Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What I'm Reading: Subject to Change

51ยบ ~ the gentle rain does rain down, all gray and gloomy light, November

Dear Reader, I confess, I am humbled by the notice I received lately at Eduardo C. Corral's blog, Lorcaloca.  On, Sunday, Eduardo praised the Kangaroo and then Jeannine Hall Gailey and Matthew Thorburn joined in with comments of support as well.

I confess as well, that I've had Matthew's book, Subject to Change, on my desk for months, after he graciously offered an exchange last May.  My lack of responding to this wonderful book and others is more proof that my summer was derailed by illness.  However, after dipping into the book here and there in the past, I've been making my way through Subject to Change as a whole since Sunday, and I have to say that I am delighted to return Matthew's compliment.  (At the moment, I don't own any of Jeannine's books, but I'll remedy that soon!)

Let me pause to say that I don't believe in promoting someone else's work just for the sake of networking or gaining favor.  I long ago made a pact with myself about this blog that I wouldn't write about any books I didn't like and I wouldn't inflate my responses.  I do, however, love this growing sense of community that I've found online, and for the most part, I've not been let down by the poetry I've come to know via this medium.  I hope you'll trust in my earnestness, Dear Reader.

Now, to Matthew's book.  Subject to Change is a fluid collection, each poem flowing into the next with ease and yet each poem offering something new.  It is a winding river through changing landscapes of a book.  As some of you may know, I do not read the blurbs until after I'm finished with a book, preferring to come to the poems with fresh eyes.  Here are the notes I made on the empty page at the back of the book (my favorite note-taking page) as I read through the poems: 
nostalgia at war with modernity and the future
speakers in need of love? of acceptance? of comfort? of familiarity?
the use of voices, especially " "
art, painters, musicians,
Modernist tendencies in embedded quotes and allusions
struggling with Romantic ancestry
refrain and coda

I wreak havoc on the books I enjoy.  Bent-over pages, underlines, marginalia, notes in blank pages, and so, one might tell just from glancing at my bookshelves which are the most beloved books by their battered nature.  Matthew's book has been battered and then some.

I have to say that I wasn't sure these poems would resonate with me because of their clear relationship to the Modernists, a group I can admire if not enjoy.  However, the tension between those Modernist influences and the Romantic history of English poetry intrigued me and led me on through the book, and I am glad of it. 

Often, the sense of the poems is one of conversations transcribed, the reader overhears, listens in.  For example, the poem "For Friends Who are Married and Expecting More Babies," begins with advice for making cucumber soup.  Then, in line two, a second voice joins that of the speaker, this second voice set off in quotation marks, a refrain, a questioner, a commenter.  The poem ends this way:

What is it with me and this small stuff
anyway?  I staple in quotes anything
you say, so it will stay. "What about those
for-instances?"  I count them off
on my fingers.  For instance, "Sometimes
things fall into place just so you can hear them
click."  For instance, when I say "you"
I mean you.  For instance, the dark 
taste of fennel on the wet
....................little heart of your tongue.

I love how the poem begins with the taste of cucumber soup and ends with it, but so much transpires in between (Matthew's poems tend to wander onto a second page and to benefit from the wandering.)  This poem, as with others, features a questioning speaker searching for some security, something that will last in this ever-changing, chaotic world.  Sometimes there is comfort; sometimes there is a void.

Let me also give praise to the use of formal structures that add to the tension reverberating just beneath the surface of this book.  There are wonderfully crafted sonnets and one spectacular sestina, "Just You, Just Me," that features the word 'justice' as one of the repeated end words.  Amazingly, Matthew tweaks that into 'Donald Justice' in stanza four as the speaker's mother says, "Donald Justice / wouldn't write a poem like this."  Kudos for the humor and the deft weaving of this poem.  There are allusions to other great writers, artists, and musicians throughout the book, but these are not heavy-handed and seem always to contribute to the poems rather than distract.

I'll end with a bit from an industrial, Midwestern poem, because I feel akin to it.  While too long to quote in its entirety, here is the beginning of "In Lansing."

Black coffee, for starters, and sun
sneaking through a scribble 
of cloud.  Holidays over and still
in from out east: you and me,
Kay, and cold day-old light--
dishwater or thereabouts.  And pale,
the sky through these trees, blue
that's almost not blue; a bird's egg
or as if colors were verbs--

oranging, bluing--and you hadn't
said blue.  Who loves January?
You see the steeple but the bell's
still broken, half-shined with ice.
And someone has to unplug
and take down these tangled strings
of lights, get the hose to spray
the salt off the Buick.

Support a Poet/Poetry
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today
Subject to Change
Matthew Thorburn
New Issues Press, 2004

8 comments:

Kathleen said...

Loved your close reading of this book, and loved hearing about the general battering and note taking! I do that, too, though lately I've decided not to do that to some books (first edition, first printings, hardcovers) so my kids'll have something to sell when I die.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Kathleen. I completely understand about the special books!

Nancy Devine said...

the books i love the most look the worst. i tote them around, shove pages between their pages...put stars next to passages that get it right, whatever it is. i don't know how my students can really use their school-owned textbooks if they can't mark them up a bit.

lately, it's the books about teaching reading and writing that look battered. i tend to be more sensitive to books of poetry, especially if they've been autographed.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Nancy, I can't help myself, and I do cringe when I'm beating up a book that has been inscribed and signed.

Leslie said...

So glad to find another fan of Matt's work and nice to see bits of these poems again in a new place. Thank you!

(You should also check out Matt's chapbook Disappears in the Rain)

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Leslie. I'll check it out.

drew said...

Good to see "Subject to Change" lauded here. I, too, won this book in the Book Giveaway last year -- and loved it.

And I really appreciate your note about reviewing books you really like. No inflation. No fawning. Good to know, and nice of you to take a moment to say so.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Drew, yeah, the tough part is that the pile of books to read is towering, so there are a lot I haven't gotten to yet! I'm also not a picky reader and want to highlight all the good stuff that is out there.