‘Cool Limbo’ by Michael Montlack

If any poetry collection by a first-time author can be called “much anticipated,” Cool Limbo (NYQ Books) is it. Michael Montlack, editor of the Lambda Literary Award-nominated essay collection My Diva, has been entertaining audiences at readings for the past decade with poems that are consistently witty, edgy and sharp; at their best, they cut right to the bone.

Among a newer generation of poets, Montlack bridges the modern/postmodern divide by moving with ease from tight formal and free-verse poems to looser performance-driven pieces, and by employing Classical and Biblical allusions as often as he drops ’70s and ’80s pop-culture references like Lynyrd Skynrd and Hello Kitty. The result is a fascinating literary decoupage.

“Liz Taylor in Levittown,” one of the book’s standouts, finds the speaker on the cusp of gay adolescence, doing homework in a Long Island kitchen while his mother watches Elizabeth Taylor on television; a regular occurrence, only this time her idol is alerting the world to AIDS:

[…] I could have a glimmer of hope
when Liz invited us—the world, America, Moms like you—
to ask Where would we be without these people
we passively watch die?
These incredible people…who contribute so much?

The poems about childhood in Cool Limbo manage to be touching, even romantic, without being bathetic or sentimental; thought-provoking, but not polemical. In “Fighting Fire,” a boy receives a plastic bullhorn from his friend,

the hollow horn’s mouth aligned with your own
like a kiss I could see inside,
one that amplified some unspoken urgency,
a pre-adolescent emergency:
my own inner fire.

Other poems, like “If Hello Kitty Had a Mouth,” are cheeky crowd-pleasers that, though they work best when read live, still sparkle on the page. “A Golden Girls Prayer,” a paean to those eponymous ’80s sitcom seniors, is especially hilarious (“so that I will… / first see the generosity in my slutty, bitchy and stupid friends,” or “so that I might… / just once say, ‘I’ll be out on the lanai’”).

The prose poem “Stein on Bishop” is an absolute delight, employing Gertrude Stein’s bewildering syntax to offer a brief disquisition on the poetry of another lesbian icon, Elizabeth Bishop. If this seems risky, Montlack takes the further risk of trying the technique twice in the same collection, but his hubris pays off.

The sequel, called “Gertrude, you had Alice. But I had him (so briefly) and now we don’t even talk,” is a winner, using Stein’s obsessive repetition to great effect: “You could just call. You could. You could say something. Something about anything. About anything you might want to call him about. About him not calling….”

Chock-full of literary experiments, topical references, unabashed sexual themes, and a raconteur’s easy tone, Cool Limbo takes the kinds of risks that first books rarely do. At 100 pages (almost twice the number typical for a debut collection), even the length is risky.

With so many poems, it’s reasonable to expect that a few don’t achieve divine status, but the payoff is that there’s something in Cool Limbo for everyone, ranging from cool to downright ingenious.
by Michael Montlack
NYQ Books
Paperback, 9781935520405, 100pp
May 2011