Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder

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What would it sound like to hear the whole world as it happens inside a Matthew Zapruder? I would venture to say it is a quiet world, a muted world, a world that is loving and that is tender in all its loving. A pressured world. There are always emotions hovering at the periphery of the Matthew Zapruder in Sun Bear, and though those emotions might be on a distant periphery, there is still an impending quality to them. Maybe the clinical term for this is anxiety. And reading Sun Bear, I would say there is a fair amount of anxiety communicated in the poems. So, then, the inside of Matthew Zapruder is quiet and anxious. Or an anxiety mollified. Familiar. Processed. And by processed I mean that psychological processing a mature human being uses to balance and note all the different directions the world might have taken without warning. I also mean processed as in the world plus all the different emotions plus uncertainty plus a sensible perspective plus contentedness, and the poems process all these together to form a single perspective. Like in “Poem for Wisconsin”:

and people ask
who are we who see
so much evil and try
to stop it and fail
and know we are no longer
for no reason worrying
the terrible governors
are evil or maybe
just mistaken and nothing
can stop them not even
the workers who keep
working even when
it snows on their heads
and on the bridge
that keeps our cars
above the water
for an hour

Preceding this quotation, the poem starts by noticing a statue of the Fonz from “Happy Days.” Then the speaker imagines the Milwaukee Art Museum as a robotic bird that could fly out over Lake Michigan. Then comes this protest against Republican governors like Scott Walker. But note the resignation in this protest. We the people try to stop evil and fail, and so we worry. We are in this world, and this world is magical, and this world continues to disappoint us. This is what a world feels like when it’s moving inside us. Or at least inside Matthew Zapruder.

What I’m trying to explain is that the poems in Zapruder’s Sun Bear feel calm, but still tapped with wonder.  Trivial circumstances are wonderful. The mind wandering away from the first thought is wonderful. Why does saying something obvious, like what I’m saying right here, suddenly feel wonderful, even if by all normal measures this statement I’m making would normally be judged plaintive or only mildly impressed by the world or nostalgic or even depressive. Because Zapruder is a poet filled with wonder, whose experienced world is equal opportunity populated by real things and imagined things. Maybe it’s not explosive wonder. It seldom breaks his stance. Think more rationed wonder, served in steady half-cup sized portions. The drone of server farms can remind him of bees touching down on a field of magenta flowers. The scent from an unnamed perfume can remind him of a “vast tiny ballroom.” It is wonder controlled or modulated. Like if wonder could be played on a theremin.

For me, this is the driving tension in these poems–the potential wonder up against an active restraint. I would compare it to how I feel listening to the new Arcade Fire album Reflektor. I’ve been an Arcade Fire fan for so long. And that first album Funeral is like a catastrophe of musical joy. It felt every song was no stone left unturned, no emotion unchecked, no absolute release of potential unreleased. The energy is everywhere on every track. I hear that same energy in Reflektor, but the music keeps it below the surface. The music pulls from that energy while holding that energy back. And that’s what I see happening in Sun Bear. This speaker, who can be pushed to wonder at even the slightest trigger, holds just enough of that wonder back so that the poems are playful but not raucous.  Disruptive but not chaotic. Content but not jubilant.

I hear a similar method when I’m reading Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. Both books feel as though they are atop this raw energy, and they have chosen to seal that energy into a box, and that box is the poem. The result is a strangely inert, strangely wonderful, strangely not all the way strange meditative stance. I don’t know how I feel about it. And, quite honestly, I think an ambiguous response is part of the poems’ design. A part of me wants to see the box smashed open. There is another part of me that admires the speaker’s poise in keeping that raw energy contained. That Arcade Fire album, Reflektor? I can’t quit listening to it. And I can’t quit trying to turn the volume up loud enough so that one of the songs might finally unleash. None of them do.

The irony for Sun Bear is that Zapruder regularly disrupts the regular grammatic sense in many poems’ phrasing. Is the term for this anacoluthon? Is it the “self-interrupting sentence” term used by Gerald L. Bruns in What Are Poets For? Please, God, just don’t make it parataxis, the word that has been so broadly used for describing contemporary poetry, we should probably start calling this the Parataxis Age. Whatever you want to call it, here is how it appears in “Poem for Americans”:

When I go to the bank
California mild afternoon
fills my frame
hollow with desire
to formally say
American brothers and sisters
let us look up
from our screens.

Matthew ZapruderThis first sentence of the poem is at once sensible and evasive of precise meaning. It is disruptive. How should one punctuate the second line? “California, mild afternoon”? “California-mild-afternoon”? Another disruption: should there be a comma after “frame” on line 3? Of course, for a typical reader of contemporary poems, these are pleasant disruptions. I like how efficiently the poem introduces multiple senses of what is essentially the same meaning. I like being the reader who is actively tending to the poem’s grammatical details. And yet, there is something restrained in this “sentence.” It flirts with the rhetorical pronouncement (“American brothers and sisters / let us look up”), but the rhetoric is muted by a speaker who is “hollow with desire” and who makes it clear he is speaking formally. It pretends to unleash the sentence from grammar, all the while keeping the scope of the sentence in line. Which is how I read the emotional stance of this speaker: content but not happy but feeling happy enough to know certainly that he is content with this life he is living.

Stand tall, Matthew Zapruder, in all your knotted wonders and misgivings. Are you a regular reader of Matthew Zapruder? Many people are. Do these observations about Sun Bear feel familiar to his other books? They should. But I would say that the line between contentedness and anxiety is weighted a bit more on the contented side in Sun Bear. Additionally, the grammatical inflections are a bit more pronounced. I emailed Matthew Zapruder when I was writing this to tell him how much I liked the book, and he was careful to tell me it’s really not him. Come on, man. I want to believe I’ve been on the inside of this speaker. He’s so intimate on the page. Now I feel like all I’m left with is a peep hole. Not that there’s something violent on the other side, like Duchamp’s Etant Donnes. I’m just struggling with this distance between the Matthew Zapruder I thought I was getting to know in the poems versus what these poems actually are: careful and whimsical dances with rhetoric.


Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →