Leslie Monsour

LESLIE MONSOUR'S LANDSCAPE: Transcending the Constraints of Time

A thoughtful analysis by Jessica Su, exploring aspects of time and place in Leslie Monsour's poems


LESLIE MONSOUR’S LANDSCAPE: TRANSCENDING THE CONTSTRAINTS OF TIME
By Jessica Su

The Mojave Desert, the mountain ranges, the Pacific Ocean, the sprawling parking complex, and the gas station standing alone under a night sky, elements of the landscape in Southern California play an important role in Leslie Monsour’s poetry collection, The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Born in and currently residing in Hollywood, California, Monsour presents multiple facets of the expansive landscape around Los Angeles through her poetry. In her poems “Desert Prayer,” “Hotel Balcony,” “Shell,” and “The Old Capitalist,” Monsour develops a sense of place in a way that presents both the natural landscape and the built environment as access points to the flow of time, allowing the observer to move both forward and backward in the time continuum. Monsour’s treatment of natural and built landscapes within the context of cars and trains further suggests that time is lost in the process of traveling through a landscape without engaging with the places streaming past the window. Through contemplation and understanding of time inherent within a natural or built environment, however, an observer inherits access to an unbounded time stream, transcending the physical constraints of time.

In her poem “Desert Prayer,” Monsour guides the reader through a contemplation of time and place and highlights their interconnectedness by situating the reader in a timeless landscape:

A gleaming granite ocean, bold as light
and strewn with bright, coarse stuff – a million suns,
the shells of ancient seas and modern guns –
the grand Mojave disappears at night…

There are no features that date this scene. Through immersion in the landscape, the observer is able to place him or herself at any point along a continuous time stream. Contemplation of the landscape allows the observer to travel back to the time of “ancient seas” or forward to the era of “modern guns.” The “light” and the “bright, coarse stuff” allude to the beginning of the universe, a mass of light and glittering particles, bright as “a million suns.” By focusing on the “gleaming granite ocean,” the qualities of light, and the rugged physical features of the desert, Monsour constructs the image of a timeless landscape within the first three stanzas of the poem. Her use of the traditional poetic form of iambic pentameter and an end rhyme scheme within stanzas adds to the timelessness of the poem itself. The use of verbs such as “strewn” and “sprawl” as well as the desert as an “ocean” suggest that the landscape stretches across space and time. The diction in the poem suggests that the landscape provides a physical connection to the past and the future. As one of the few poems in the collection that does not capitalize the first word of each line, the poem maintains a sense of continuity within each sentence that adds to the flow and the sense of landscape as a bridge through time and space. Monsour’s choice in situating the reader in the Mojave Desert further integrates landscape and time by alluding to the desert sand and the sands of time. Although in the context of an hourglass, the trickle of sand marks the passing of time in a continuous downward flow, the images evoked in the poem break away from this perspective, presenting time and landscape as an accessible continuum.

By synchronizing the reader with the pulse of the land, Monsour creates a sense of immersion in the desert landscape that allows the reader to travel to a different moment in time. In the earlier stanzas of the poem, there are no signs of life in the landscape except for the consciousness of the narrator, the faintest hint of a human presence. In this way, Monsour’s timeless landscape dislodges the reader’s anchor to the present, detaching the reader from the human construct of time as a linear passing of minutes, hours, years, and decades. By returning to a more primordial state of mind, one in which time is marked only by physical changes in the environment, the reader becomes a part of the landscape and a part of time: “I feel the hope-free weight of rockbound age, /​ and for an instant, heaven-reaching joy, /​ at poppies pushing through the wind-cracked clay.” The reader experiences at once both the ponderous age of the ancient granite cliff faces and the liberation of a small plant pushing through the cracks of the barren earth, heralding the return of spring. When Monsour finally incorporates the hawk and the eagle soaring above this timeless desert landscape, she guides the reader to consider time from a different perspective: “here, timorous hearts keep time in fur and bone.” The reader has become an integral part of the landscape such that the reader’s heartbeat resonates with the beating of the hawk’s wings and the thumping within “earth’s consenting floor.” As part of the landscape, the reader is a keeper of time, able to maneuver along the time stream through interaction with the landscape. Monsour quotes from Emerson at the beginning of the poem, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” In “Desert Prayer,” the narrator’s prayer is not a plea to a higher power but an immersion in the desert landscape. Through this contemplation of “the grand Mojave,” the narrator is able to transcend the constraints of time.

