February 2011

Sean Patrick Hill


Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder

In the 21st century, the lyric poem has found itself in quite the quandary. But much of this depends on who you ask: if one considers the general poetry readership to be represented as a typical subscriber to The New Yorker, Poetry, or The Atlantic, the lyric poem maintains a kind of allegiance to the type of poem we’ve come to rely on for at least the past three decades, an utterance at once confessional, imagistic, narrative, or a combination of any of these modes. Of course, minus a few exceptions, most of these poets are usually numbered in the older generations, if by “older” we mean anyone prior to Generation X, though The New Yorker’s readers are typically treated to poets as far-ranging in generations as W.S. Merwin and Jack Gilbert down to Matthea Harvey and the Dickman twins.

But the young are working at their own translation of the lyric poem -- not all of them, surely, as the new return to “surrealism” testifies, imperfectly -- though it can be argued this poem has largely followed lockstep, at the very least, with the general historical trend of the lyric poem: the brief, songlike expression of the self, its world, and its feelings: the old Romantic notions of importance. We see, too, its reliance on the mid-to-late 20th century mode of incorporating images of the common life, or cultural icons, which certainly dominate the poetry of, say, the '60s on up, a poem which can incorporate Coke bottles as easily as strains of agony.

Nevertheless, the lyric poem has found itself split, a kind of dual personality that incorporates both everything that came before as well as the new (old) fascination with surrealism, as well as newer trends such as the interest in the Russian Absurdists, and postmodern language theory, to name a few. Interestingly, the elders among this generation, Matthew Zapruder for one, often leans close to a kind of poem that acknowledges the tradition in a more obvious fashion (sometimes a poet like Joshua Beckman also reaches after this tradition in a way both self-conscious and ironic, but at the same time equally serious), whereas a younger poet like Julie Doxsee or Joshua Marie Wilkinson relies less on concrete “sense” in favor of music and suggestion of emotion as the presiding vehicle.

This creates, from what I can tell, two distinct lyrics: one, a kind of monologue that makes evident a definitive speaker placed in the world, and the other a kind of disembodied singing difficult to locate, that seems to hover in the fog, suggesting nothing if not bare voice and feeling -- a ghost. In terms of both these, and in order to evaluate such poems at all, one must add into the equation the audience, or the reader; from here, one can assume a stance of evaluation. In the equation of either form of lyric, where am I as a reader in relation to the voice? Am I to inhabit the poem, to participate in it, or merely to witness it?

In order to approach such an evaluation -- that is, if we are to consider the poems in relation to the tradition they arise from, whether the poems acknowledge that tradition overtly or not -- we can return at the very least to the Romantic lyric as Wordsworth and Keats lay it out, or even as far back (sticking to English) as Shakespeare’s sonnet. Indeed, the sonnet is (or can be) thought of as the primary vehicle for lyric poetry, in its detailing of the crisis, the turn, the resolution. Whatever we argue, it is undeniable that poetry arises from the tradition, so it may be helpful to regard a traditional sense of audience as well; in other words, what is the value of the poem to me?

Matthew Zapruder’s third collection of poems, Come on All You Ghosts, depends on its assumption of a reader. It begins its intonation in intimate terms: “Erstwhile means long time gone. / A harbinger is sent before to help, / and also a sign of things / to come. Like this blue / stapler I bought at Staples” (“Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices”). Obviously a human is in the world and speaking to us in as earnest a fashion as we can imagine. Thus begins a book largely elegiac, a host of doubts related through a direct dramatic monologue, despite the incorporation of surreal images. It is traditional in the way one views Wordsworth in The Prelude, where poetry is the work of finding words for feelings, of probing memories.

Actually, one of the poems in the collection is titled “The Prelude,” and owes in its references to the very Romantic notion of the invocation of a prior Master, as in Blake of Milton, or Keats of Homer. Yet there is a sense of absence in Zapruder’s journey, or at any rate something elusive, unnamable:

Maybe the “chosen guide” Wordsworth
wrote he would even were it “nothing
better than a wandering cloud”
have followed which of course to me
and everyone else sounds amazing.
All I follow is my own desire,
sometimes to feel, sometimes to be
at least a little more than intermittently
at ease with being loved. I am never
at ease.

From here he continues on to an invocation, too, of “Poor Coleridge” who “could not feel / the energy.” All this begins from the declarative sentence: “Oh this Diet Coke is really good.”

If there is irreverence, there’s also a sense extending throughout the book of poetry as a crucial task: “I want to do important work” he says in “Burma.” There is no doubt this is a major work; at 108 pages, it is certainly substantial. It rings of the modern, the contemporary, even the neo-surrealistic to a degree, but what is never undermined is the sense of the poem as a kind of melancholic vehicle of self-discovery. It reaches, certainly, in an attempt to escape this mode at times -- the surrealism aids that -- but at times, too, it betrays the very lack of energy Coleridge is here condemned for.

The meditation as movement of thought is sometimes jumpy, which in truth is how things work with the mind, as we all know. “Automated Regret Machine,” for example, moves briskly from television to disaster to a house the poet grew up in to his father, to whom the book is dedicated. It is a sort of wild ride, ending on a sense of ambiguity much frequented in today’s verse, as represented by the father’s oblique gesture which communicates “many contradictory things.” Yet, in its relation to the reader, the natural question is, what is the utterance, therefore, for? To what purpose? In this question is the assumption, which many find erroneous, often impatiently, that the reader comes to poetry for something, perhaps even wisdom. Wallace Stevens, despite seeming to be of an utter surrealistic bent (he’s actually, as Harold Bloom points out, quite the Romantic), certainly addresses the sensually realistic: witness much of his later work, as incorporated in The Rock, for example. In other words, I mean to suggest that many readers almost certainly come to poetry for a sense of stability and that which is memorable, not just to be thrown into the void again and again, if only to consider it is there. At this point in history (as Denise Levertov once commented), one can take chaos for granted.

But hints at a wider scope frequently come into relief, too. Take “Poem (for Grace Paley),” which suggests what Harold Bloom termed the Romantic crisis lyric, in which the speaker is subsumed in a vision of the trembling Sublime, then rises above it to get a firmer grip (however tentative) on the attendant reality of their precarious situation. “People say they don’t understand poetry,” he begins, “Meaning how must we proceed.” He even alludes to Keats’s “negative capability” coupled with SweeTarts, admitting to the downward slide but declaring “from this one forward Grace I vow / I shall coast no more.” Or the poem “Pocket,” which acts as the classic Ode, bending even toward the Neruda classic, with its “rising away from myself” and its implied intimacy of address. Like Neruda’s ode to the giant tuna, it probes the metaphoric darkness of the sea, of the symbolic death transfigured there.

The second part of the book examines memory, “a different story / I don’t yet remember” (“They”) and also delves into the classic Bloomian idea of the anxiety inherent in writing, in trying to forge one’s own voice in the chorus. “You Have Astounding Cosmic News,” for example, represents the poets who’ve “been conducting field experiments into our private thoughts” and insinuates “you can / always locate yourself with so many shadows to instruct you.” All compelling themes, to be sure, and one not always dealt with adequately in contemporary poetry.

But by the third section, the reader notices the tone seems unwavering, a persistent melancholy that threatens to wear its style thin. “White Castle” gets a bit vague, referring to the “darkness” that feels as insubstantial as the insubstantiality it wants to convey. “Screaming Skull” and “Charmer” feel too clever, too manipulative with their pat endings. “A Summer Rainstorm” flirts with sentimentality, and the ending in particular feels abrupt, unearned. It’s obvious that Zapruder is conveying a vision, even a positive one, trying to communicate in an assumed Buberesque “I and Thou” relationship of poet to reader. The danger inherent in this -- as it was to the Romantics -- is a slippage into the solipsistic. More so than merely listening to, or even overhearing the poet’s inner thoughts, the reader sometimes wants to inhabit a poem, meaning to imagine the speaker in the poem as speaking from the depths of the reader’s psyche, as if the poem was spoken from oneself, the way Shakespeare’s twenty-ninth sonnet, or Keats’s “When I Have Fears” sonnet can become our own imagined voice, a bit of wisdom tracing its strength in us. It is not unreasonable to assume we can tire of being talked to, or at. That is, of overhearing another’s thoughts.

