There are poets who go inside their own bodies for the news and there are poets like Matthew Lippman who stumble out the door to feel the neighborhood break against their skin and find their poems standing there in front of them. That particular availability makes all the language rush forward and feel spacious whenever I read poems like the ones Lippman makes or the ones others like Lippman (Eileen Myles, Matthew Dickman, C.A. Conrad, Matthew Zapruder and Noelle Kocot) write when they join the forces of common speech and natural beauty.
What I love most about the poems written by Matthew Lippman – and particularly the ones he has decided as a collection to call American Chew – is how fast they hit the head and how the meaning gathers in the aftershock as well: like in the meaning made after a dream.
They are circuitous and conversational and silly and meandering poems, too. And on the surface, I suppose, you could say they are childlike, which means they are not afraid to stumble which also means that they are humane and a great reminder of how reachable and community-minded poetry is or could be.
Here’s the beginning of “Nina Simone” which takes up important concerns for Lippman:
youth, music and sex:
It’s no mistake that Al Green was all I listened to in 4th grade.
What else was there to do with Derek Williams and David Schwab
on the P.S. 84 playground?
We turned up the radio loud even when Elton John was singing Border Song,
all English queer and delicious
though we didn’t know a damn thing.
It didn’t matter, Al Green was getting into our pants
to teach us what to do
when we got too close to Sally or Marisol,
saying: stay soft in silk boys
then dynamite the earth…
The autobiographical narrative here is nice and steady, but I would hesitate to call this or the rest of the poems in American Chew accessible because it’s too easy to say that about poetry in general (it’s also a consumer word). Accessible also lets anything complex about a poem slip away, never to be considered, and I believe in the complexity of living and for the poem to be there to catch that complexity in all its glory. So does Lippman. Just when you think he’s getting all accessible and soft, he zings you with that “then dynamite the earth.”
Like many poems in this book, there’s a sweet deception here, which holds a great deal of American Chew’s charm. The poems may start outside the body, but they almost always end up inside it – gnawing at the conscious. Take the title poem, for example, which also starts the book:
For a long time I wanted to be a man who worked
in a slaughterhouse
with the big axe and the wide knives.
I wanted to be a man who pushed the steer in as a steer
then hauled it out
as a t-bone, a rack of ribs,
a half a pound of ground beef.
Later, at my picnic table –
the steak perfectly marinated –
it occurs to me that my whole country
has been killed by my Whole Foods
and that there is nothing whole
about a stalk of broccoli shipped in from Bali
even though it has that beautiful purple sticker which reads,
So, I make my lion breaths deep and low,
smile at the bloody cut
then chew my American chew, quick, fast,
fully of buffoonery,
sloppy with the happy fat.
Lippman likes to trace things back to their origin – to solve not only the mystery of how dinner got to the table, but also to address a kind of hovering complicity that quietly haunts these poems written with an energy of culmination: things collected and held up close; things to be praised and dispraised: cockroaches and slaughterhouses; garbage and carpools; Elton John and Art Blakey; the Amazon Jungle and the broken pieces of the world because of and in spite of the culture that takes everything in and spits everything out. Lippman wants it all. He’s the truest of poets: a walking oxymoron: a dreamer who consumes as much as he imagines. He is also a poet who is always going back to look at the mercurial way in which he sees himself as a male or something like a male:
….When I was seventeen
I was a wolf.
Then I lost my wolf ways.
I left my pack and no longer
marked my earth.
So I got married
to get my wolf ways back, mate for life, duck and cover.
The drums don’t stop,
the wolves crash through the front door,
some with black and white fur,
some with hot, red tongues.
— Wolf Territory
Usually whimsical and sometimes sedate, Lippman can still begin a poem with the most off-putting line he could dream up: “Mexicans make me sad,” or “Stop making your Holocaust movies with the skinny Jews” or “The problem with gay marriage is that everyone is doing it.”
There isn’t anybody somebody isn’t happy about. The whole ironic point to culture, Lippman is saying, is its death wish – its hidden desire to be saturated by its own glorification. And when he isn’t looking in the direction of news that is decided by the culture that has somehow decided it is news, he looks closer to home and writes another kind of first line than can comically sink into the dread of banality: “You know a man by what he does with his garbage” or “Hell yeah, I’m gonna watch YouTube videos all day.” I know these people! Lippman knows these people! He can be gloriously savvy and provocative or he can be the guy next door telling you to turn your music down.
In essence, he’s a poet of the vernacular – and like all poets who write in the vernacular, his anger is only matched by his rapturous heart and the sense that he is riotously free. The elements of what makes his poems poetry come through as something we know, rather than something the poem (some poems, some other poems) can sometimes strain to make essential and real. And the very best poems in American Chew (like “Of Politics and Making a Difference”) take the intangible or interpretative idea of American politics and turn a domestic trope on its side:
I am supposed to staple a post of my candidate on the front lawn
so when the planes fly over they’ll see her face smiling back at them
way up there, thirty thousand feet
flying into and out of the clouds
but they are far away.
As if the little plot of land my house sits on will make all the difference as to who signs the big bills on health care and the weedy bills on dope distribution.
For years I have felt that the only difference is the difference you make at home,
the way you sit at the table with your elbows off the cedar at supper,
the way you talk politely to your kids
even when they stick little balls of Play Dough into the toilet,
flush the thing, then laugh, wolf-like,
as water explodes out from between the seams.
That’s the best politics there is
even if you call your kid a schmuck
after he throws a meteorite at his brother
and breaks the stained glass window of The Mother Mary
into nine million bottles of beer.
The best politics is the politics of coming home every night
with a working fireplace in your briefcase,
waking up every morning and putting on a ballerina costume,
and trying really hard to be sweet
even after you’ve screamed, “Get the fuck out of the bathroom, kid,”
before the sun has come up.