Because landscape in Monsour’s poetry functions as an access point to time, the role of high speed forms of transportation such as trains and cars hinder the observer’s capacity to engage with the landscape and enjoy freedom in time. In Monsour’s poem “Hotel Balcony,” as the narrator surveys the view from a hotel balcony, the narrator comments that someone leaning on the balcony across “stares at something lost /​ The way we gaze from windows of a train /​ At places we won’t ever see again.” Monsour’s use of iambic pentameter and capitalization of the first word in each line combine with the single stanza of the poem to create a disjointed sense of the motion and sights in the poem: the crib “bolted firmly to the wall,” “the sea, its shades of green,” “the junebugs crashing on the screen,” the people milling home,” and the man across the way. The narrator of the poem perceives multiple lines of action from the hotel balcony without synthesizing a personal, overall impression. The trochee in the first foot of the second-to-last line gives emphasis to the narrator’s assessment that life unwinds “Like a ‘Surprise Ball’ from our place of birth, /​ Unwrapping trinket glimpses of the earth.” Monsour draws attention to life’s unpredictable path through the world and the fleeting moments allotted to appreciate the sights along the way. By constructing a sense of place with slight discontinuities in “Hotel Balcony,” Monsour creates the impression that the nostalgia and sense of loss elicited by the rapid flow of landscape past a window on a train are not simply because of regret for unexplored locations or landscapes left behind. Rather, something more is lost in the passing of landscapes. The “trinket glimpses of the earth” outside the window represent opportunities to access moments in time. When the observer stands before the whole of the landscape and engages with the environment, all of time is available for contemplation and exploration. When moving in a car, the traveler no longer has time to become more than a passerby in the landscape. Monsour alludes to this as the narrator watches “people milling home and think[s] of ants.” These people are bound by time because they do not pause to engage with the landscape. Cars and trains shorten the time needed to arrive at new landscapes, but they also shorten the time taken to immerse in the landscape outside the window and to travel across time. Although rapid transportation saves time during travel, it also, in a sense, steals time away. As the train or car speeds through the landscape, as mountain ranges, forests, and deserts streak past the window, time is slipping away.

The dual role of cars is explored in Monsour’s poem “Shell,” a poem in which Monsour describes a built environment that has the same capacity as a natural landscape to transport the observer in time. Monsour situates the reader by describing:

The station where I buy my gas
Has pigeons roosting in the beams
Above the self-serve pumps. Below
Fluorescent lights that glow all night, I see
The parents dozing near their quaking nests.

In the built environment of a gas station, a rest stop where the driver is able to stop the car and reconnect with both landscape and time, Monsour deliberately leaves out any explicit reference to cars and drivers. Instead, the reader is presented with the gas station itself, as a building and as part of the landscape. By incorporating the “pigeons roosting in the beams” and “their quaking nests” into the built environment, Monsour presents the gas station as an extension of the natural landscape and as a permanent home, a living environment. In “Shell,” Monsour chooses to explore the built environment of a gas station at a point in time between motion by emphasizing stationary and constant aspects of the landscape: the “fluorescent lights that glow all night,” “the parents dozing,” the light from “the moon,” the darkness of “nighttime’s shoe,” and “Orion’s sword” in the night sky. In this way, Monsour highlights the gas station’s place in the landscape and in time, giving its function as a rest stop precedence over its role in the fueling of cars and motion.

