The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre
by C Dylan Bassett
Plays Inverse Press, 2015; 71 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
C Dylan Bassett’s first book, The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre, is four one-act plays made of prose poems, each poem titled “[scene].” Its poems are motivated to distort and rebuild bodies and perhaps take their cues from the Salvador Dali painting Inventions of the Monsters. I approach Bassett’s book as poetry, and I read the plays as a conceptual framework to set the acrobatics of private thought into the arena of performance.
The physical and the ideological are brought close together in Bassett’s poems by means of the uncanny. You peel a banana and it’s a “small yellow finger” (28). You learn that “You are not you / here, etc” (13). Everything outside private thought, for Bassett, including the body, is a public space.
Distortion is Bassett’s primary mode of figuration, as it is for Dali. If he introduces a body, he alters it. He writes: “I wear all the bodies I love.” (56) and later “The child expiring becomes the / adult” (69). He reminds us that physical change, and the dysphoria of being a body and also a mind is monstrous, or can become so over time.
That dysphoria is sometimes represented as bodies trapped in other bodies: “The role of the boy is played by a skeleton / inside a smaller boy” (16) or “Birds explode into smaller birds” (16) or “A horse rides another horse” (25) or “Beneath my robe is a sexier robe” (40) or “A girl inside of a boy inside of / a baby” (65).
In moments like “I wear all the bodies I love” Bassett is able to articulate an idea (carrying around the memories of others, alive and dead) through its physicality. Disguises that operate like Russian nesting dolls become a caricature of how ideas are embodied. Bassett wrestles with the tension of how thinking shapes what the body is and does, and what it means to be a self. The book is most vibrant to me when it’s in the process of figuring out, and least effective when it makes statements about what it’s discovered.
The book’s best moments establish that the truths about the body are felt, and therefore constantly changing. He writes: “To suppress my sex drive I pull out / leg hair in the shower (35).” Few moments so effectively present the intensity of being an object, of approaching the field of one’s own body as a machine for desire made up of thought and form.
Bassett’s poems frequently approach a rigorous exploration of an unknown with the surety of the aphorism. In these moments, the speaker of the poems seems afraid to permit the unknown to be dynamic, out of the desire to present the unknown knowingly. He employs valences that he doesn’t explain or support, most apparent to me in the book’s recurring discourse on sex and gender.
Figures in the poems are often identified by their gender, and by their age: “boy,” “lady,” “man,” “woman,” “girl” etc., cleanly shifting between one role and another. Bassett writes: “A boy becoming a man becomes a lady all over / again” (19). Similar moments of exchange more directly address questions of gender performance: “A man wanting to be beautiful puts on a dress whereas a / woman wanting power takes one off. (29)” In its tidy synthesis, this sentence undercuts the exact sort of gender fluidity it seems interested in creating. It makes a family of unhelpful assumptions about who wears a dress and why. It’s especially uncomfortable in a book consumed with validating the thinking of a male speaker that a woman’s power is achieved by removing her dress. The book’s discourse on gender might wish to be another arena to explore the dysphoria of being a body, but it does so with strokes too broad to be reliably useful.
Much of the work of the poems rests in negotiating their form. Framed as a series of one-act plays, the book presents an interesting dilemma. I do not know whether there is a stage or if anyone is on it. By approaching each poem as a scene, Bassett’s ideas work together as people might, reacting to the content of what each says, but also to its inflection, as though the page were a room as well as a field.
Bassett draws attention to the idea that every reading of a book will shift as a result of its surroundings, like every performance of a play. This idea is interesting enough to carry the weight of most of the moments that assert too much. There’s an excellent mind at work here, and more books in it. We’re lucky to have this one, the mind, the book, and to see what will certainly follow it.
- The idea that the poem is a field for theater propels Bassett’s The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre. It’s a fascinating one and worth sitting with through the duration of the book.
- The book’s engagement with gender is a red herring to a queer politics it gestures at, but which seems outside the arc of its interests and sustained explorations.
- In the poems, the primary arena is the mind and what goes on within it.
- In much of the book, it’s my mind in the room with Bassett’s, which is a pleasure, if an uneven one, and worth the price of admission.