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Cursivism, Will Hubbard’s slim, debut volume of prose poems published by Ugly Duckling Presse, begins with a simple piece of advice that may be one of the most challenging charges facing anyone who is trying to figure out how to live, “just let it happen.” Though the mother’s instruction refers to how to tend an orchid the speaker has wooed into blossom mid-winter, it also applies to everything and anything our lives might encompass. To live by that advice requires difficult virtues: restraint, patience, and faith. Hubbard’s poems exhibit all three.

The poems that comprise Cursivism humbly speak at the same time as personal anecdotes, somber and revelatory reflections on the past, whimsical tales, and truths. These poems are modestly anthemic for members of Generation Y— those of us waking up to the fact that we’ve inherited a fraught world of questions that don’t have answers, and where many days feel like a tightrope walk that demands an unattainable balance between making something happen and letting it happen.

However, Hubbard’s poems never lecture or preach, nor are they pessimistic. For every mention of panic and longing, there is also mention of a miracle. And even at their most historical or questionably fictitious, the poems are grounded in daily life and voiced by a steady speaker who we want to trust. The diction comes from a careful vernacular; these poems don’t flaunt their economy of language, but they do owe some of their mystery to that economy. At times it feels like the author dares us to fill in the unnamed subject of a sentence, paint a context, imagine the untold parts of a story— and if you heed Hubbard’s imaginative challenge, the poems will not disappoint.

Before I go any further, I want to briefly consider whether these pieces are poems or whether they are something else. My answer is, both. I address this question in part because on the back cover of the book, poet Matthew Rohrer refers to Hubbard’s writing as “discrete little blocks of prose that move like poems;” and at a recent reading, Hubbard himself introduced some new work by saying, “these actually aren’t poems, and neither are those,” referring to what he had just read from Cursivism.

Perhaps classifying Hubbard’s work is beside the point— whether it is considered poetry, prose, prose poems, extended aphorisms or simply a little book of great writing, may not matter to some readers. These might as well be inscriptions; or etchings on the face of a rock that you are lucky enough to notice during a walk through the woods; or maybe they are bits of talk you overhear someone saying as you pass him in the street, which stay with you and draw up forgotten or neglected or denied or new ideas in you. My impression is that the words that come together in Cursivism do what poems do. They teach me about the world and even about myself. They call to be read again and again, and with each reading they reinvent themselves and stir new thoughts.

Despite my open interpretation of the form of Hubbard’s work, I don’t think for a second that they were constructed haphazardly or arbitrarily. Their form is inseparable from how they function. The absence of line breaks focuses our attention on the relationship of the sentences to each other; where line breaks would affect the pace and tone in a stanzaic poem, sentences affect the pace and tone here. One affect of the lack of line breaks is to somehow subdue drama, or rather, control it, when it might call more attention to itself if the poem was lineated or broken into stanzas. In the poem on page forty-five, the speaker recounts a shocking experience from childhood, but the shock is executed with matter-of-fact directness. Hubbard tells us,

. . . . Aware of my burgeoning creativity,
my grandmother gave me a set of razor-sharp whittling
knives for my tenth birthday. I promptly made the scar
that extends across four fingers of my left hand and
stared at the curiosity until it shook. The family was
awed that blood could so variously paint four walls of
a bedroom. (45)

The energy of this memory is locked in the curiosity that fixated the boy “until it shook.” The sentences direct us to follow the scene along until it explodes, as if without sound, when the boy stares at the cut he has made across his own fingertips. Even his family’s reaction— awe— appears visually, not sonically. The poems in this collection maintain a kind of diminuendo, a ruminative soft-spoken quality, even when they depict blood-painted walls or the soreness that comes from longing for someone absent.

The poems are quiet as the “soundless dark” (28) of a mysterious destination where some brew of sacred communication takes place. Encoded in the quietness of these poems are unassuming, almost deceptively simple love notes, as when the speaker says, “There is a limit to how tangled two things can get. But it might feel good to fall and get caught by you” (31). However, the book is not without its reticent mention of a wound, a love unreturned or expired, as the speaker reveals with the subtlety of a ventriloquist, “I read that you are to be married. The calligrapher wrote my apartment number wrong, but the postman is a friend of mine. He slipped it under the door while I was shaving” (46). Hubbard is able to tell an entire story, allude to a chapter, or many chapters, of a person’s life, through his juxtaposition of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in a brief sentence. There is so much unsaid, but the space that comes after the poem shakes with tremors from the magnitude of the past slipping under the door, into the present.