In addition to its emphasis on the gas station as a built environment, the physical exclusion of cars and drivers from the poem also prevents the reader from viewing the landscape through the context of a car. Even the most off-handed mention of a car would encourage the reader to consider the landscape through the narrowed vision of a driver looking through the windshield or window of a car and within the timeframe of a driver passing by or through a gas station. Monsour’s approach to the gas station as a landscape maintains an expansive, panoramic field of view and an indefinite timeframe. As the reader immerses in the built landscape, among the “wires connecting us – /​ Metal and gas, feathers and blood – /​ The heavy, shuddering lot of us,” the reader joins in a futuristic fusion of metal and flesh, transported through time beneath the constant night sky. The idea of a fusion is further emphasized by the combination of iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter lines within the stanzas of the poem, and Monsour’s choice to avoid end rhyme also discourages the reader from forming a strong distinction between the station, the pigeons, the lights, and the narrator’s voice. Monsour draws attention specifically to the fusion of “Metal and gas, feathers and blood” by using a trochee as the first foot of the line. In “Shell,” the narrator, the birds, the gas, and the gas station itself meld together in the landscape into a single entity, a “forgotten egg” traveling through time. By offering the reader a view of the gas station outside of the limiting mindset of a driver sitting in a car, Monsour provides a way to access both landscape and time.

Through Monsour’s poetry, the reader gains an understanding of the connection between landscape, time, and liberation from the constraints of time. Monsour’s poem,“The Old Capitalist,” offers an example of the freedom made possible by immersion in built or natural environments. The narrator describes an “old capitalist” who, in his old age, “labors with his walker through the park” and admires the landscape as he:

...sits there like a practiced hedonist.
Cicadas ring from branches overhead.
He listens, smiles, and calmly murmurs twice,
Not minding who will hear him, “This is nice.”

The desert air’s so pure, he can count seven
Layers of mountains, backed by peaks, backed by
The dreamy blue of an unending sky,
As if there were no obstacle to heaven,
Whose shares he basks in to his bones’ content,
Like an inheritance he never spent.

The old capitalist takes pleasure in his immersion in the sounds and the sights of the landscape, “like a practiced hedonist.” He has become so integrated within the landscape that he is unperturbed by the “homeless bums” around him and unconcerned about others hearing him murmuring to himself. Spread out before him is the open desert, its expanse scaled by the “layers of mountains” that frame its edges. The “dreamy blue of an unending sky” above encompasses the desert, the mountain peaks, the cicadas, and the old capitalist within the landscape.

As a man “who once ran industries /​ And reveled in the factory’s macho din,” the old capitalist may have been involved in the car industry, and his factories may have manufactured cars that facilitated rapid motion through landscapes. Now, near the end of his life, he finally has time to immerse himself in the landscape, and by doing so, he gains access to a wealth of time not limited by the short span of human life. He basks in “shares” that, unlike stock shares, are interminable. The boundless possibilities available to the old capitalist are emphasized in the last stanza by the shift in end rhyme scheme and the switch to imperfect iambic pentameter from the regular rhyme scheme and the perfect iambic pentameter in the first two stanzas. This endless share in time, represented by the landscape, frees the old capitalist of the constraints of time and space, “as if there were no obstacle to heaven.” By taking the time to engage with the landscape, he has discovered “an inheritance he never spent,” one that allows him to transcend the unidirectional flow of time.

In “Desert Prayer,” “Hotel Balcony,” “Shell,” and “The Old Capitalist,” Monsour uses techniques such as imagery, meter, and rhyme to develop a sense of place such that the natural landscapes and built environments of Southern California featured in the poems span across space and time, giving an observer immersed in the landscape the freedom to move forward or backward along the time continuum. Monsour’s poetry addresses the effect of cars and trains within a landscape by suggesting that rapid transportation decreases the degree to which the traveler engages with the passing landscape, and time becomes as fleeting as the glimpses of landscape through a car window. However, time can be regained through contemplation of the landscape, and the observer inherits access to limitless shares of time. Through an understanding of the interconnectedness of time and landscape, Monsour’s poetry reveals that both observer and reader can transcend the constraints of time.


