It’s not often that poets make the news, so when Ted Mathys read “Artifact Hotel,” a poem from his latest collection, Null Set, on PBS Newshour, I noticed. The occasion was none other than a report on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Minneapolis this past spring.
While re-watching Mathys’s reading, I found myself wondering, What is it about this poet’s work, and Null Set in particular, that propelled Mathys onto PBS Newshour? Does this mean Mathys is mainstream? And how does this poet, wittingly or not, popularize our cause—poetry?
In broad terms, Mathys is a poet who has the potential to reach a broad audience in that we can readily identify with his themes, which abound in this book. Like PBS programming, in which offerings from Angelina Ballerina to Downton Abbey speak to the many, Null Set’s themes resonate through every generation. And, as with the PBS roster of programs, Mathys’s current collection is often thought provoking. Operating on several different levels, these poems, with careful reading, are educational, if not because of what we learn per se, then because of the way they make us think.
In fact, appealing to the life of the (reader’s) mind is one of this poet’s strengths. A few examples: Mathys constructs some of his poems around mathematical concepts. He often experiments with language. His work is philosophical. And there is at least one poem—“The Principle of Least Animosity”—in which Mathys alludes to environmental policy, his first profession and a topic currently contested in the public sphere.
“Polyhedral” is an apt example of Mathys’s approach to the form. In this poem, we see a preschooler come to an understanding of the world through the ritual of shape-sorting. Anyone who has ever rooted for a child engaged in trying to fit a circle into a square—anyone who has revisited the intensity of this stage in the mind’s development—will feel the pull of this poem. We hear the voice of an adult, perhaps a father, who pushes both physical and metaphysical borders:
I want to slide it clean
through “a hawk
against unadulterated sky
scanning for a kill”
but it doesn’t fit. Perched
there on the angled branch,
a formal sound silent
beyond glass, body bound
by faces, volumes enclosed.
In this set of stanzas, the soaring grandeur of the hawk becomes a metaphor for our human limitations: our evolutionary success as shape-sorters is nothing compared to the bird’s ability to fly. This capacity for flight is clear and exhilarating, but it is not something we can grasp, existing as it does beyond the precinct of the shape-sorting box. The poem shows us that we are stifled by boundaries. Unlike the hawk, we cannot go “beyond glass,” and our very faces, which ordinarily open us up to the world, are characterized as self-limiting: “…body bound/by faces, volumes enclosed.” The poem, which emerges from quotidian scenes, plays with our sense of life, of how we discern between knowledge and the relationship of that knowledge to everything around us.
In this book, Mathys is both down-to-earth and lofty. Ordinary references to a T-shirt, the kitchen table, and baseball appear in poems that also operate on a higher level, creating structure from the minutia of the everyday. The poems dance on point-counterpoint, finding energy in oppositions. Listen to “The Exactness,” the book’s opening poem:
Nothing says animal soul like the antimicrobial
proteins in tears. Nothing says regret like a pool
drained, her hushed laughter gliding its lip,
says purification like riding through the fire pit
on a horse doused with water in San Bartolome.
Mathys teases us with the internal contradiction of these lines. Repeatedly, we are warned that “Nothing says”—and then the poem does “say.”
The poem “Vikings Did Not Have Horns on Their Helmets” is structured in a similar way. It pours out three pages of repudiated misconceptions, urban myths, and logical absurdities: “…Men do not think of sex /every seven seconds. Fingernails do not/continue to grow after death…,” the lines read. This poem, like the piece “Palinode” (named after the process by which a poet renounces something he said in another poem), adopts the scientific method, with its penchant for ruling things out. But just as we become convinced of everything that is not, Mathys tells us that the experiment at hand has failed. He ends the poem with a statistical near-impossibility that is poignant and emotionally true: “Lightning can strike the same place twice,” he says, and then, “Lightning can strike the same place twice.”
Recalling the way “Polyhedron” plays with shape and poetic structure is the book’s last poem, “All.” Here, twenty-three sections of wordplay are configured into squares and separated page by page. The poem’s final section, on which the book ends, consists of the outline of a square—and no words. An aesthetic example of the null set, this illustrates brilliantly the book’s title. It is a counterbalance to the poem’s previous, densely packed sections, in which the poet also deploys the language of algebra, the beauty of geometry.
Algebra and geometry: Mathys touches us by triggering our intellectual memories, reminding us of what we dutifully learned long ago, in school.
It’s deceptively cerebral, Mathys’s way of moving us. While reading “All,” I recalled teaching myself algebra, suddenly finding myself beaming with pride at certain slivers of remembered knowledge: that “of” in a word problem tells us to multiply, just as it indicates a part of a greater whole. In fact, each of the twenty-three component poems in “All” begins with Of, and each one represents a multiplicity of things, including the relationship between its own particularity and the rest of the world.
As winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2013 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, among other accolades, Mathys is already an accomplished author. But, as we know, “accomplished” does not always equal “mainstream.” So what do we make of the Public Broadcasting Service’s—and the public’s—attraction to Mathys?
The poems in Null Set are both erudite and accessible. If this comprises poetry mainstream enough for television, then bring it on, I say. Mathys is a muscular poet forging a personal trail through American poetry; I look forward to traveling with him along the way.