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Anatomy of two poems: Matt Jasper (by Keith Nathan Brown)

Matt Jasper’s poetry debut, Moth Moon, was recently published by BlazeVOX.  In clear, often sparse language, Jasper seeks to render X-rays of the psyche: alongside films of the normal psyche during heightened emotive moments are those of the abnormal psyche of the schizophrenic, revealing in the process the difference between sanity and its obverse often comes down to a hair-line fracture.  As much as it is a book of poems, Moth Moon is a psychological investigation, which has led poet and editor Susan M. Schultz to describe it as “documentary surrealism”.  Two poems from his collection are discussed here.  “Anastasia, Purdy Group Home,” included below, originally appeared in Grand Street.  “Tributary” originally appeared in and can be read online at Willows Wept Review.  Our interview appears after the poem.

Anastasia, Purdy Group Home

A man has entered the room.
He is a ladykiller.  A real one:
growing smaller and larger and more wonderful and terrible.
His stomach opens, the room fills
with ladykillers.
They are eating you up with their eyes.

The nurse gives you twenty milligrams of Haldol.
Most of the ladykillers leave but there is one left.
You point to him and say, “I get carried away,”
meaning that he has come to steal you.

Anastasia, on this night
you pass out half a carton of cigarettes
and tell me that you will not live
to see another day.

At nine in the morning I try to wake you.
I say your name, I rock you back and forth.
You open one eye
and say, “what you touching my hip bone for,
you going to make soup?”

You are pleased to meet me.
May you ask who I am?
Am I your parent or savior?
a husband?  Do I think
you will be a melt-as-you-go-wife?

Anastasia, you are beautiful:
rotten teeth, rosary beads, the dresses you wear when you sleep.
I will give you your Haldol, your Xanax
an hour late.
We will walk to the store for more cigarettes.

Keith:  As far as I understand, much of the material for Moth Moon was drawn from your employment in a group home for schizophrenics; and elsewhere, you described Moth Moon as “isomorphic with the topic and language of schizophrenia.”  As accurate as the term “documentary surrealism” is, the poem, “Anastasia,” not only documents the language and external behaviors of a schizophrenic patient, but in the opening stanza immerses the reader in the immanent world of the schizoid mindspace.  Is this what you meant by isomorphic?  An attempt to map the perceptions of the ordinary mind (in the poem, an attractive man entering a room) onto the schizoid mindspace (Anastasia who perceives a multiplicitous and literal “ladykiller”)?

Matt:  My short answer is yes.  That example is what I meant by isomorphic.

In my late teens, I mixed a lot of Demerol with acid and became God for the better part of a year.  It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I was “omni-impotent”—trying to survive the extremes between insignificance and galactic grandeur.  After being able to work only as a medical test subject, I applied for a job as weekend manager of a group home for aged schizophrenics—most of whom had been in the system for decades.  I was amazed that they hired me, as I made no eye contact during the interview.  I soon found that I could do the work and that I loved the boundary loss and use of language in schizophrenia.  I viewed whatever “schizophrenia” was with admiration for the way it created worlds only loosely tethered to an increasingly irrelevant external reality.  The creativity and authority of these created worlds bore all of the signs of collision with artistic form.  Though the boredom, coffee, cigarettes, and solipsism of mental illness generally reigned, there were many brilliant associative arrangements and constructions by residents of the group home.  The transformation of ladykillers as lovers to ladykillers as murderers is one example but there were many.  We had guys there who’d go on and on about the “super secret of the super changeover”, how everyone should have a T-shirt that they name after their favorite Panzer tank, how Linda Evans should float back into the TV set along with the rest of the Flying Dynasty Sluts and just learn to keep her fucking mouth shut.

A loss of the usual boundary between life and death is common in schizophrenia.  The heightened sense of possibility sometimes creates a corresponding sense of vulnerability that feeds paranoia and fuels a rush to the safety of living in a smaller world of delusion and/or a larger world of being dead already in order to avoid the possibility of being killed.  To protect against the possibility of dying by declaring oneself to be dead already is a brilliant, desperate, and of course paradoxical defense.  Real powers open up by entering the realm of the dead while alive.  Evidence of it comes in the animistic authority of the living language (“no ideas but in things”) employed, in the desperate sense of struggle, in reaching beyond the visible to create really startling turns of phrase.  The whole set of ideas that float around “duende” ride nicely alongside the heightened urgencies and morbidities of madness.

