picture. Scraps torn from other complete pictures have been stuck together to create a new shape, the shape of this narrative.

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Themes