Another formal aspect is what I see as a kind of fracture line; which in biology is the natural line along which a cell will split, into uneven parts, when it is frozen. After the second or third sentence in many, though not all, of these poems, I felt this fracture— whereat the poem takes an imaginative leap and brings us along with it. The leaps do not seem formulaic to me; they are organic and thrilling. The poems that do this attain strangeness and give rise to a sense of displacement, which makes us pay attention to every word, circle back to the beginning and consider what has been born out of the pairing of seemingly incongruous parts.

In the poem I just discussed, Hubbard leaps from ancient Greek writing techniques (“Until the sixth century B.C., the Greeks wrote from left to right on the first line, then back from right to left on the next, and so on” (46)) to a marble traveling “in a grade-school friction experiment,” and finally to a wedding invitation that shouldn’t have come but did, interrupting a man while he’s shaving. Thus, Hubbard’s poems bring the world together by joining what it has been, what it is, and what it might be, in an original, unexpected, and worthwhile way.

The content of the poems is rewardingly dynamic. But we can credit the speaker’s steady voice with stewarding the readers through Cursivism‘s impressive imaginative range— from memories of acute childhood alienation to Egyptian mummification techniques to “(e)vidence that longing remains, even in eternal things” (4). The speaker’s voice does more than regulate tone; it becomes a persona, something like a silhouette, a suggestion of a person who prefers to stay partially concealed from view. Hubbard’s assertion that “Reading in silence looks like nothing. It feels good because effortless concealment has electric potential” (59) might well characterize the speaker himself and what at least appears to be his “effortless concealment.” Other poems suggest that practicing privacy, cultivating a penchant to withhold, is attractive and rewarding. “In fact, there is undeniable appeal in her withholding. It has nothing to do with sex. She simply stays free of everyone” (38), Hubbard observes. And, “A good device. . . .Has something to hide from everyone” (61).

Even when these poems are shifting between showing and obscuring, or pausing to set flowers on a grave, or letting the mind settle on an old scar, or surveying the gaps that separate us from each other, usually they are also talking about language itself. With his signature tone of telling a riddle, Hubbard describes a place where

. . . .Members
of the Irish bardic orders went regularly to prove the
sincerity of their desire to communicate. . . .In other
times it was simply an island that could not be reached
easily or at all. To go there was an acknowledgment that
curiosity was stronger than habit, itself stronger than fear. (28)

Even if Hubbard is referring to a place that exists somewhere on a map of the world, by refraining from naming it, he invites us to dream of and define the “there” for ourselves; it will probably be different for each of us. I think of it as a realm of inspiration, perhaps, a place where words come from, a place where communication between people is possible if we have enough courage and determination to go.

The cover art, Hubbard’s own illustration, says something of the book’s fascination with and commitment to words strung together— even when the words and their meanings are indecipherable. The cover is all but consumed by a formidable tangle of squiggles, which from some angles appear to be the title word, “cursivism,” overlaid more than a thousand-fold. But maybe the cover is some kind of representation of what it would look like to see all the words we have ever spoken or written joined together; or maybe it is everything as Yeats saw it, “a series of concentric, downward winding spirals. The sort of unified outlook that leaps in the heart” as Hubbard recalls on page thirty-one, or the “string of blasphemies” that “feel like they are keeping you alive” (54). Hubbard’s design, like his writing, presents indefinite interpretations and requires of the reader much of what life requires: patience, an open mind, and the willingness to be surprised. Like I was when I read this poem, one of my favorites of the collection:

IF THE FEELING overwhelms, your lover is being
unfaithful. Poets of the Japanese Edo court knew this,
and weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or
hearty autumn grass. For them, moving clouds were
messengers enough. Granted, staring out a window
at wet asphalt is hardly like listening to a bamboo
thicket fill with snow. The feeling of sickness in the
morning eases with a day of activity. Returning at
night it can transform into a pleasant, vital dream.
Only then is the lover listening, hoping against all odds
that you will send some sign of conviction through the
fickle wind.

I love the ingenuity, and evocative natural landscape in the phrase, “weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or hearty autumn grass,” which unexpectedly follows a nod to a vulnerable experience of panic and suspicion. And I don’t want to say one analytical word to disturb that bamboo thicket filling with snow. The poem owns every movement it makes, from the view of wet asphalt to waning sickness to the fickle wind, all the while balancing the uneasiness of dread with the beauty afforded us when we imagine. In a few places in this book, Hubbard suggests he is waiting for the thing that will change him, that will break though. “Something about you will be different,” he writes in a poem about watching a delivery truck back in and out of a garage all day, “A sunburn, maybe” (5). His work is a testament to the fact that what we imagine has the power to change us, though maybe not in a way that can be measured in sunburns or lengths of days. Hubbard’s poems impart the knowledge that despite the struggle it can be to navigate day in and day out, change is as unpredictable as the “fickle wind,” and our best bet is to let go, and “let it happen.”