Hallucination and delusion seemed like world-building to me.  I was in my late teens but had done enough writing that I could compare fiction and authorship to the phenomena bubbling up around my charges at the group home.  In many cases, the artistry of the improvisational madness I was witnessing seemed to eclipse that of many authors I’d read.  I vowed to write from that realm if at all possible.  I think that I’ve hit on a few moments or stretches of isomorphism in my book, yet a lot of it goes unrecognized precisely because it seems inscrutable to readers.  Unfortunately, the only way to convey this material is to be on an edge that risks being as totally dismissed, misunderstood, and ignored as the people I’m writing about.  The utter stupidity of setting out to do something that can be done should be more apparent to many writers and should blast a whole lot of verbiage off the face of the earth.  I want to write about impossible things invisibly, yet here’s why it’s defensible as art:  I have created a point of entry.  If the reader can’t see the handle and open the door, well, too bad.  I won’t frontload, underline significance, carve an ornate frame, or speak slowly in Iowese.

Keith:  Front-loading kills, yes.  Many endangered species have gone extinct as a result.  Nonetheless, if I hadn’t read Schultz’s review of Moth Moon, it’s unlikely I would’ve discerned the underlying psycho-logic at work in your compositions.  To be given that front-loading, if only collaterally, so to speak, gave me a handle on your poems.  Which thus enabled me to open the door and enter the schizophrenic space.

Through that point of entry the loss of boundary, as you said, was palpable.  But the boundary loss was very particular, not an anything-goes melee.  Rather, the connective tissue became an equal sign.  Things normally associated became equated.  The literal and the figurative, conflated.  The perceptual and the conceptual, interchangeable.  Structures stood readily in place, but in place of walls stood permeable membranes.  As a result, the schizoid mindspace seemed only to differ by degrees from my own.  Would you say internal logic is what keeps our worlds together, regardless of whether the walls are solid, see-through, or as tentative as the boundary between air and water?

Matt:  Ah, endangered species!  Many poems are killed off by our refusal or inability to see them.  We select our society and shut the door.  It reminds me of a recurring dream I have of people walking around with projectors for heads.  I like the dream well enough until one projector head discovers that it can make its bulb burn brighter or direct its rays to take over the sky.  The rest are left to orient themselves around a scene they are no longer really helping to create.  A dominant mode of vision and discourse can work toward greater efficiencies and intensities of communication, yet eventually a cloud descends that fogs its victims into thinking that universities are universes, that the scribbled memes and fashions held in place by the bobbing heads of thousands of poets giving one another blowjobs will somehow outlast the climactic throes of easy comprehension and acclaim.  I always bitch about the sick feeling that sweeps over me when I read certain magazines that go beyond the positive traits of, say, a movement or a style that helps create more life, more blood on the page.  I’m all for blood.  May it splatter forever.  It’s the watering down and imitation blood, the puppet crimes that bother me.  Agreed upon presets begin to swim and permeate to such an extent that codes emerge allowing readers to self-congratulate for “getting” what an author is conveying.  Easy comprehension is fine when clarity is needed as a foundation to build upon, yet often the steps progress along too well-worn a path

I agree with your ideas of conflation and interchangeability, of a particular kind of boundary loss.  I think the particularity you sense may be from an oppositional and reflective mirroring between dissimilar realms that open to reveal that they have identical and corresponding structures, that they share a secret similarity and always have.  The internal logic you mention is exactly that underlying force that holds our worlds together—different worlds made common and one.  I see this internal logic as almost below the level of language.  It’s at thing level.  It’s glue, phlogiston, ether, form.  It is creation of the universe through negative subtraction, heightened definition through a balance of opposing forces.  It’s realia suffusing a text or work of art somehow, turning sensibility into sensation.  This sort of experience usually leads to the utter silence of beholding wonder.  To write from and within this state is to endure a form of compression that changes the structure of language, makes it more broken down yet also more durable in its broken form.  Direct statement can establish form when employed at object level, yet as it ascends to higher levels of abstraction this method will most likely kill off suspended possibilities.  More indirect and recursive forms can set up pathways for a living language—little word particles so busy racing around that they haven’t the energy to stop and extend a formal invitation to be read.

I am relieved when people like Schultz can climb the slippery mountain of what I’m up to and leave signposts to help others apprehend my lucubrations.  I have decried the idiocy of anyone who can’t see me and licked my scabby poet wounds, yet ultimately I have to appreciate anyone who really tries—whether they get into the work or fumble for a five-minute eternity with the slippery handle on the porch and then give up.  An honest admission that one is unable to approach should be allowed, yet often readers will blame a text for their own lack of comprehension of something that is actually there to be had.  Though I was ready for books like The Journal of Albion Moonlight as a teen, I have had many situations where I have been unable to enter a text—usually a book of poems.  I’ll only realize that the fortress was worth storming if I am lucky enough to return to the work later and finally get in.  Of course, I may come back to the book with a trebuchet and demolish it from the outside.  Readers destroy the worlds they cannot enter.  Some of the worlds are worth destroying.

