Living Things by Matt Rader
Nightwood Editions, 2008
Reviewed by Mike Sloane
Matt Rader’s Living Things is an astounding, thought-provoking, and visceral collection of poetry; his sophomore publication is the furthest thing from being a slump.
While Living Things ostensibly presents the reader with a slew of diverse, eclectic poems that include such choice titles as “Chainsaw,” “Domestic Work,” “Easter,” “Twilight of the Automobile,” “Common Carrier,” “Fastest Man on the Planet,” “Aeons,” “Mustang,” “Alligators,” and “Reading with Neela,” Rader’s gambit of verse is quite coherent, unified. Without being too reductive, I would suggest that Rader’s “Deer” introduces a leitmotif that pervades the collection:
…you own hunger
to encounter the edge of another
dimension and be stopped in your tracks,
caught staring at a creature who materialized
before your very eyes and now stares back.
It is here, then, that Rader underscores, at a very basic level, the significance of being aware, being conscious of alternative forms of existence. More specifically, it is his emphasis on the process of confronting, connecting, and integrating the notion of another “dimension” beyond simple desire that constitutes his modus operandi; this is evident in the reciprocal gaze between the subject and the deer, an obtuse mirror-stage of sorts. Living Things, then, strongly adheres to representing and implicitly privileging non-linguistic animate — or inanimate — things by providing them with a voice. This particular process, especially in the case of inanimate things, involves evoking a palpable sense of liveliness, which generally takes the form of personification; this is evident in “Common Carrier”:
I go backward. I go where the tracks go
and I go slow. I’m old but not as old as
as coal or steam or hydro. When it’s cold,
the switching yard crystalled in snow,
I still tow the fields of harvest wheat
from prairie to coast, the vast ocean
of ethanol a slosh in my middle hold.
Rader appears to be advocating a paradigm shift in order to reevaluate, or even restructure, the way in which we view the world and the living things therein. This process is especially accentuated in relation to Rader’s acute evocation of mortality; his stark juxtaposition between life and death throughout Living Things further foregrounds the importance of honing in on those living things that typically occupy marginal or peripheral spaces. For instance, in “Emergency Broadcast System,” there’s a blatant apocalyptic overtone that forces the reader to, at the very least, consider their own ontology, let alone other “dimensions”:
I’m always quick
to think, This is it, the one we’ve all been
waiting for, the news we knew to imagine
but could not imagine nonetheless, the end
of life as we live it, careless in this land,
and when you let go of my hand and stand,
balanced by your own mass and muscle,
a fresh knack for gravity at your command,
begin to look around, wonder, slyly smile,
then, one foot in front of the other, totter
forward into the future
After having read the collection and slipped into some existential moments myself, I cannot help but recall the volta, or the turning point, that consolidated my appreciation for Rader’s poesy. So, to avoid coming across as too self-absorbed, I will err on the side of caution and brevity — well, maybe not brevity — and save you my Sterne-isms and simply sign off with an anecdote explaining how I came to appreciate, in a twisted epiphanic sort of way, the profundity and richness of Rader’s poetry.
Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly m—
Damn! This is already sounding egocentric and over-wrought.
Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly man ask a passerby walking his dog if the dog’s n—
We don’t care about your anecdote.
Damn! I am digressively shaking it up Shandy-style.
Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly man ask a passerby walking his dog if the dog’s name was “Phantom” (i.e., the dog had a black-and-white pattern on its face resembling the Phantom of the Opera’s mask), to which the jittery dog-owner stopped, turned around and yelped, “No. Not this one. This one isn’t ‘Phantom.’ No. No!” The dog-owner swiftly turned away and stormed off. Now, at the time of this rather schizophrenic, caustic incident, I was reading Rader’s “Mustang” and had just finished the last two stanzas — they read:
Was still ten years out of reissue and our minds
Soaked in its weird from the stereo. No one knows
Just where we go when we go. Some folks diagnose
Jesus, Jello-O, scrap metal; give me a mercy of mind
Of the kind that Mustang gave my brothers and me.
A Pavement reference. I’m sold.
Sincerely though, Rader’s affectively charged, insouciant verse alongside my experience really underscored those moments, those snapshots that capture an energy amidst an unknowingness or an absurdity that, at the end of the day, reminds us of the spontaneity and fragility of life. Oprah, anyone?