If you’d told me that the ultimate line of a wonderful poem could be, simply, “Doctor Wong,” I would’ve looked at you skeptically.  But that’s exactly the case in Matthew Rohrer’s latest collection, Destroyer and Preserver (Wave 2011).  I both laughed and felt outfoxed by Rohrer’s nasty knuckleball wit when I read the last line of, “Marque Nùmero Dos.”  My laughter elicited an is-there-something-wrong-with-you look from the woman next to me on the plane, but I cared about as much as the clouds outside.

And Destroyer and Preserver is more than witty and strange.  These unpretentious lyrics are deft expressions of where the personal meets the political, where the mundane meets the profound—documenting a multivalent poet’s quotidian as his nation wars abroad.

Destroyer and Preserver shares many of the concerns of Rohrer’s earlier works.  I was introduced to his poems some years back, when a mentor suggested I read his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas—which was Mary Oliver’s selection for the National Poetry Series in 1994.  I checked the slim volume out from the library and found myself rereading it weekly for the next six months, only returning the book the way that one who’s been drinking coffee every day for years gives up caffeine—with reluctance and anxiety over his rather pointless act of sacrifice.  So I bought my own copy.  To me, Rohrer’s poetry has been easy to live with, incisive, and sustaining ever since.

In the manners of the sometimes jokey, New York School-y, sometimes cryptic, sometimes surreal poems of prior collections, Destroyer and Preserver offers an assortment of breezily deployed formal variations with thematic interests.  In the first piece, “From Mars,” quick enjambments and an absence of punctuation muss up syntax:

We have some sad news
this morning
from Mars
the imagination thinks
in phrases but the universe
is a long sentence
according to our instruments
the oldest songs
are breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement…

What strikes one immediately as a spoken quality in this diction, familiar in Rohrer’s work, is disrupted in two manners.  First, by the poet’s lineation—invoking his agency to ‘break apart’ the ‘long sentence of the universe,’ thus reshuffling how we see the cosmic order and assign meaning to its individuated components—and second by his refusal to obey prose-y conventions of punctuation, et cetera, which allows for a lot of bait-and-switch play from line to line, from idea to idea.  These strategies are fairly consistently applied in this collection.  Coupled with the statement on the surface of this first poem, we’re at least superficially given a glimpse of Rohrer’s personal cosmos.

Rohrer’s is a cosmos of the mind, of course, in a Stevensian “I am my world” sense.  The surprise synaptic leaps in “From Mars” seem to mirror those of the speaker in the poem.  This happens again and again in Rohrer’s work—rather like surprise hands pushing us forward or spinning us sideways, he subjects us to his own leaping fixations and associations.  The ride is exhilarating, confusing, and thought-provoking at different turns.

In fact, these poems are not so breezily presented, and pay off with a kind of full immersion.  “Marque Nùmero Dos” is a great example.  Employing similar enjambment to “From Mars,” “Marque Nùmero Dos” is less grand in terms of scope.  In this piece, Rohrer documents his own cognitive experience while on the phone with an automated system.  Infusing the banal with the reflection of an interesting poet’s consciousness, we readily accept such statements as:  “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral.”  These poems do this again and again—dilating on tedium and infusing it with grander meaning, sharing an experience of our shared world from the point of view of a unique wordsmith’s mental jumble, seemingly effortlessly organized on the page.

The pieces that leap less are no less charming.  “Casualties,” for example, is a meditation in the bathroom that demonstrates how the characters of Rohrer’s domestic life inhabit the perspective of these poems:

My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it’s very complicated.

He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

Some readers of contemporary poetry might bridle at Rohrer’s spartan, utilitarian diction, and the lack of political restraint in reference to U.S. bombing of civilians.  But just as the wonderful poet Bob Hicok writes in a recent piece of his own, “As I was masturbating, more rainforest disappeared” (from “Life,” in Words for Empty and Words for Full, University of Pittsburg, 2010), Rohrer’s poems document how we as individuals move fluidly between domestic and private concerns, with a sometimes-helpless bemusement about the world around us.  Without judgment, and with a seriousness that is either a rendering of reality or an excellent facsimile of Reality, Rohrer’s poems are great examples of such human instants.  Thus Destroyer and Preserver is a subtle and entertaining lens through which to view our moment, and well worth your perusal—especially if you enjoyed Rohrer’s previous, fine collections of poems.