Keith:  I remember that dream.  I vaguely recall auditioning for projector #8734, but by that time the dream had been copyrighted and won an Oscar.  Someday I aspire to see that dream from the inside while you’re asleep.

“Tributary” opens rather peculiarly: “Aged two and three—/ they seal-slide toward…”  Instead of saying two children, or using another descriptor such as boy, girl, toddler, brother, sister, siblings, etc., you opt for something arguably more precise (the exact ages) which has the unusual consequence of leaving the “who” or even the “what” open to question.  Not until the second stanza do we learn of relation, i.e. siblings, and then only indirectly by reference to: “their father”.  The poem presents itself without obfuscation and yet seems to remain somewhat elusive throughout, continually unfolding until at the end the whole is finally within view.  Is this an example of the “more indirect and recursive” form?  Do the “realia” you choose give “suspended possibilities” reality, while refraining from choking the life out of them with “direct statement”?

Matt:  Yes.  I hope so, at least.  I can analyze my method as if it were more intentional, yet it might be just as accurate to say that I was deadened by all of the other angles I could approach this from and didn’t write about it for years.  I often wished I’d brought a camera that day because the ice was so beautifully lit.  The frustration of having no pictures of the event probably drove me to write the poem.  “Aged two and three” seems a bit reductive and distancing in a way, yet I hope it’s appropriate here as the reader watches from a similar distance.  The opening moment occurs as I consider my son’s ages and that I can begin to stand back and let them take the greater risks of exploring a world I don’t always need to curate or protect them from.  Fear often heightens our senses and drives us into them as we scan objects, beings, landscapes.  As a somewhat paranoid parent who has an uncomfortably large library of possible dismemberments and deaths onboard at all times (see the poem Hypnogogic), I wanted to summon and balance the possibilities surrounding my children at play—to put fears to sleep in a way that would allow my children to be stronger, happier.  The indirect and recursive form summoned a larger world of violence and joy that more direct considerations could have labeled but not created.  To suspend possibilities as objects in the field of the poem is to allow them to each find their place in relation to the others.  The summoned objects in the poem have a life of their own that emerges through proximity and arrangement—a series of overt and covert relationships to the assembled surroundings.  To begin that poem with a pause to introduce landscape, father, and sons would have destroyed its immediacy by voicing an explanation entirely irrelevant to anything within the scene itself.  An intimacy opens up when the reader is given the perhaps initially disorienting yet eventually familiar viewpoint of an insider who doesn’t need labels.  At the core of meaning, there is no sense or logic separate from the spectacle and feel of vast emotional gestalts that open up to “thing” a scene—to suffuse meaning into it so fully that inseparability arises.  This approach can seem fragmented and elusive until it falls into place.

Keith:  “An intimacy opens up when the reader is given the perhaps initially disorienting yet eventually familiar viewpoint of an insider who doesn’t need labels.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more.  When a piece speaks to or explains the scene for the reader, unless that choice is fully conscious and made obviously so by the required rendering of artifice, I feel immediately pushed out of the piece by the author’s (unconscious?) impulse to lead me by the hand like a five-year-old.  But when the piece is concerned more with its own integrity (which is not to say that it lacks concern for the reader), perhaps along the lines of what you deemed busy word particles of living language, I feel naturally drawn into something, rather than merely being presented something.  Your articulation of that idea has helped me come to a better understanding of my own half-intuited inclination.

To return to the idea of isomorphism, the phrase “get carried away” appears in both poems.  Although the exact meaning varies due to different contexts, its two-fold nature (figurative and literal) maps from one to the other.  In the context of “Anastasia,” the boundary loss gives the figurative a literal existence.  In the context of “Tributary,” the literal (the percept in the form of a frozen river) and the figurative (the concept of excitability) undergo a similar boundary loss: “The stream is frozen, he reminds himself.  There’s no need to tell them not to get carried away.”  This similarity of structure and boundary loss echoes your earlier remark:

“I think the particularity you sense may be from an oppositional and reflective mirroring between dissimilar realms that open to reveal that they have identical and corresponding structures, that they share a secret similarity and always have.”

The father (i.e. yourself) watching his kids slide further away into a gap between two frozen sheets of ice has to come to terms with the fact that he has no control over the stream of time, forced to watch his children depart into the world, so to speak, beyond the sheltering reach of their father.  Would you say that his fear serves as the soldering iron by which the boundary between percept (the frozen stream) and concept (the stream of time) is punctured, such that the father momentarily perceives the literal stream for the temporal one?  Would you say that the heat of any intense emotion (whether fear, loss, elation) has the capacity, particularly in the case of trauma, of thinning certain partitions whereby ordinary cognition melts into the schizoid worldflux?

Matt:  I would say that woodenly as I sat carved upon the lap of my much more articulate ventriloquist.  Then I would fumble for a response that first touched upon the easier, earlier points.

