Derek Mong, The Identity Thief, Saturnalia Books: Ardmore, 2018

Reviewed by M J Bender

[Review Guidelines]



The first section of Derek Mong’s latest collection of poems, The Identity Thief, begins with the speakers in "The Environmentalists" declaring: "Behold the pastoral we’ve left... / How perfect is this world/ without us?"  Read through the lens of pastoral poetry, Mong’s book calls to mind an ancient Chinese strategy of war: 借尸还 (jie shi huan hun): "borrow a corpse for a new soul’s return." This strategy revives something from the past, for example, a traditional idea or work of literature, and harnesses it for current ideological or political purposes. Mong’s second book infuses traditional pastoral with an ironic rendering adjusted to this technological age. Furthermore, this ironic rendering enacts what is said with an open poetic voice rooted in the reciprocal relation between humans and the environment. Mong’s complex poetic voice is not that of the shepherd-poet found in the traditional pastoral, but includes all the contradictions and contrasting personalities and personae the book encompasses.
     Pastoral can be generally described as presenting a contrast between two ways of life, two ways of seeing the world. Usually the contrast is between the complicated urban life of the city dweller, rooted in art, artifice, and the artificial, as opposed to the natural life of the country person.
The speaker in traditional pastorals, often a cultivated shepherd-poet, is an urban dweller resentful of the conditions of life in the sophisticated metropolis. The shepherd-poet has a special sympathy with "nature" and does not believe in meddling with it. The speaker may use images of a renewed Golden Age when looking to the future of those "close to nature" who are now children and the future of those who are yet to be born. [1] For example, in Virgil’s "Eclogue IV," the speaker addresses a child who heralds a Golden Age. The speaker declares that the child’s "cradle will be a cornucopia" and the "untilled earth" will spontaneously and profusely pour out its bounty. [2]
     The irony of The Identity Thief resides in how far off from ushering in a "Golden Age" we actually are in our relationship with the "untilled earth." Mong’s pastoral poetry contrasts the technologically-conditioned sensibility with an alternative sensibility that reflects an ongoing awareness about human identity and "nature," or, now, human identity and the environment. In the poem "Letter in a Bottle for When the Seas Rise," the speaker addresses his son as well as the unborn:

Small son—
                    to learn how well we’ve doomed the world
                    will be the task we leave you

                                 to learn the least you need to do          will be your children’s.

The Identity Thief, then, is a critique levelled at contemporary sensibility—at the attitude that earth and the environment have value or meaning only with respect to their usefulness to humans. The collection is a critique of what human identity as well as human relationships have become in the age of digitalized technology. In the title poem of Mong’s collection, the "thief," who is speaking, justifies the theft by saying:

     I robbed you of no more                      than isolation’s charm. We’ve all kept it

                               in surplus, our lives equal parts

                                                                                                                    digitalized and adrift.

     Mong uses satiric irony to describe this technological identity, its sensibility, and what it has done to relationships generally. This is evidenced in poems like "Midnight at the School of Cosmetology:

      and the mannequins, vacant
as Caesars in their hall of mirrors,

enthrall a night watchman.
His fingers trace their root holes’

perfect rows. This Styrofoam. . .


He still recalls its boxed arrival—
bangs, pigtails, wigs—whirlpools

of third world beauty
cut to train beauticians of tomorrow.

And though he doesn’t fetishize
its climate or cuisine. . .

                                                       he’s breathed

that hair. . .

                              When his shift ends

he walks home and clicks the TV on.
He turns to stone till morning.

     In "Old Tyme with a y," the poet employs hyperbolic imagery to emphasize the speaker’s dissatisfaction with the sensibility of the technologically-conditioned "satisfied spectator":

When the last phone unslithers
from a sleeping teen’s fingers,

and all the TV knobs have spun
off into orbits unknown;. . .

and I listen nightly to the mailboxes’
blue feet unbolting as they walk

empty-bellied out of town—I’ll believe
then in this screen like a sleeve

my I slips inside to swim through an era’s
rivering surge. . .

     The poet’s question does not concern a possible, renewed Golden Age, but simply asks: with all this technology, are things getting better? Mong’s poet-speaker hopes for a
balance in the relationship between humans and the environment: "Whatever I take from this forest floor I borrow."
     Mong’s poetic voice constitutes a strong departure from the oracular voice of the autonomous shepherd-poet experienced in traditional pastoral poetry. In the poem "Hide and Seek," the speaker proclaims flatly: "The shepherd doesn’t know."  Mong explains in his Notes, that the book’s adaptations are from Neo-Latin poems "modelled on Lowell’s Imitations (1961), wherein one voice run[s] through many personalities, contrasts and repetitions." The "one voice" running through the adaptations in the book also can be heard running through the entire collection.
     The balanced sensibility informing the poetic voice in The Identity Thief, assumes humans and the environment are joined in a reciprocal relation in advance of any measuring or assessing for usefulness. When we damage the environment, we damage the situation humans themselves are in. The theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, writes:

the third discovery about the world articulated
by quantum mechanics is the most profound and difficult—
and one that was not anticipated by the atomism of
antiquity. . . It isn’t things that enter into relations,
but rather relations that ground to the notion of thing. . . 
no reality exists except in the relations between [things].
It is only in relations that nature draws the world. [3]

This discovery, here articulated by Rovelli, is not only useful for understanding the notion of "thing," but it is also useful as an image for clarifying the relationship between humans and the environment.     
     In The Identity Thief, "relations" are connected to "human identity" and, consequently, to the notion of "voice." Mong’s "one" voice is constituted by many voices, including the voices of the environment; of the lightning, and of the glaciers. Pathetic fallacy, a term coined by the environmental philosopher John Ruskin, is conventionally used in the pastoral. Mong’s lightning and glaciers, however, are not mourning with humans so much as they are prophets. They warn against the situation that compromises the balance of the human-environment identity. In the pointed, isosyllabic poem, "Lightning 3," the lightning declares:

Survive me
      to reveal

      in every-
thing you make
      or still are

      mired in.
Neckhairs swept

       like windblown
grass; bodies
       reduced to

their white-hot
       footprints? No.
I leave you

       that deeper
 scar you call

In the spreading lines of the poem "Glaciers," the glaciers also warn:

You may shrink us. . .

                                                                                                                          but not before

                                          we leave oceans on your front porch. . .

     The long poem, "Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt," is a conversation between the poet-speaker and St. Mary which extends into thirty-eight sections well worth the read. In this long poem, as well as throughout the book generally, Mong’s poetic voice is entwined. It rivers "down through other’s words." St. Mary of Egypt, something like a soul-image, acts as a guide to the speaker who asks of her: "Teach me how to want less or want me." This long poem could be read as an internalized romantic quest. The poet-speaker in Mong’s poem, however, is not striving for an epiphany rooted in the imagination. Mong’s speaker, in contrast to Romantic poets of the 1800’s, is not so much a quester as he is a requester and a questioner.
     With his use of syllabics, figures of speech, and a variety of rhetorical devices, Derek Mong is a poet’s poet. But more than that, The Identity Thief has something to say. Most significantly, Mong’s open poetic voice is heard coming from the glaciers and the lightning, which points to the understanding that humans and the environment belong to one another. They own "one voice."




[1] Frank Kermode, edt. English Pastoral Poetry, from the Beginning to Marvell (W. W. Norton: New York, 1972), p. 11ff.

[2] David Ferry, trans. The Eclogues of Virgil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1999).

[3] Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems (Riverhead Books: New York, 2017), p. 135.