Desert Prayer
"Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view."
— Emerson

A gleaming mica ocean, bold as light,
strewn with bright, coarse stuff — a million suns,
the shells of ancient seas and modern guns —
the grand Mojave disappears at night,

its long and open syllable of air,
the breath of all that lives and dies out there.

Surrounded by the silent sprawl of sage,
I see the stark indifference of its grace,
the glare of stillness on its living face;
I feel the hope-free weight of rockbound age,

and for an instant, heaven-reaching joy,
at poppies pushing through the wind-cracked clay.

The sudden dive when hawk and eagle soar,
is sky's collaboration with the land.
Here, eye-like burrows, socketed in sand,
surrender truth from earth's consenting floor;

here, timorous hearts keep time in fur and bone.
I know the count; their thumping is my own.


Hotel Balcony

This crib is bolted firmly to the wall.
From here I watch the sea, its shades of green,
And save the junebugs crashing on the screen
From dying upside down. With stupored crawl,
And plodding flight, they make fine toys, as psalms
Break loose from sparrows passing by. I glance
At people milling home and think of ants,
Then nod at someone leaning on his palms
Across from me, who stares at something lost
The way we gaze from windows of a train
At places we won’t ever see again;
And life unwinds, as if it had been tossed
Like a “Surprise Ball” from our place of birth,
Unwrapping trinket glimpses of the earth.


Shell

The station where I buy my gas
Has pigeons roosting in the beams
Above the self-serve pumps. Below
Fluorescent lights that glow all night, I see
The parents dozing near their quaking nests.

The moon, a dime in nighttime’s shoe,
Shines down on wires connecting us –
Metal and gas, feathers and blood –
The heavy, shuddering lot of us, like some
Forgotten egg, beneath Orion’s sword.


The Old Capitalist

It’s come to this: Who once ran industries
And revelled in the factory’s macho din,
Preferred oak-panelled smoking rooms to trees,
Liked Spanish olives with his English gin,
Now labors with his walker through the park.
The homeless bums ignore the hierarch,

And he, in turn, pretends they don’t exist.
He finds a bench not serving as a bed,
And sits there like a practiced hedonist.
Cicadas ring from branches overhead.
He listens, smiles, and calmly murmurs twice,
Not minding who will hear him, “This is nice.”

The desert air’s so pure, he can count seven
Layers of mountains, backed by peaks, backed by
The dreamy blue of an unending sky,
As if there were no obstacle to heaven,
Whose shares he basks in to his bones’ content,
Like an inheritance he never spent.


Works Cited
“Biography.” Leslie Monsour. May 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. .
Monsour, Leslie. The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. Print.
Monsour, Leslie. “Desert Prayer.” The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. 28. Print.
Monsour, Leslie. “Hotel Balcony.” The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. 40. Print.
Monsour, Leslie. “The Old Capitalist.” The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. 85. Print.
Monsour, Leslie. “Shell.” The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2005. 66. Print.





Selected Works

Magazine article
Very brief description goes here
This is the story of how Robert Frost discovered, to his dismay, that a group of his letters and manuscripts had been acquired by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 1923. The article describes some of the gems in the collection and Frost's repudiation of two of the poems attributed to him.
Critical Analysis & Biography
Bilingual edition of Richard Wilbur's poems, translated into Spanish by Rhina Espaillat. Introduction by Leslie Monsour.
Literary Criticism
This monograph contains critical and biographical essays as well as an interview with the writer/translator, Rhina Espaillat. "Fascinating. Not possible to put it down once you start reading." --Lewis Turco.
Academic paper
A thoughtful analysis by Jessica Su, exploring aspects of place and time in Leslie Monsour's poems.
Poetry
Winner of the 2010 Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Competition. "Monsour captures time, place, and person with an ease and concision that are, quite simply, unforgettable." --Ned Balbo, Competition Judge
“These are some of the finest poems in contemporary literature.”
–Timothy Steele
Prose
A Selection of Excerpts

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