November 2008

Jason B. Jones


The Pajamaist by Matthew Zapruder

Unfortunately probably for me, critics and academics love to be able to talk about projects and concepts. It's more natural to them than simple close readings that begin and end with a kind of humanistic acknowledgment of the pure value of clear mystery.
---Matthew Zapruder, as interviewed by Rob McLennan

Matthew Zapruder’s self-assessment here is, I think, entirely apt: The Pajamaist, his second book of poems, is rewarding when it moves from inscrutability to pure transparency. It’s a delicate balancing act that he pulls off: Neither wholly experimental nor wholly contemplative, Zapruder’s poetry repeatedly dramatizes the mutual entwining of these stances. What makes The Pajamaist worth reading, then, is less a particular concept than an attempt to enact that “clear mystery” as frequently as possible.

Which isn’t to say that Zapruder’s book lacks coherence. One of The Pajamaist’s most frequently recurring images is the sound of music escaping out of a city window. For example, in “Brooklyn with a New Beginning”:

“In the beginning the sounds of one radio /                                     in a window quietly passing /                     a little music among the news / /                 of the day to another.”

Sound, not light, carries the force of creation in this poem, and Zapruder wryly marks neighborly gossip as a source of pleasure (“a little music”) as well as information. It’s not just music and news from Zapruder’s radios -- elsewhere he writes “Even feedback can be helpful,” and hymns “dispensing who cares I do static.” He even smuggles in an allusion to The Kinks’s “Come Dancing.” These various references to music and radios are typical of Zapruder’s comfort with a diverse range of voices.

Zapruder seems to imagine the poet’s role to be a kind of cultural medium. In the interview with Rob McLennan linked above, Zapruder says he prefers to write in the presence of ambient sounds, and it’s plausible to hear them registered in the poes. In “Andale Mono,” for example, he imagines poetry, first as a light inside a closet, then as a kind of ventriloquism, and finally simply as tautology:

In the poem we want to try to set off a light each time
the door of the closet is closed. And to be
for the reader a mechanism attached to a string
the poem pulls. And piecing together
as desperately as we can. By fragments we mean
pieces of things we thought we have heard,
and when we say them mean though we cannot
see you we love you. By light we mean light.

It’s not often that you see a line simultaneously defend a poem’s surface meaning and deflate poets’ pretensions at self-explanation, but Zapruder does so engagingly. Perhaps most striking is the idea that the rewriting of cultural scraps as poetry is a kind of love, albeit perhaps a fruitless one. (Actually, put like that it sounds a bit like The Waste Land.) Zapruder’s poems are full of an uncertain optimism about whether the writing of poems is worth much. “I don’t care if you need them,” he writes, but nevertheless, here they are.

There can be no question that Matthew Zapruder -- who, with Joshua Beckman, is an editor at Wave Books, one of the organizers of the Poetry Bus, and one of the editors of State of the Union, a book of political poems, and, a website of poetic sanity during the final 50 days of the 2008 election -- believes that poetry matters. Of course he does. But does such a belief actually help you write poems? That’s much less clear, and it’s that, far more interesting question, that seems to preoccupy Zapruder. In his splendid poem, “Haiku,” he recounts that “for you / I wrote a poem so full / of lies it woke me / stunned,” and promises to “stop trying / to decide if it’s better / to change other people / or how they see us, / or what’s more / urgent and futile, / to unlock / or to invent the past.” These poems all seem to arise from that urgent futility -- or, at any rate, they would if that didn’t sound like middle-school emo poetry. Zapruder wears his doubt, not as an existential hairshirt, but as an invitation to puzzle out the world together: “the first words I learn to speak are I’m sorry, I realize this is important to you, but it just seems like a bit too much trouble, this fitting together, and anyway I get confused.”

The Pajamaist by Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1-55659-244-2
101 pages