Thin Kimono is a book of mistaken identities: a hallucinogenic wandering through a cocktail party the night before the invention of the internet.  The party is populated with individuals you may or may not know.  Your wife is a slightly altered version of herself.  There are horses, but even they have become something else. Michael Earl Craig’s acupuncturist is here too.  She tells us her “speakers are hidden in the jade plant” (The Bad Clown)  We get the sense she is struggling not to become evil.  We know there must be separate rooms, separate poem-rooms, but even with titles, often the only sense of demarcation comes from the turning of pages.  This is particularly true in the book’s second and smallest section, which is reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer’s “A Plate of Chicken” in that the section is comprised of short 8-line segments separated by asterisks (“A Plate of Chicken” is divided into 7-line segments).  Also like “A Plate of Chicken,” this section employs an uncanny use of dissociative observation as lens for self-reflection.

The innervated spatula, it
feels things even you don’t.
In 204 a couple humps briskly
like Great Danes, it’s textbook (had heard
what was probably a shoe hit the wall
with some force). We dream of perfecting life
somewhere else.  In space, let’s say.
Wearing Erik Satie stretch pants.

We are invited to enter the rooms of his characters, to observe their strange habits and quiet respect for the divinity in objects, and then we let them pass back into an interaction we can only assume continues to occur after our leaving. “The nitwit danced with the congresswoman/ at the spring picnic,” Craig writes in “Poem.” As a reader I take solace in the knowledge that this dance continues even once I have closed the book and replaced it on my bookshelf.  I’m equally glad to know that couple in 204 will be humping eternally, briskly.

In “The Neighbor,” one of the book’s most defiant and arguably self-aware poems, a dinner roll falls off the dining room table. “It [rolls] across the room and [passes] through the doorway into the bedroom and the door [slams] shut behind it.” Nothing about this act is portrayed as being out of the ordinary. To the contrary, we feel a very natural loss at the roll’s leaving, as though we, the non-participatory readers, have done something to cause it to throw a tantrum.  After all, this particular poem is about us: about Craig’s inability to imagine us as anyone other than exactly himself, and of course about our inability to fulfill that expectation.  Perhaps we feel an affinity to the roll in this poem because Craig has chosen the roll to represent our interests. While reading, there is always a recognition that we cannot enter the poem unless we are written into it, and so, like ghosts, we posses for a moment the body of the dinner roll and storm indignantly out of the room.

As with the proems of Francis Ponge, the objects in Thin Kimono are imbued with a kind of duplicitous consciousness.  However, where Ponge’s objects come across as insecure and terrified of the softness that is contained within them, Craig’s objects appear at times in a state of revolt against the very human hands that created them.  In “In The Road,” Craig tells us of a dream where he is shoeing a horse.

________________…Hitting
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air.  My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.

Even the blood here becomes an object capable of acting of its own volition.  And again, similar to the proems of Francis Ponge, there is a moment where the interior comes to the surface, transforms itself, and covers “like a glove” the exterior.  The blood in this instance is no longer an extension of the body but has become more an extension of the hammer that has revolted against the body.  The objects have overtaken consciousness.  Our grasping at them will lead to our own demise.  Here is a very clearly stated desire to turn away from our tendency toward possession of material goods and into a world of endless metaphysical fulfillment, the lucid dreamstate where surrealism and realism and absurdism all coexist.

These poems occur in the space between the stirring of consciousness and the awakening of reason, when our unconscious perceptions of the objects and characters that embody our lives are still dripping in the semiotic fluid of dreams and of language. In short, it’s a very fun book to read, and one that leaves you feeling more inquisitive and excited about the earth’s occupants (both sentient and non-sentient) than when you opened it.  Craig’s poems are as layered and thick as a well-made baklava.  They are equally accessible, rich, and nutty.  “THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET [THEM].”(Bluebirds) Also like baklava, they taste more of the Country Marm’s kitchen than of the Hostess factory, more of the earth than of the machines we have created to destroy it.  As with so many of the books put out by Wave, this one is quirky, intelligent, and entertaining, with leaps that sometimes require a great effort in the suspension of disbelief.  I for one am glad to go there, glad to learn of the disparities that can be stitched together by consciousness, and particularly glad to again crack the form I have built around cognition.  I hope this book does the same for you.

[Do you get any reception here?]

Do you get any reception here?
I think if you face West.
You await silent sadness to filter in.
Or if you shut it off you will be the same.
Cracked open and with a scar.
Light getting in through chinks at night.
Bits of information like a glorious blanket over the sky.
A window box of purple basil.
A dried chili in a bowl of water.
Blossoms exchanging news across the rooftops of the city.

____________________________________________

Matthew Rohrer teaches at NYU and is the author of A Plate of Chicken and Destroyer and Preserver (forthcoming), among other books of poetry.