:: Article

On Katy Mongeau’s Apostasy

By Vi Khi Nao.

Katy Mongeau, Apostasy (Black Sun Lit, 2020)

Not too long ago, perhaps three years or so, I took a bus from Burlington, Vermont, to visit Katy Mongeau in Canada for two or three days. I don’t quite recall what inspired the impulsive trip or why I was so compelled to cross the Canadian border. I want to say it was because of Justin Trudeau, but this may simply be a handsome façade for my decision to always leap without realizing that a mattress could just as easily be made of stone. While I was visiting with Mongeau a few things stick with me. We took quite a few walks around the neighborhood where she was residing. There were lots of trees, hovering over us like weeping mountains; their long arms dangling like they were lethargic or shivering. We randomly went into second-hand clothing stores to admire random earrings or bracelets or mildly boring dresses, ones that I could easily find at a luxurious Goodwill, if one could ever place the word “luxurious” next to a donation store, but that’s how it seemed. Mongeau showed me Montreal’s electronic scene, which reminded me of, no, bore an exact similarity to Providence and Brown University, where we had both received MFA’s in literary arts. I graduated a few years ahead of her.

When we hung out with some artists and musicians, I put on a serious face and told people I resided in Montreal, was Mongeau’s friend, and was a bodybuilder. How could they contradict me? What could they know? All but one of those things were untrue. My memory of Mongeau is fragile, sharp like biting into a coconut only to realize it’s a lemon tree. I’ll always remember the lavish culinary feasts she concocted and it strikes me odd now how she couldn’t stand it when people would chew or eat in front of her. These are the esoteric or obvious things about Mongeau I recall from nowhere. Perhaps, after writing Apostasy, she is no longer who she once was. Or, perhaps she is more of herself because of it. It’s hard to say.

A few years later at a reading near Dumbo—maybe it was Berl’s—I saw Mongeau again after a number of years of noncommunication and I noticed that she was no longer a citrus fruit. She was blissfully content. Each step she took seemed a bit lighter. In reading her debut book Apostasy and then revisiting it for the second time this Spring in here Las Vegas, so very far from the East Coast of Mongeau or wherever she currently resides, I have come to an understanding that this work is as densely light as I sensed she was the last time I was in her presence.

I thought about reaching to Mongeau to ask questions about her project / book. But then I thought that there is also intimacy in considering the work outside of being in direct conversation. She introduced me to the art of interviewing other people over Google Document when she interviewed me once, but I felt interviewing her in return would feel like telling her sweater is pretty too. At any rate, I didn’t want to de-challenge or oppress Mongeau in that glamorous way. Plus, she was so quick with words and her questions were so deftly complex in a very psychologically profound way. I am hoping this open-ended conversation about Apostasy might shed light on just how marvelously unfathomable and astute Mongeau is, not only in the way she unravels across the page, but also across her literary time in digital culture.

With a training in fiction, Mongeau’s poetic force had been held to a subliminal foreground—one that resurfaces here with distinguished minimalism. Capable (or incapable) of being verbose and longwinded, Mongeau takes her small voluptuous sculpture and reduces it beyond its pivotal, rudimentary unit, almost an institution of erasure in itself. Like Rodin carving the rest of The Thinker out and only leaving his two left toes and maybe a slice of his torso—would you think it’s more of a Thinker, less of a Thinker, or just exactly where abstraction and emotional intelligence meet eye to eye? I like to think that Mongeau’s severe editing is a reflection of her acute vision for the impossible—that it’s possible to reduce something to barely nothing by retaining everything about it. Including large blank spaces that express the book’s muted, noiseless, audible imagination. Intense edits are often a reflection of Mongeau’s generosity with time: time to be with herself, to accept the tactility of her station in literature, and her patience with the world, with her own pain and angst, and with men. The intense erasure of her prose which paves the way for her poetry also leads her to the compelling impulse to do the same to her book title. That struck me very early on, leading me to imagine this: how does one show that one has erased the title without erasing it? I suppose the simple solution is to cross it out. Apostasy, as a title, emotionally and linguistically prepares the reader for the psychological journey that is to come. Mongeau’s opening page also speaks volumes about the female condition in patriarchal society. In her last line of the first page, she writes, “Ungrateful, he reaches in and pries.” In a patriarchal society, when a man reaches out for a plate of fruits in the body of a woman or a young girl (he shouldn’t ever), his ingratitude and his lack of appreciation probe and interfere with a basket of goods that are meant to languish and pass their time in the sun. Without molestation or disturbance or perversity.  Is ingratitude the heart of abuse? Of any kind of abuse? It’s an important question (one that is not necessarily biblical) and it’s one that Mongeau’s statement seeks first. Her instinct (to respond or not to respond) is to let the sea of empty words circulate, incriminate, divulge. As readers delve deeper into Mongeau’s world, there is so much fever there and no resistance. Pulses of violence strobe Mongeau’s white pages like light trying to get out of a basement and there is no hesitancy in the way she marries nightmares with a sleeping reality which seems to be always on fire.  On page 23, she writes, “What else could I have lit on fire/ more vain/ than myself?” Only the number 23 shares the same linguistic space with such an earth defying question. What is Mongeau trying to renounce in herself? What is her ligature of announcement? Here everything she feels is sharp, with an ancient accident. Blood spills, but doesn’t burn everything down at once.

Inside that that psyche of hers, I see her childhood galloping like a horse.  Each time I arrive defiantly to the barren wheat field of her words, I come to a small understanding that although the past can rarely be liberated, one can still accept it for what it is as in “I loved you in your terror and your tyranny.” There are so many flashes across her pages marching amongst us—like dominant hoof steps treading on a poet’s tongue. Despite harvesting the psyche’s will for unwanted violence, Mongeau’s beauty also exists on the page as something that could easily be pulled out of a chapter on tenderness, torn from the sleeve of rape. Here, halfway through, she surrenders, “Sea, listen. Cliff, I’m coming.” I am thinking of Emily Bronte and her moors. I am thinking of Katy Mongeau near the cliff walk in Rhode Island (Newport). I am thinking of Providence’s sea. Her commanding words arrive with such raw, aching, tenderness—it jolts readers out of their manic masculinity. She recalibrates us by reminding us that a writer/poet, despite being inside her own wilderness of want, dispersed by ferocity and rawness, and enraptured by peonies and mosquitos, can give readers and herself clarity at any given moment in literary time. Mongeau pauses and we are given permission to not “lust-fuck” the mud of her rapture once again as we accompany her journey out of the wilderness of her own past, if such a journey is still possible in its “vague premonition” form.

Finally, she says: “When you murdered me, I called it apostasy.” Does such bold statement offer readers the key to Mongeau’s work? Surely, one word could not alter the garment of violence or the fruits of volatility? Whether you decide to finish the book in one sitting or never finish it, she could slice you open with one word, one sentence. And, that’s enough. Beauty can be brief. Its violence can be long. When a book could stand for all the eggs you couldn’t place in one basket, can you still call yourself a slave of agony? “I have raised/ in my spine/ something monstrous enough to keep me standing.” Should you as a reader be sitting when you read such a sentence? Katy Mongeau has invited you into her soft, nubile skin—this book—flawless and potentially empty. Should you stand before such an invitation? Should you sit? If I were you, I would take a knife with me. Not to cut the fruit of her poetic labor in halves, but to imagine that she has spent most of her time writing while holding a knife.

VI KHI NAO is the author of four poetry collections: Human Tetris (11:11 Press, 2019) Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), The Old Philosopher (winner of the Nightboat Prize for 2014), & of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016). Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She was the Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. vikhinao.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 11th, 2020.