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Soluble Fish and the Emu of Wonder: The Poetry of Matthew Rohrer

Matthew Rohrer Rise UpMatthew Rohrer's Rise Up

Wave Books, April 2007, Paper; 80 pages; $14
ISBN #9781933517186
Cloth; 80 pages; $30
ISBN #9781933517193

http://www.wavepoetry.com

Hear Matthew Rohrer read his poem "Mountain."

by Diana Manister

Surrealism, when it is thought of at all, is often regarded as a fringe movement invented by a few wigged-out French artists in 1920s Paris that served as the inspiration for some of modernism's more bizarre creations: Salvador Dali's melting pocket-watches and prose poems written in hypnotic trances. But no single movement of recent times has had such a transformative effect on all the arts; Surrealism is the driving force of modernism, and helped to put America on the international cultural map for the first time in history.

Extempore American styles like jazz and action painting helped to break the European hegemony over Western art. Taking cues from Surrealism's improvisational techniques, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and the Tenth Street painters developed fresh ideas about what visual art could be, soon rocking the throne of Picasso, himself one of the original Parisian Surrealists. Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and the Pop artists, as well as the work of younger painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat owe their superstar status to radical creative experiments laid out in detail by André Breton in his Manifestoes of Surrealism.

Jazz, like Action Painting, had an international impact, but it was only one American musical style that developed from Surrealist ideas. John Cage and Philip Glass among the highbrows, and Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and new groups like The Shins among popular songwriters all have unmistakable Surrealist roots. Beginning with the 1929 Un chien andalou directed by Luis Buñuel and Dali in France, Surrealist principles revolutionized the film industry, entering the American mainstream via the Disney Studios and later influencing the dreamscapes of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and even Cameron Crowe in a movie like Vanilla Sky.

In modern literature, confessional poetry owes a debt to Breton's creative use of Freud's psychoanalytic methods — dream analysis and free-association — as poetic tools. Other literary movements with contrary agendas, like New Criticism and Language Poetry, proceeded from Breton's insistence on the autonomy of the poetic utterance, the text qua text.

Realism, a style congenial to an ethos of pragmatism, flourished in America in the stanzas of William Carlos Williams and his rock-ribbed descendants, from Ted Kooser to Claudia Emerson to new MFA grads. But followers of Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, and the other French poets who captured their dreams on the page continue to enrich American poetry. Surrealism, Breton declared, comprises a kind of super-realism because it includes unconscious realities as well as the facticities of waking consciousness.

Matthew Rohrer's Rise Up, published by Wave Books, a poetry publisher that joined forces in 2005 with the well-established Verse Press, is the latest of his four volumes written out of the American neo-Surrealist tradition, a style which suffered a general decline after reaching a peak in the 1970s with the publication of James Tate's Lost Pilot, and the deep-image "stones and bones" poetry of Robert Bly, James Wright and Donald Hall. (Wallace Stevens probably belongs earlier in this tradition. His "Man With the Blue Guitar" is a not a man of logic.) Where Tate's work became less personal over time, however, Rohrer's shows a new integration of confession and imagination:

...a cloud looks like a pig and a rat embracing.
They're breaking up.
I wonder if you can see it.
I wonder how much you miss me.
At night I make a little sound.
It sounds like a witch opening a birthday present. ("The Ideograms")

In his first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, a 1994 National Poetry Series prizewinner, Rohrer sometimes gave Surrealism a Disney spin. A line like "After the mad impassioned dance the evil magician is dead" conjures up scenes from Fantasia, as surreal a film as was ever made. Childhood's not-yet stifled imagination is a frequent theme for Rohrer in his next book, Satellite:

They learned to turn off the gravity in an auditorium
and we all rose into the air,
the same room where they demonstrated
pow-wows and prestidigitation.

