A Sunny Day is a Sufficient Cathedral

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The book’s strongest moments are often its quietest, as when the complexity of the speaker’s engagement with himself and the world is repulsed or rerouted by automatic prompts and alienation.

The question of whether 21st century America more resembles the dystopic vision prophesied by Orwell (governmental oppression) or by Huxley (self-chosen stupor) is a question asked by Destroyer and Preserver, Matthew Rohrer’s sixth full-length collection, a compendium of fragmented, lyric poems that court rather than resist the pathetic fallacy. Here, Nature is figured as a broken figure whose dissemblance mirrors, as a form of identificatory comfort, our own. “Winter gets into everything,/ the small of her back/broken off/ in the night./ Winter moves/ her fingers to the sea,/ her promontories are locked/ in ice/ and I am just one man…” Against all odds the poet continues, at times hopelessly, to craft poems that speak to a theme not likely to be gleaned from watching the latest podcast or late-night talk show, however mimetic of our trying times or possessed of corrosive wit: “The governance of fear will be checked with love.” The book’s strongest moments are often its quietest, as when the complexity of the speaker’s engagement with himself and the world is repulsed or rerouted by automatic prompts and alienation (“I do not belong to anything but books/ which is very sad”; “ . . . the day got/ away from me/ holding the phone/ to my left ear for 45/ minutes para español/ marque número dos/ for someone else’s appointment”; “I am a dream a black obelisk dreams/ & forgets.”)

Frequently, what might have existed as a moment of levity or grace is overshadowed by the presence of a surveillance figure who supervises the poet’s natural (if smothered) elan. From “Poem for Starlings”: “When you try to make a joke/ in a bank/ it falls flat/ there’s an armed guard/ standing there/ wearing sunglasses indoors/ motionless…” The heaviness—and pervasiveness—of this nameless stand-in for despair populates the collection, from which battle cries are issued (“YOUR POLITICS ARE DUST”) alongside moving paeans to the speaker’s children and vestigial memories of saner times. Certain poets of this generation bear the burden of memory more gracefully than others. Take, for example, the signaled “death” of beauty (enunciated by Jorie Graham in 1987) and its tentative reemergence as a legitimized social practice (outcroppings abound, one of the most recent being philosopher Roger Scruton’s 2011 BBC documentary “Why Beauty Matters”). Rohrer finds ways to ply this discourse with cultural memes that still smart to the touch, as in his poem “The Terrorists”: “A terrorist walks into a bar/ he gets a beer/ nothing has ever tasted better/ and nothing draws him/ through the air afterwards/ into a cloud of grackles/ by the harbor/ the whole thing started/ because of beauty/ his love of beauty/ it was all a big joke beauty/ played on love… ”

Destroyer and Preserver,’s speaker is plain-spoken in his speech acts of remonstrance and longing. When his diction is high it is not high modernism or high culture—it is Greco-Roman (“ . . . I urge/ my chariot to the hippodrome”). Many are the poets (Hungarian poet Zsuzsa Beney comes to mind) who believe one is writing the same poem over and over again: this collection bears witness to that adage. When Rohrer’s unpunctuated, paratactic style works, it works brilliantly; when he falters, it is a faltering born of a new sincerity the world (of which readers are a part) renders suspect, as a form of (good-natured) vice. These poems—and the oeuvre of this poet—deserve careful readings, and re-readings, to train ourselves to perform John Cage’s ironic challenge: to see what it is we’re looking at, and to feel what it is (if anything) we feel.

Check out “A Little Sign,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Matthew Rohrer.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →