July 2014

Erin Lyndal Martin


Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder

Sun Bear, the latest book by poet (and editor of Wave Books) Matthew Zapruder, finds him doing battle with some age-old dualities (namely the timeless versus the temporal) and searching for his place among the conflicts. Most of the poems focus on Zapruder's day-to-day life: they show him making pasta, relocating a dead spider, drinking soda, trapping a fruit fly. It is in these moments and the trains of thought they propel (for Zapruder is rather interested in thought as process) that Zapruder is driven to wrestle with existential questions.

Such friction between the endless and the fleeting appears as soon as the book's second poem, "Aubergine":

I put the book
on the floor
looking down
I see its spine
with the golden
simple name
of the old
poet who might
already be dead

A few pages later, in "How Do You Like the Underworld": "The book was about music others / left for us long ago and departed." "Albert Einstein" picks up the theme of trying to process how someone's work can outlive its creator:

in the morning
he'd cook eggs
and holding
a small red saucepan
tell us his tired children
a radio on a train
passing at light speed
could theoretically
play tomorrow's songs
now he is gone
yes it's confusing

Often, Zapruder's curiosity lands upon issues of science and technology, the natural versus the manmade. But Zapruder doesn't need to unpack the particulars of Boyle's Law to be mesmerized by science. Rather, the sheer existence of science and technology are enough to fascinate him, even as he struggles to hold onto what is "real" in the world. In "How Do You Like the Underworld," Zapruder's imagination is captured by his computer monitor as he daydreams about the "dust free facility" in which white-clad workers carry out their labor beneath their boss's supervision. "The humans / who are not robots at all / are right now robotically putting together / insanely precise atomic components," Zapruder writes, highlighting his fear of the increasingly machine-like role of man. "I know I belong / in this new dark age," Zapruder poignantly ends "Korea," claiming his own space in a generation that often confuses him. In the book's final poem, "American Singer" (an ode to Vic Chesnutt), Zapruder writes "it's all gone / but for electrons / I can still push / into my ears," again questioning how technology makes it possible for our creations to outlive us.

Perhaps Zapruder's inquiry into science is another way in which he pits the temporal against the eternal. What does it mean to be a mortal human in a world of increasingly enduring manmade things? And what does "eternal" mean anymore now that non-biodegradable products are a given but the ozone layer is not?

As much as Zapruder is interested in certain polarities, he is also driven to paradoxes. "Poem for Wine" ends with Zapruder turning "those sudden blessed / horrible corners." "What Can Poetry Do" ends with the statement "I breathe the clear terrible air." "Poem for Happiness" finds worker reading "silently together and alone." There seems to be no clear statement made by the use of paradoxes. Is Zapruder embracing that language makes a space of contradictions possible? Or is he lamenting the impossibility of having a pure emotion, one whose antithesis does not taint it?

Zapruder's form is an interesting one to observe as his lines flow easily without punctuation. In this way, his form is an extension of his own love of conceptualizing thinking as nonlinear. In an interview with Dave Roderick for The Rumpus, Zapruder says:

Well, I believe that "thinking" is just as real a phenomenon in the world as anything else, and just as worthy of exploration. Maybe even more? So writing about "thought" to me is like writing about a tree or anything else real. And we know all humans have a kind of hum of reverie or wondering going on just below the surface of conscious thought and engagement with others -- all the functional shit we have to do -- and as a poet it's interesting to tap into this hum, this very real constant thinking, to see what's going on.

By using so many run-on sentences, Zapruder mimics the relentlessness of the thinking hum in his work. Yet, only on a few occasions does he directly address cognition:

and sometimes there are longer silences
and for a few seconds we start thinking
about work or our relationships
and then someone shifts from one position
to another and there is a lot to say"

(from "Poem for Giants")

One puzzling thing about the form, though, is that the line breaks and syntax are often bumpy and halt the otherwise mellifluous lines. In "Poem Without Intimacy," Zapruder writes of a water bottle "made of some kind of vegetable / that will eventually like me into the earth / harmlessly decompose." This somewhat indirect sentence structure occurs often in Sun Bear. In "Telegraph Flowers, he writes, "I hoped on them /a little money / and no rain / would fall." If Zapruder's project had more to do with the awkwardness or imperfection of language, such line breaks and syntax would make more sense. As it is, these remain mysterious aesthetic choices.

Fortunately, though, it is not the occasionally jarring syntax that lingers after spending time with this volume. Rather, the reader will be more attuned to look for poetry in the quiet moments between the moments, for however long it lasts.

Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 978-1556594632
112 pages