But not everyone believed it.
That was the most important lesson
I learned - that a truck driven by a dog
could roll down a hill at dusk
and roll right off a dock into a lake
and sink, and if no one believes you
then what is the point
of telling them wonderful things? ("Childhood Stories")

Rohrer grew up in a generation that got its Surrealism early in stories by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. It is not surprising then to find Wubbulous diction and echoes of Where the Wild Things Are in his earlier work, including this from Green Light:

They took me to see the Emu of Wonder
eat out of a sack.
They took me to see the Proghorn pronking endlessly.
They took me to see the White Hart at night,
lit by headlights.... ("Emu of Wonder")

Formally, Rohrer's poems come close to prose — recording free associations does not result in alexandrines and sonnets. The Surrealists anathematized formal metrics and rhyme schemes as restrictions on the free flow of spontaneous thoughts. Deep trust in the organizing power of the unconscious, which provides dreams and nightmares with emotional unity, allowed new stylistic features to emerge in poetry. The non-sequitur, impossible images (recall Chagall's flying bride and groom), unlikely modifiers (Breton's "soluble fish"), puns, slips of the tongue, disjunctive syntax and ellipses are hallmarks of Surrealist style, all evident in Rohrer's work, occasionally resulting in lines so personal as to be impenetrable:

Perpetual Halloween.
The Aztec people.
Horror & death.
A man walking down the street.
A man looking intently at a woman.
And running into a fire hydrant.
And crumpling.... ("Four Romantic Poets")

But Rohrer is never any more subjective than the original Surrealist poets, who were so much in earnest about using poetry to express the self's truth that they often took drugs or used hypnotic trances to defeat reason and open the gateways to unconscious imagery, following the imperatives of the furious rebel Arthur Rimbaud, who a half-century earlier had recommended "total derangement of all the senses" as a prerequisite to writing poetry.

Surrealism is a hard sell nowadays. Critic Eric Ormsby, reviewing Graham Robb's biography of Rimbaud, quipped, "the children of Rimbaud's revolution have been mostly drastically befuddled airheads; a ‘revolution’ that peters out in the flaccid verbal doodles of John Ashbery or the gaseous maunderings of Jorie Graham has got to be flawed at the root."

Rohrer's new book however, has too much going for it to be so easily dismissed. The poems of Rise Up come close to achieving the super-realism Breton described, by not only recording the mind's normal associative process, but including fantasies and raw, even shameful, emotions:

...All day I think about words
and how words can topple and humiliate my enemies.
I walk for hours this way with my son
in a small carriage through the humid beech trees.
We cross rivulets and cricket grounds.
Huge groups of kids get in trouble.
We rest on a bridge.
We wait for a crocodile to pass before we cross the river. ("The Ideograms")

If the new poems have any subtext, it is a definition of mental health as the acceptance of one's needs, fears, aggressions and fantasies, and a refusal to reject any experience as unpoetic. "People die without ever knowing simple things about themselves," he wrote in "Light Music."

Surrealism was the expression of a belief in the revolutionary possibilities of a new art; it was in every sense a political movement for a generation of European artists who believed they had been duped by propaganda to support the wholesale slaughter of World War I, sold to the public as The War to End All Wars.

Robert Desnos, whom Breton said could "speak Surrealism" better than anyone, expressed this post-war sentiment of having been fed poisonous lies about a brief war with a happy ending in his poem "Missing": "A very skillful cook mixes poisons in my plate/ and assures me I will laugh." In similar fashion Rohrer's poetry often expresses distrust in official language:

We could hitch the Horses of Instruction
Twice I heard them under the window
Under our flophouse, lousy with towels
Stamping under a moon
How many moons have circled our leaking heads and hearts?
One
The same one every night, hitched to the Horses of Instruction
It's a heavy heart they drag through the hills.... ("Comet")

For a Surrealist, the antidote to being brainwashed by propaganda is the cultivation of honest speech in poems that expose secret fears and desires. Breton, who had served as a medic in psychiatric wards and had seen firsthand the war's devastation, cast artists in the role of freedom fighters who would cut through subterfuge with powerful poems expressing emotional verities. Truth-telling was the summum bonum. Like Rimbaud, Breton discerned lucidity and a kind of super-sanity in the speech of those considered deranged: "I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane," Breton wrote in his first Manifesto of Surrealism. "These people are honest to a fault, and their naiveté has no peer but my own."

...In the president's dream I am
washing other people's laundry
and have to stop and wipe
my hands on my pants
and straighten my hair when
he comes to the workroom to be magnanimous.
I wipe my hands. I do not kill him.
Even in his own dream I do not shake his hand.
‘Our lords have wine and things in plenty because they are blessed.’
That is why I made this song.... ("In a Bower of Rosemary")

Here the narrator not only invites the reader into his dream, but into his dream of the president's dream, an instance of the plurality of the I in Rohrer's poetry. Applying Rimbaud's famous declaration "I is another" to Rohrer's poems is the key to opening their locked doors. Everything in a Rohrer poem is an aspect of the narrator, who is himself deconstructed before our eyes so that no doubt remains that he speaks as an aspect of the storyteller himself. As in dreams, every character and even the environment express something about the narrator. In "Sharp" the speaker says "I am raining."

