A Night with Monica Berlin
It was a full house on Thursday, November 19th, when Monica Berlin came to Western Illinois University’s Art Gallery to read poetry from her co-authored book, No Shape Bends the River So Long. The author in question stood an unimposing five feet (by my rough estimation) at the front of the room, unperturbed—on the contrary, quite delighted—by the larger-than-life styrofoam head glaring down from behind her.
“What a beautiful room,” she began, the art’s praise quickly followed by a joke about the podium being short enough for once. After assuring us that these poems she would share with us were by no means hers, but the collective work of herself and her co-author, Beth Marzoni, she began.
The poetry Berlin shared with us sounded like it was meant to be read. Her consonants rang in the silence of the small gallery, and even the giant heads on the walls seemed to hang on her every word. There was a cadence to her reading, consistent pauses that encouraged listeners to feel the poems rather than simply hear them.
Many of the poems, Berlin confided, were addressed to a character named “So and So,” often shortened to “So.” So and So represented “all the people we love in the world” according to Berlin, and often helped Berlin and Marzoni through awkward transitions or moments of writer’s block. Having the faceless So and So to address their thoughts too just felt natural, explained Berlin.
Throughout the night, Berlin gave those gathered some background on her poems and her co-author, Beth Marzoni. She and Marzoni had traveled together along the Mississippi River for 18 months to gather inspiration for their collection of poems. Berlin shared anecdotes sporadically throughout the reading, describing tid-bits of their trip like how they kept track of the names of every river they crossed on the trip, and still do when they travel separately, emailing lists of the river names to the other once the trip is complete.
These side comments and stories were my favorite part of the evening: getting to see the man behind the curtain and hear the somewhat random thoughts and observations that wander through the mind of Monica Berlin. Berlin’s reading was more than simply sharing her art with us; she gave the audience her wisdom—for example, excitedly stating that “we’re closer now to spring than we’ve been in a long time”—her desires—specifically, to touch the art surrounding her though she knew she couldn’t—and her refusal to apologize for what she termed an “unrelenting sadness” in her poems. Berlin shared her fascination with science, her stresses as the English Department Chair at Knox College, and her own, personal struggles as a writer, which we can all relate to.
Monica Berlin came to Western Illinois University to read poems from her co-authored collection, but instead, she gave those who had gathered small pieces of herself. I can’t speak for the others seated in that tiny, beautiful space, but I felt at times that those pieces of Monica Berlin that were shared with us were also somehow pieces of myself, familiar as an old coat or a broken in pair of shoes.