The Idea of Chocolate
a review by A. P. Sullivan
Come On All You Ghosts, poems by Matthew Zapruder, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend Washington, 2010, 112 pages, $16.00 paperback.
When I read the first line of Matthew Zapruder's poem "The Prelude," from his third and newest book of poems Come On All You Ghosts (published by Copper Canyon in late 2010), I was immediately reminded of lines students of mine have written over the years in response to a particular prompt I give them on the first day of an introductory poetry course for high school sophomores. The prompt is quite simple: I ask my students to write a line that is definitely not poetry. After some quizzical looks and clarifying questions, which I answer as obliquely as possible, they take a stab at writing something unpoetic. This year, one of my students wrote, "Find the maximum and minimum values of the function of this region." Typically, the students' unpoetic lines are either examples of technical, algebraic language, like the line I quoted, or examples of canned language, like "Oh this diet coke is really good," which happens to be the first line of Zapruder's "The Prelude."
I always follow up this prompt with a second prompt: I ask the students to add or subtract as few words as possible from their unpoetic lines to make them poetry. My goal in giving these two prompts is not only to get students to think about what makes certain examples of language poetry, but also as an introduction to the traditional elements of poetry, having to do with how it sounds, how it moves, and how it means. Zapruder fulfills the second prompt by adding the remaining thirty-eight lines of "The Prelude" to make it poetry.
Of course you can't just add any old thirty-eight lines to make a good poem, and such a technique certainly won't make an excellent poem, and many of the poems in Zapruder's collection are excellent. What Zapruder does in "The Prelude" to make an excellent poem is also characteristic of most of the other poems in Come On All You Ghosts. What he does is, so to speak, step out of the can, quite consciously, of his own canned language: "Oh this Diet Coke is really good, / though come to think of it it tastes / like nothing plus the idea of chocolate." In this passage, the "though come to think of it" acts as a bridge for the reader out of the realm of a coke commercial and into one that thankfully turns out to be much more interesting. In his poem "Pocket," one of my personal favorites, Zapruder does a similar stepping out of the can, to continue with my inelegant trope. About halfway into the poem, we have the line, "Today the unemployment rate is 9.4%," a line that could certainly fulfill the unpoetic line prompt. But in the very next line, Zapruder steps out of its can by writing, "I have no idea what that means." This line is surprising, humorous, self-deprecating, and wise in that Socratic, the-only-thing-I-know-is-that-I-know-nothing sort of way.
In Zapruder's best poems, he steps again and again out of the cans of his language, and the cans during this process grow progressively larger. It gives his poetry an appealing self-conscious quality that time and again reframes the reader's experience. The most obvious example of this can-stepping or frame-enlarging comes in a passage from the book's last and longest poem, which, like the book, is called "Come On All You Ghosts." In six short lines, the speaker of the poem defines his existential situation:
I have lived in the black crater
of feeling every moment
is the moment just after
one has chosen forever
to live in the black crater
of having chosen to live in the black crater
Here, the reframing enlarges, confines and confuses all at the same time, which is of course what powerful feelings do.
The self-consciousness of Zapruder's voice, a voice that is one of the most distinct in contemporary poetry, is further distinguished in Come On All You Ghosts by his choices of modifiers, his unusual syntax, and the preponderance of references, both satirical and earnest, to life as a mission. Zapruder is particularly fond of banal, unspectacular, and traditionally unpoetic modifiers, such as "totally" and "basically." Such beige diction, interestingly enough, makes the reader more aware of the poet's self-conscious selection of words, and functions as another way of reframing the work. And many of his nouns and adjectives accrete two or three, or even at times four or more modifiers. Open to any poem in the collection and you find phrases like "basically happy," "necessary beautiful ways," and "the absolute worst pure center." The most successful of these phrases surprise with their unusual juxtapositions ("worst" next to "pure") or implied critique of over-wrought poetic diction. I get the impression that if one is "basically happy," then Zapruder would argue that such a one be described as "basically happy."
Zapruder's syntax is similarly self-aware in its Yoda-like inversions and almost Germanic constructions, constructions in which the verb only at the end of the sentence or phrase its appearance makes (you get the drift). In his poem "Together Yet Also Apart," we have "Go we must in search of searching" and "inhabitants into the various churches emptied." For the sake of brevity, you must trust me that there are many more examples, each of which makes the reader slow down more than usual and consider how words join together to make meaning.
I have, as you are by now certainly aware, been foregrounding the self-consciousness of the voice in Zapruder's poems. Though the speaker in Zapruder's poem "Schwinn" states right from the beginning that he hates the phrase "inner life," the poems in Come On All You Ghosts are all about the inner life. Not only do many of his descriptions and metaphors serve to flesh out psychological states or pinpoint certain nuances of feeling and thought, they also propose the positive transformation of the inner life, difficult though it may be, as an important mission. That Zapruder on occassion satirizes the mission only accentuates those times when he speaks earnestly, as is the case at the end of "Poem (for Grace Paley)" when the speaker in the poem, which I'll venture to say is Zapruder, vows "that he will coast no more." In "Come On All You Ghosts," the last and most ambitious poem in the book, the mission is at its most overt. Like Whitman in "Song of Myself," Zapruder makes it clear that his role as a poet is to wake people up and, in his characteristically self-effacing way, to stop pretending "I do not believe / I have to say something important." Zapruder's poem shares many other similarities with "Song of Myself"—the use of anaphora, the lists of geography, the concern for authentically connecting with people—but I will leave you to find them for yourselves, and, by the way, I recommend you get a copy of Come On All You Ghosts and do find them for yourselves.
A. P. Sullivan's poems have appeared or will be appearing in Salt Hill, The Literary Review, and New York Quarterly, among other journals. He is a high school humanities teacher in Fair Oaks, California.