Melissa Monaghan has said that an underlying thread of toska, both consciously and unconsciously, unifies her poetry. Toska is an untranslatable Russian word that Vladimir Nabokov described, in part, as “spiritual anguish…a dull ache of the soul…nostalgia, lovesickness…ennui.” Monaghan’s longing is translated from that of her own mind to that of her reader through deft skill and piercing reflection—she does not burden her reader with subjective spiritual anguish, but rather, shows how human longing manifests itself in a fascinating variety of emotions, actions, and thoughts. Monaghan demonstrates through her work the many ways in which this beautiful shade of the human soul—this toska—drives our existence.
Monaghan’s poetry is at once deadly serious and underlined with a sense of humor and irony. The first poem in this collection, “Revelation,” longs for knowledge of the relationship between God and man and offers insight into the angst that might result from its acquisition. The second poem, however, “Absurdities I-IX,” is a discussion of the relationship between God, man, and history, as it might result from an unlikely (and hilarious) discovery in a philosophy notebook. Monaghan’s ability to successfully pair these two poems, as with the rest of her work, speaks to her diverse talents and her ability to frame her own deep longing—for loved ones, for knowledge, for the past, for happiness—as one of the great drivers of the human spirit.
Although not strictly lyrical, Monaghan’s poetry has a marvelously musical quality to it that combines assonance and alliteration, consonance and dissonance to create a compelling and refreshing voice. As noted by some of the greatest lyricists of history, rhythm and sound should reflect the meaning of what is being said, and to her credit, Monaghan is an author with a profoundly rhythmic soul. “Burial of the Dying” is an example of Monaghan’s voice at its most fundamental and original, and the power of its unusual music can be breathtaking. It might even be said that her style in “Burial,” at its most raw, harkens back to the alliterative quality of great Old English poetry—much of which has been lost to those writing verse in modern English.
We at Literary Laundry, both as editors and readers, happily look forward to publishing her first book of poetry next year.