Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Green Light by Matthew Rohrer

I just finished reading Green Light by Matthew Rohrer (Verse Press, 2004) which a friend bought from the poet at a certain New England workshop and lent to me. (When I find out the name of that workshop, I’ll revise this post accordingly.) Rohrer, who was born in Ann Arbor and now lives in Brooklyn, is also the author of A Hummock in the Malookas, which won the 1994 National Poetry Series and was published by W.W. Norton. I found the poems in Green Light engaging enough that I read through the entire book (about 85 p.) in a couple of days. A poem that caught my eye, as exemplary of his style:


Of my parents and origins I have little to say.

In church they actually told us
Catholicism was
“a big house full of cool, old stuff”.

I spent my time sitting
in the darkened apse
imagining the actual house.

Your Dominican mind tricks don’t work on me.

My knees suffered through Kumbaya.

Then there was the incident
of the professor who sneaked the holy water
out and poured it into the ocean.

He wrote a letter to the bishop
informing him that
all the world’s water was holy now.

He was also a harborer of homosexuals.

I am still in the dark
imagining the actual house.

James Tate on the back of the book writes, “There are poems in A Green Light that can break your heart with their unexpected twists and turns. You think you know where you are and then you don’t and it is inexplicably sad. You experience some kind of emotion that you can’t even name, but it’s deep and real. That’s the power of Matthew Rohrer’s new poems.” Break your heart? My heart is not exactly broken. That I take as literary hype-erbolese. But the unexpected twists, the strange emotion and inexplicable sadness, are very apt description. The sadness has to do with abrupt (but eminently artful) juxtapositions, incomplete resolutions, and the blasé-seeming sparseness of Rohrer’s work. All these suggest disenchantment, inner deadness, emotional damage…. and yet the poems crackle with sardonic, understated wit. Rohrer sketches a mini-cosmos. Darkness abounds. The second poem in the collection, called I Hail From The Bottom of the Sea, The Land of Eternal Darkness is a ferocious, if highly ironic, tract. It establishes for us that he’s serious. But also (somewhere UP THERE, he writes) there are skies with “mysterious machines, burning and turning in our heads”, that questionable God, and everywhere, the Unnameable (or semi-nameable, as it turns out):

In the center of the universe
is an enormous emptiness
that’s teaching us something
about ourselves.

Sometimes, though, I feel that Rohrer’s deadpan style is a pose. In the poem above, Catechism, does he really have little to say about his parents/origins? There are poems that twist toward trendiness, like one called We Should Never Have Stopped at Pussy Island. But still. But still. There are frequent lines of great pith and resonance, evidence of great intelligence at work…

Reading Rohrer, other writers come to mind, but such inner reminders I find extraneous, so I tack them on at the end of this review: I think of Yannos Ritsos, whose poems could be described as picturesque little postcards with disturbing cracks in the corners that catch you up short with their reminders of mortality, violence, etc. Or of the Bosnian-born fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon (The Story of Bruno, Nowhere Man), whose every mordant line expresses the great solitude and brutal violation of his own past, that of his ancestors, and by extension, humanity…

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