It’s not such a terrible thing to be romantic on occasion. Such as I find in Matthew Rohrer’s new Rise Up, from Wave Books. Romantic, of course not in the love sense, but in the call-back to those poets who exhumed sublimity in mountains, sat by the river creek, and were perturbed by society’s ways. Although we are nowadays a little more impatient with allusions to the canon, without specifying canonical and post-date issues, certainly we’ve all had to carry the 1,000+ page tomes to fifth period, and there’s a reason why they put the Romantics on the Graduate Record Examinations Literature test — somewhere, somehow, you have read a poem by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, or Coleridge. More than likely, after reading it, you put it in a very special, very distinct box that could now only be opened by having to take the GRE Literature exam or because you need to write a sentimental card for Mother’s Day, or simply, because you’re feeling nostalgic for the Lake Isle.
Rohrer’s new book catches something momentous and puzzling — he transforms Romanticism into reality, as in, ‘real time.’ The first poem of the book, ‘Four Romantic Poets’ caught me off guard; somehow planes of conception and emotion were crisscrossing and intersecting on levels I was neither comfortable nor familiar with:
I am emotionally translucent.
I am on the new sofa. I am wedged
between the 2 walls of the stoop. I am
unwashed & I’m self-conscious about it.
I am not helping. I make her feel like
she’s eaten a spoonful of peanut butter.
And now she’s slid back into a green sleep
in early Autumn and she will escape
out the back. If only the universe
weren’t shaped so much like me, I might change
my approach. I must learn to say what I
never intended to say, like John Clare.
The good news is I saw the open door
of a gentle wonder, where I want to live.
Aside from the tangible elements of discomfort like being wedged and eating thick peanut butter, the tropes dance. The characterization of the woman’s sleep as ‘green,’ the lament and first assertion that the universe is so much like the poet, the inability to change and yet still be able to find, or create, the illusory door of a ‘gentle wonder,’ the faith in some abysmal territory far, far away (read: the sublime mountain), all hearken back to the good things about the Romantics.
Notice how the language in this poem tries to subvert an easy ‘hearkening,’ however. It’s written in a contemporary, colloquial style, such as: ‘I make her feel like.’ Rohrer uses ampersands instead of ‘and,’ as well as the number ‘2’ rather than ‘two.’ Plus, the expression of the speaker’s unabashed ‘unwashed’ and ‘self-conscious’ feeling: all these spell today’s poetry product. However, if we were to look at a Romantic poem for comparison, say, Wordsworth’s ‘It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free’ we may be able to forgive ourselves a little for boxing in the Romantics as we have done:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder — everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
Okay, so we still have the nature theme, and God is being sublime and somewhere peeking out of a shutter just the same, and the language is overtly ‘Romantic’ or at least dated. But I wonder just how much the poem itself is dated; let’s remove the overt presupposition of God being real for a moment, and make it an ‘Agnostic’ poem, and so let’s also take out the worshipping. Of course we should still keep the ‘nun’ however, she’s great. Let’s de-capitalize ‘Sea,’ and allow us to remove the ‘doth’s’ and the ‘that walkest,’ etc. Then we’d get something like this:
It is a beautiful evening, calm and free,
the holy time is as quiet as a nun
breathless with adoration; the broad sun
is sinking down in its tranquility;
the gentleness of heaven broods over the sea:
dear child! Dear girl! Who walks with me here,
if you appear untouched by serious thought,
you lie in my heart all the year —
your nature is not less incredible.
I know I’ve performed a massacre of a perfectly well-fit Wordworth poem, worthy (heh) of adoration, but my point is this: we still like wonder, and we still like allusions to greater schemes than ourselves, which stretches all the way from the Greeks to James Tate’s white donkey world. We also like to talk about the opposite sex and how we still don’t understand what’s quite going on there, and we still like to brood, get over it, celebrate, get back to brooding, and then fall into a ‘green sleep.’
Rohrer is not simply a one-liner poet; he seems to time the crème de la crème perfectly, and the fantastic lines are necessarily built from the momentum of the predecessor lines. For example, take the poem ‘A Hawk is on Her Heart.’ Given Rohrer’s deceptively simple and short lines that seamlessly glide from one thought or tangibility to another, we think nothing of moving quickly through them until we’re taken aback with the twist:
A hawk is on her heart. I am going on.
Thirty leagues with a stranger
in the pink sunset. From up here a soft
but an almost cinnabar feel. The mountain
jacks that lock that falls across my face.
The lighter reaches out to the paper,
birches rise in place.
I circle & circle, almost great.
Mr. Rohrer, you’re pretty great.
Julia Istomina was born in Moscow, Russia and moved to the United States in 1990. Her primary fascinations with poetry involve lingual and cultural constructions, as well as the more personal features of psyche, such as what differentiates us from animals, and what makes us, them. Her poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Salt Magazine, The Cortland Review, Ars Interpres International Journal, the upcoming The Gertrude Stein Awards Anthology 2005/6, Green Integer Review, Shampoo, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other venues. Her serial killer thriller in verse, Kostik the Killer, has recently been picked up for publication by Ars Interpres Book Series. She received her MFA from the New School.
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