In this regard, Zapruder is at his best in poems like “Lamp Day,” a poem that inspires a certain sensibility in which we may regard the most menial objects, in this case a lamp, and project from them the story of our own lives, a way to look at the world that Neruda achieves almost effortlessly with his odes in particular. “Paper Toys of the World,” too, beginning with the auspicious “Friends, what is beauty?” and ending with the conviction that it is simply to “look out / the window and feel.” It’s a hopeful poem, even brilliant.

“Come On All You Ghosts,” the poem that comprises the fourth section, takes on its ambitious project in an absolute assumption of communication: directly addressed to the reader, it borders on an unnerving self-consciousness, in its attempt to relay “the poetic / state of mind” as produced by what he regards as “machines / made of words.” It can get slightly unbelievable: to say “therefore I know // exactly why David Foster Wallace / took his life away from himself” is bold, but also boldly unreliable. Yet there is a humble acknowledgment of his having “done my best to leave // behind this machine / anyone with a mind / who cares can enter.” It’s in these final lines one can ultimately turn the book back on itself: if the poems are to be regarded as “machines” one can “enter,” then this is but one definition of a poem. The poem is certainly a “text” to enter. The opposite must be thought of, then, as a poem that instead enters us.

Much has been made of a “new” way of reading poetry -- Zapruder himself made such a call in an essay posted on the Poetry Foundation’s website. There is simply reading for the sheer enjoyment of the language, for example, without -- to quote Keats -- irritable reaching after fact and so forth, but this is, of course, but one way to look at reading. It can equally be said that it is impossible for the reader not to come to poetry with some sort of longing, a need for answers, constructions on which to hang some new understanding, philosophy of living, what have you. Even Keats longed, in the end. Nearing death, he reached out his hand.

The question is, as always, how may we inhabit each other’s music, or are we meant merely to listen? If the second is true, how shall we determine which is most important to listen to? There are always songs that speak to us, songs we feel emerge from ourselves, were written with us in mind, and so forth. From one standpoint, to inhabit a tradition is a limitation -- the sonnet becomes vaguely totalitarian, an epic constraint upon our so-called freedom. But the opposition declares the tradition as a leaping point, the engagement with becoming a tempering of the sensibility, of what Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy,” from which we may build an understanding of the world, and how to live in it.

For really, this is one of Stevens’s major themes: “How to Live, What to Do.” Many have taken his poem “The Man on the Dump” to be an aesthetic: the gathering of images, the recycling, the odd combinations. What this results in is both entirely democratic and entirely solipsistic, a nation of Men (and Women) in the Dump assembling their refuse into poems for the world to see and, ultimately, to judge. At worst, this can be viewed as an irreversible trend toward utter incoherence, the cult of the “I” that finds no connection with others save through a kind of singing. At best, this can be viewed as a pastime which undoubtedly has its audience and contents itself with “appreciation.”

Though there is much argument against the idea of the “genius,” and literature is home to many, there remains some truth in it. Poetry today seems quiet in the face of genius. So many poets who’ve risen to prominence in the age of the democratization of the arts have found great success, at least for the time being. There is no doubt that Come On All You Ghosts is a book that stands out, even rises above the herd of books published each year. What remains to be seen can only be determined by the passage of time, and by the audiences that stand in the future, outside our contemporary sensibilities: whether they will stand as truly great.

What also remains to be seen -- and this is what most interests me in Zapruder’s work -- is where this exploration will lead, whether any truths, however, tentative, will be construed, declared, owned up to, and ultimately shared with the rest of us sufferers. There is no doubt that Zapruder finds himself in the Dump -- a dump that has grown only more chaotic in this modern world; thus, his poetry must be looked at in at least that new way: there is far more to make sense of, but also to get lost in. Come On All You Ghosts feels like a frontier, or a crossroads, for Zapruder himself: he has reached the lip of the void he identified early on in his first book. The poet is tentative, thoughtful, sometimes unconvincing, but sincere in his groping for understanding, for a philosophy that will allow him to stand with this discovery and even have the audacity to attempt to convey its peril, or else its terrible beauty, to us.

What will be exciting to consider is where Zapruder will go from here. For the void contains as much of tomorrow as it does ghosts of the past.

Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1556593228
96 Pages