By Whitney Kerutis
ABC Moonlight by Ben Estes
The Song Cave, 2022
When we think of world-building, we often look first to prose. The worlds of prose are often read as being separate from our world, in which the unimaginable is lived, the magical be pedestrian—and we can sit back entertained by the chaos that enfolds within such worlds feeling safe from whatever harm may come to the characters. Rarely do we discuss world-building related to the poem with the same perspectives. When referencing the world of the poem, we might think of how language slinks along the page to create a specific mood or tone, how imagery forms an emotional response, how a line can pull apart and reorganize words into new meaning—rarely do we consciously enter the poem and think of the world that we are entering. Most readers often assume that the world of the poem is of the same world we come from, and so the speaker complicates the known world, not how the speaker discovers a new world to form itself against, “the illusions of the world / arranged themselves / around me…” (17)
However, there is no way to read Ben Estes’ latest collection, ABC Moonlight, without keen attention to world-building. The book reads as a sort of cautionary folktale, with bodies piled behind the wall of a butcher shop, a school field trip turned into an apocalyptic premonition, a commune where you are followed into the woods by unseen forces. Expectations charged against the reality of life fracture an illusion of the world in which almost anything can happen, in which the imagination is a manual labor, “We were two glass apples, / two hundred thousand pixels” (16).
In Estes’ world, nature is god, opening the collection with a direct address, “Dear Nature, / did love make me” (3)? Nature both acts as the answer and the antagonizer to the speaker’s questions on mortality, their importance, and how they engage the world around them, “Corn stalks sigh / as the moon looks away. / The world can be so difficult to do” (25). The destruction of nature at times models loss and unfulfilled desires of humanity:
Will it die
once we’ve learned
enough of the world?
far from the magazines
and museums, while the
selfish use sincerity
to impress the internet’s
Like native prairies
blackened and bleached.
Their promises an obligation. (13)
Attention to nature serves as a leaning into chaos and surprise, a way of accepting life as it is, learning to, “let something go / of myself / without any need/ to replace it” (14). Nature’s apathy to the speaker’s struggle acts as permission to take a temporary pause from meaning-making:
Worse than the loss,
that life goes on.
this search for meaning
is too much for me today,
watching god, nature-less
nature, unaware of the news.
The sound seemed to come from the sky. (15)
From nature’s instructions comes life that is the release of claiming to know anything, the surrender to our insignificance against the greater forces of life. “‘Humans will / lose their purpose,’ / it says, Phew” (29).
I enter ABC Moonlight with the guiding image of the speaker dipping themself slowly into a large pool of water, that is the page, and disappearing into an expanse. The book is not only an existential question or resistance to a bustling modernity—it is a walk into the quiet universe of illusions that offers refuge from a mind forged from the disappointments of life’s promises. Quite literally, this walk occurs in several poems, the speaker at one point in the book escaping to a commune in the woods. Against these moments we experience the anxiety of telling a joke to friends, a forgotten, incomplete workload, getting lost on a school field trip—all of which morph into a new kind of horror that is the contemporary American existence:
A little girl from the group
walks over to me and says
that she’s going to tell all the other kids
about “the storm,” and I say,
“please don’t, there’s no reason to do that.
You’re going to scare everyone.”
She turns around to face
the rest of the group and calls
for the kids’ attention.
She says, “everyone see that tree
over there? Now imagine
if that tree suddenly disappears…” (58)
The horror comes from, in part, the distance from nature as the book travels from the solace of a boy observing the movement of a snail in the beginning of the collection to ending in a city hotel room after having watched a street puppet show depicting women in a village being slaughtered. Nature calls us to reconsider meaning in a world of ruin, to remind us of renewal, survival, and hope:
Lest the blazes
should touch my hand,
endsport held me tight
in the physical mesh,
be the end of the roses.
It steams them.
Though there is still
the hope that something
can come from something…” (17)
The world of these poems is dreamy at best and absurd at its edges, it would seem to the reader of ABC Moonlight, and we might even call it a book of fantasy, reality stretched too thin, too close to the edges of death where love and loss are one. Yet, perhaps the greatest feat of the collection is how Estes’ world-building is a kind of trickery: “He says it doesn’t reveal falseness / but instead shows how well / he is able to turn the air / into anything he wants… they are completely convinced / by the illusion.” (49) The book is an illusion that allows the reader to shed their expectations and anxieties, resurfacing from the dream to a clarity of the world as it is:
I wish my life I’d never seen it.
Mirrored in the opposite coast,
I recognized my fate,
though wondered if I
were too fragile to fulfill it. (17)
If nature be the mirror of destruction and survival for the speaker in the world of the poems, then ABC Moonlight is the mirror of ourselves: how we burn. How we are reborn from the flame that is life’s great tragedy of finding meaning in what has been lost.
Whitney Kerutis is the founder and editor in chief of Gasher Press and a Ph.D. candidate in English - Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She is the 2018 poetry winner of the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award. Her work has appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, American Literary Review, Bayou Magazine, Breakwater Review, and others. Originally from Arizona, Whitney currently resides in Lubbock, TX with her husband, Bonhak, and cat, Bunny.