Don’t be put off by the exceedingly bland cover art: US poet Matthew Zapruder’s fourth collection Sun Bear contains much that warrants attention. Since his first book, Zapruder has been a poet of small moments; even when he takes on big topics, he eschews grand pronouncements in favour of a poignant ‘in,’ a moment where greater abstract forces, like politics or history, strike home on the average person.
Sun Bear finds him, in comparison to earlier collections, contemplating domestic life, his day-to-day existence and his upcoming engagement to ‘Sarah.’ Written by a man approaching fifty, these poems are not feverish enough to be called love poems in the typical sense but rather something like ‘relationship’ poems, celebrations of the dull and pleasant trivialities of everyday co-habitation. The book is rife with moments of unexpected tenderness like “I mean no harm and do not / even secretly believe / anything I find on our journey / will make me live forever” (“I Drink Bronze Light”) and “I know my beloved / is very close…I don’t have to dream of her/she is very far away from heaven / there are no actual mountains/ between us. Soon we will / have lunch together” (“Poem for Lu Chi”).
Zapruder is also concerned with art itself and whether it can still offer the consolations for which it was once known. He grapples with this question throughout, as any poet in this day and age must. At times, as in “Poem for a Persian Singer,” he thinks yes, where
they might shoot us
but we will stay
here in the street
until we are all
at last older sisters
to each other
At other times he doubts: “you can’t quite say but you leave the theater / knowing for a little while open your heart / doesn’t mean anything the heart is not an open door.” (Anansi has, rather irritatingly, retained the American Copper Canyon edition’s spelling.)
If the consolation of art is about closure, where art enables its consumer to ‘get over’ a difficult experience, Zapruder opens up new potential in the book’s final lines, about ill-fated singer Vic Chestnutt, “we will take it / and go on,” suggesting that art should not conclude an emotion but rather open possibility to further knowledge. Zapruder’s style might be described as meandering—in fact, if meandering were an established style Zapruder would be a master—where a thought or image generates another then another then another until the completed poem is a loose cluster of mental associations. How much a reader likes this book will depend on how much a reader accepts his free-flowing style (and his severe allergy to punctuation). In the book’s best pieces, it works very well because of Zapruder’s capacity to forge connections between disparate subjects and hold them within the framework of individual poems. So in “How Do You Like the Underworld,” a blank computer screen leads to thoughts of an Asian factory to Plato to a valley in Africa before finally concluding, somewhat nonsensically “All children’s books are now about death.” Even for those who do not abide with Zapruder’s stream of consciousness technique, there is something to admire here. He is a poet of uncommon humility and as such the only subject he surveys with more sensitivity than American society is himself.
Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the author of two collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson and is currently working on a book of glosas based on hard rock and heavy metal lyrics, to be titled Glutton for Punishment. He is also the Series Editor of the annual Best Canadian Essays.
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