Sundress Reads: Review of Capable Monsters

In a work of queer Black boyhood and manhood, Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020), a chapbook by Minnesota-based poet Marlin M. Jenkins, directly engages with the Pokémon franchise. This collection interrogates what it means to be drawn as a monster, bringing a fresh and animated perspective to the Black experience in America. It is playful and familiar, especially for fans of the Poké-world, whether that’s the movies, the games, or even the television show, yet it stands on its own merit, too. While Jenkins’ love for these creatures shines through (he names Umbreon as his favorite Pokémon in his bio), the Pokémon are merely a cultural touchstone that serves to open up this movement from boyhood to entry into a harsher, more ruthless environment where all must learn to evolve.

Yes, the Pokémon act as a framework, a backbone, a spine of this work, all while examining class and race structures. A handful of these poems bear regular titles, like “Tall Grass” and “Evolution”, but all of the others are labeled by their Pokédex names, i.e. “Pokédex Entry #1: Bulbasaur”. Following these titles, each creature is introduced by what characterizes them, not merely their color or power but a larger description that gives room for reader curiosity and edifying ambiguity. For Lapras: “People have driven Lapras almost to the point of extinction” (19). For Jigglypuff: “When this Pokémon sings, it never pauses to breathe. If it is in a battle against an /opponent that does not easily fall asleep, Jigglypuff cannot breathe, endangering its life” (20). The allusions to Black adversity are subtle yet deep-rooted—Jigglypuff’s description recalls the dying words of Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd.

Early on, Jenkins sets the stage with markers of class that serve to link childhood to adulthood:

Boy-man proclaimed man
of the house—with second-hand clothes
from black garbage bag, used copy
of Pokémon Blue Version (4).

This game and all of its characters act as a key for the speaker(s) of these poems to make sense of memory and trauma. Much of the language is informal, and Jenkins does not shy away from contemporary references—one poem speaks to Kendrick Lamar and the death of Michael Brown, pushed up against the disconcerting experience of being “the only Black person in the room” at a party (19).

Forms are varied throughout—Jenkins makes use of white space in some pieces, and works creatively with the use of obliques that splinter and conjure thought-provoking line breaks. In “All The Better”, Jenkins alludes to Red Riding Hood:

Boy with TV screens
for eyes / with
pixeled frown / What big holes
there are
in your memory / (17)

To place a young Black boy in the position of prey reveals a deep measure of vulnerability, and this clever back-and-forth and undercutting of expected syntax is complicated and richly rewarding—it feels as if the reader and Jenkins are developing inside jokes together on the page.

A concrete poem bears Squirtle’s shape, its two stanzas forming the sleek curve of a shell, without feeling gimmicky or forced. The shell acts as a comment on the poem’s content—Jenkins’ speaker is self-indicting and fearful, learning to craft protection from his own physicality. This poem (and many others) must have been created to be read aloud—there is quick word play, smart cuts, and tight language to bolster a rhythm that feels reminiscent of spoken word poetry. His sense of cadence is enviable.

Like all remarkable first chapbooks, this work is not just a collection of poems with a good hook, but drills down much deeper. Jenkins flawlessly braids aspects of the Poké-world with the bitter realities and small joys of his speaker’s real world. In the final piece, which takes its name from Generation I Pokémon, Clefairy, we see that same bearing-down on language and rhythm, with a searingly sharp, and somehow hopeful, outlook:

they want to hear
our cries, keep us
owned and docile,
but they can’t
follow us home.
We have learned (35)

In Capable Monsters, the monsters are all around us, and they are us. The Pokémon embody the speaker’s multifaceted life and the way he is able or forced to adapt, whether it is social convergence at a party lacking diversity or watching gas stations in Milwaukee go up in flames. Being a Pokémon fan is certainly not a requirement to read and enjoy this collection, but it does feel like Jenkins has written the book he wanted to read himself—anyone who has loved Pokémon will find a kinship with the figures in these pages, and remember too, how they recognized themselves in the softly drawn lines of monsters on the screen of a handheld Game Boy.

Capable Monsters is available at Bull City Press

Shannon Wolf is a British writer living in Denver, Colorado. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review, and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge, Great Weather for MEDIA, and No Contact Mag, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.