Monday, December 05, 2011
Best of 2011 - poetry: the Gravity & Grace of Matt Rader
This month i'd like to spend some time revisiting certain poetry books i read in 2011 & writing about them in a bit more depth than i have over the year with my incessant lists. i explore these books with you because they are works that have affected me, taught me a thing or two in my ongoing attempts to learn how to write poetry. i approach writing very humbly. i have no answers, only questions. sometimes i have nothing but joy in the language to express & share.
Often these works haven't had very much attention & this should be rectified. i am doing my small part to bring them to your attention... Note that these studies of mine will in no way be exhaustive, but will merely bring attention to certain aspects of a book that stood out for me due to my own interest in emotion, in sound & rhythm perhaps, in whimsy, in play, in imagery & other things I will learn along the way. I hope you take the opportunity to read the books for yourselves.
Matt Rader. A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over The River Arno. House of Anansi. I've written about this poetry collection already on this blog somewhere. Specifically about the wonderful sound play in poems such as "Gravity & Grace." Rader lends gravity & grace to the whole collection. Grief is well rendered.
I especially admire Rader's craft with long lines broken up by punctuation, by grammatical structure to add memorable rhythms that reflect the tone & subject matter of the poem. i ask the question-what is the rhythm of grief, how it interrupts, blends or doesn't with the every day. the powerful difficulty of grief mixed with getting on with life in "Ablution" for S.L. If you read just one poem from this book, read this poem.
I admire too the juxtapositions of war & horror w/ contemporary everyday life, such as in the opening poem "Music," or the next "The Latin for Hunger: "The year they uncovered our three-year-old/Neighbour silent in the wooded easement/Behind her apartment I learned to identify/Those trees by the Latin,..." & the way Rader closes his poems, ingeniously ties in the opening horror, the Latin tree names, love making, the grief following a brother's death.
What I love about these poems is their emotion, the vulnerability of the speaker. I relate to the intensity of the grief. The opening quote by James Agee from "A Death in the Family" epitomizes the humility of the voice in this collection: "All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds...By some chance, here they are, all on this earth ... Remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away." The long lines have tight sound & image play, the sound fun reminding me quite a bit of Marcus McCann's poetry. Take a look at the first stanza of "The Second Born":
A quiet ordeal. No gob of gawkers on the second go.
Only the slobber faced firstborn.
With the goat horn rattle and the goat
With one horn, the carpenter and the gobsmacked girl on her back.
In the barn goading the little god out of her
Through the open gate of her hips into the open ark.
I like this kind of attention to sound, a hint at formalish rhyme almost. It goes on with the repetitions of hard k sounds, open & lax vowel sounds, bumpy rhythms creating by the breaking of the line by punctuation or grammar, such as prepositional phrases & asides, lots of playful alliteration. This is beautiful & attentive soundcraft. Plus facility with language levels, switching from fairly formal in some poems to a colloquial language. Rader gives us tight disciplined syntactic structure plus strong descriptive imagery & mythological allusion.
There's lots of variety in this collection, take the whimsical word play of "Freaks, Irregulars, Defects Oddities." "Placido/Domingo/on the stereo with merlot/And fettucine alfredo."
Or the sensuality of "Ocean's Love to Oregon": "As the Pacific backs beach to cliff-face//Then surges against her into the mouth/Columbia, plashing her long neck, her caves/And coves caressed into shape//By his tongue, till all his ringlets are/Breathless sweat and scent blessing her linens/Of sand like incense, mist, lifting"
Not at the end of the book, but a poem that means a great deal to me for its honesty, is "I Acknowledge," which the poet read here in Ottawa at Anansi night during the Ottawa International Writers Festival. "I do not believe in property./ I believe in propriety." A beautiful moment. This poem is written in a very different style from the others, not concerned with any kind of rhyme or sound play but as a series of statements, such as one would find in a legal document. It has weight.
The weight of emotion in Rader's poems is why I keep returning. For example in "Present & Future," there's an accumulation of detail that leads to the culmination of the poem, its passion. I love this idea of alternating between the present and the future. How to move past the grief. Here's an excerpt from the poem, from one of the P. stanzas:
[indented to just past mid page] Faceless, I am what stands
As your wake, what wakes only to this moment
And knows nothing else. This soil is our covenant
And it collects everything: tithings of rain and snow,
Root scripts, the tatters of wedding gowns fruit trees throw
From their shoulders in spring . . .
In this collection there is sensuality, there is colour, there is allusion, there is history, there is guilt, there is emotion, there is sound play, there is attention, humility & syntactic strength, all amounting to passionate & intense poetry. When I am bemoaning the lacklusterism of my fellow humans, this is a book I can turn to, to remind me that somewhere a fire is still burning.