I remember thinking it odd that you’d compare the “Anastasia” poem to “Tributary,” yet I guess they drip with the ink of the same pen.  When I see obsessions, lines, and themes recurring in poems, I’m reminded of another dream I had in which I was served notice that I had to stop using up all of the scenery and props required to construct my sleep worlds—that the materials were running out and maybe even depleting the storehouses used by those around me.  The advice to build smaller worlds may be wise.  Much as I’d aspire to be blasted by particle storms and solar winds out in the wider universe, I need the shelter of refuge from a larger world given by having an identity and voice stitched with habit and pattern.  The alternative to turning back from immersion in pure form is to sail out into it and become utterly lost (as in the poem “Shelley”).  There’s a pressure I’ve felt when apprehending the very wide world that drives me to seek refuge in a corresponding, very small one.  In one I am speck and in the other a god arranging specks.  But there’s the danger of having one’s back turned too long to the wider world as one’s interior life and art becomes drained.  Much as I admire Charles Simic for almost epitomizing a contemporary poet who collided most interestingly with the universe, I want to toss out about half of his work—to run up to him and yell, ”Stop being Charles Simic.”  He really needs to take a break.  Maybe drop some acid or read bad romance novels in some way that revitalizes the symbol set he is using.  Elizabeth Bishop hit her own flavor of starry heights, yet had the good sense to leave a body of work small enough that it didn’t begin to water down her beauty.  I am also interested by the work of Bill Knott—who is more peripatetic in his wanderings and gatherings.  He eludes easy comprehension and is willing to risk or even welcome failure as he replenishes his world and that of any reader who can follow him.  Of course, he has paid a huge price for this and is routinely panned by critics.  His book of theme poems at Lulu is beyond brilliant, yet he had to self-publish it.  I will proudly champion him to anyone.  If I am alive when he dies, I hope to form “The Knottistic Institute” for the furtherance of his less publishable work.  So what if sometimes he’s masturbating with his back to the reader.  Just turn on your X-ray vision and wait for the money shot.

As for the boundary between percept and concept, I enjoy equating them in order to nest inverse, proportional images of one inside the other.  Mostly, I am undermining concepts in favor of percepts.  Concepts quickly become almost like mental preset building blocks—nice for what they’re used for, yet almost useless at the low level I aspire to write from.  I like to come up with ridiculous syllogisms and destroy conceptual thought to such a degree that I can barely function at all.

In these poems, I believe in the stream of time more than the stream.  I love the ladykillers who really kill ladies much more than I love the good looking men.  The fear of actual (i.e. my kids being injured or not needing me) or imagined (being killed by a hallucinated ladykiller) loss almost forces the replacement of old concepts with new ones.  Concepts are drained of their old sensory and experiential input in the face of loss.  If one is lucky, a new fusion of percepts can recreate some of the sense we seem to need to make of the world in order to live in it.  I view loss or any strong emotion as something that heats or reshuffles—begins to create factions and facts in a physical sense by destroying old monuments, beings, objects and replacing them with new ones.  One moment passes to another moment the secret that they are the same.  This sameness is what allows us to endure even though each instant we leave the husk of a previous self.  Strong emotion spans this discontinuity of sliced moments in time and carries us across the greater chasms.

6 thoughts on “Anatomy of two poems: Matt Jasper (by Keith Nathan Brown)

  1. Moth Moon is a great collection. Matt Jasper is awesome. And I’m big happy to read what he writes about Bill Knott, who certainly doesn’t get the attention and respect he deserves…

  2. wow, keith, excellent and thought-provoking probing questions. is this going to be a regular feature? i absolutely have to read this book now. also feel inclined to try demerol and acid at the same time.

  3. thanks paula.

    thanks david. greg started the series back in jan, i think. i was excited by the idea and he was kind enough to give me the opportunity to give it a shot (and also extended the invitation to anyone); this is my second attempt (first one with jimmy chen), and i’d definitely like to do more, but as you know per our exchange on your blog (thanks again) that my capabilities (while intact) are limited. the interviews have been awesome and my intention is to do more, but the intervals might be sporadic and dependent on forces beyond my control. sort of like the price of pork bellies.

  4. Moth Moon is great and, Matt, happy also about Bill Knott. I was worshipper and then moved on, partly because I moved from one coast to another and lost concentration, but other reason. That said and not said, yeah, he’s an original. YOU are an original.

  5. I just ran into the Simic and his wife and realized that I’d been too hard on the old man (who looks and acts at least a decade younger than he is). I still want to revise or blot a small percentage of his verbiage that detracts from a rather amazing body of work, but what a body. In general, I wave a lighter for Chuck and would not drop him if he crowd-surfed over my head.

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