In "Dog Boy," a poem in Green Light, a narrator calls one of the poem's characters by the poet's name: "...a very small, an extremely small man ran across the road in front of my brother-in-law's car and scrambled into the tombstones. For the purposes of this story, I will refer to my brother-in-law as Matthew...."

Why lend your own name to one of your characters unless he is an aspect of yourself, an alter-ego? And if the brother-in-law functions as one aspect of the I, then the dog boy, the speaker, and even the tombstones comprise a single psyche, the dog boy being an image of something sensed in the self, a disowned, scurrying-man part, a not-me that makes a brief appearance before going back into hiding. The speaker in the poem searches along with the reader for clues to its meaning. He says, "I asked Matthew, and he shrugged and continued to strum an imaginary guitar, and Matthew's unconcern is the biggest mystery of them all." Matthew speaks to Matthew.

This onion-layered or Russian doll effect of images within images appears regularly in Rohrer's earlier books, but its most transcendent version is in the recent "Poem Against Wordsworth":

The robin's eye
is a hole opening
into a universe
which is contemplating a river.

Generally speaking, we recognize the narrator in Rise Up from Rohrer's earlier books, but he has outgrown the Cat in the Hat fancies of Hummock in the Malookas and the Adorable Little Boy cuteness of Green Light. Still highly imaginative, he sees monsters and angels lurking the shadowy corners of the psyche, but he is less detached from ordinary events and feelings.

In a long poem covering eleven pages, "Statistics of Deadly Quarrels," Rohrer's voice is individuated and assured. A narrator shares his musings as he awakens to street sounds and the aroma of french fries. Slipping out of wakefulness into memories and new dreams, he reawakens to considerations of how the laws of physics keep the stars from falling. Like characters in Virginia Woolf novels whose thoughts about minor trifles often intrude at moments of peak emotion, the narrator of "Deadly Quarrels" goes off on tangents. But there is a pressure driving the lines that can be sensed, something unnamed and denied which organizes the monologue emotionally.

Like Leopold Bloom spending all of a June day distracting himself from the likelihood of his wife's infidelity, Rohrer's narrator circles around the subject of his wife, because on this particular day she is a cause for anxiety. Digressions within the monologue are the defensive maneuvers the narrator uses to avoid a threatening subject.

Just when the reader begins to wonder when the narrator will get to the point, the cause of his anxiety reveals itself: a "deadly quarrel" has occurred between him and his wife. "The implications are terrifying," he says. He plans a trip to the corner store for beer, contemplates strategies for nuclear deterrence (a wish to avoid an emotional explosion?), thinks about the atmosphere of the planet Venus (named for the goddess of sexual allure), and returns to feeling distraught over the quarrel. "She thinks I said something hurtful on purpose," he says. Finally, she comes home. As she walks in the door he says, using biblical diction:

A new song is sung unto
her green dress and her long legs.
...Her face is more beautiful
than all the physical laws.

We can almost hear her whisper Molly Bloom's line: Yes yes yes O yes. The fact that "Statistics of Deadly Quarrels" brings not only Joyce's Ulysses and Woolf's experimental fiction to mind, but also the radical psychological investigations described in the Manifestoes of Surrealism testifies to the literary traditions Rohrer weaves together as he integrates the inner and outer worlds. More politically impassioned, more overtly committed to love as sustenance and sanity than in his earlier books, Rohrer achieves a healthy balance of the real and the imagined in this daring and mature new collection of poems. Rise Up bears out André Breton's insight that poems can integrate into our waking consciousness the truths we learn about ourselves from our dreams.

Matthew Rohrer

Other books by Matthew Rohrer:

A Green Light, Verse Press, 2004
Satellite, Verse Press, 2001
A Hummock in the Malookas, W.W. Norton & Company, 1994

http://www.wavepoetry.com

Diana Manister is a member of the American Branch of the International Critics Association (AICA). A former editor of Women Artists News and Artview Magazine, her poetry reviews appear regularly in The Modern Review and at various sites online, including about.com and smallpressexchange.com. She moderates the Poetry & Criticism forum for the American Academy of Poets (poets.org). Her poems have been published in reviews and journals and anthologized in Distance From the Tree and The Company We Keep. She is a contributing editor of the magazine.