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Zapruder's Latest Lacks Ambition

The award-winning poet and translator hedges his bets in his third collection, "Come On All You Ghosts"

'Come On All You Ghosts' by Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon Press) is available in bookstores now.
'Come On All You Ghosts' by Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon Press) is available in bookstores now.
By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

Discourse on contemporary poetry tends to revolve around the question of crisis; not as to whether there is a crisis, but rather what form the current crisis takes. Perhaps more so than any other popular form of art in America today, poetry has been dominated by the academic impulse. From within the ranks of the poets themselves, the specter of the canon—both national and abroad—rears the possibility that influence will overcome innovation. From without, the multiplicity of theoretical criticism around that very canon leaves the young poet with little recourse but, on one hand, acquiescence, and on the other, the quixotic search for a poetics ‘outside theory.’ Thus the crisis: how to produce original poetry that resists the outermost reaches of the obscure?

In his third collection, Matthew Zapruder prepares his response. “Come On All You Ghosts” is an effort of self-consciously modest proportions; a quiet gesture with grand aspirations, whose aim is the synthesis of a poetic voice that moderates, subtly and lucidly, the encroachment of theory and tradition both. On its surface, the collection examines the host of interlocking themes that have become boilerplate for modern poetic composition—war, nature, technology, memory, identity, alienation—through a restrained, montage-eye, free-verse lyric strategy popularized as early as the emergence of Confessional poetry. The fulfillment of such a tall order is ostensibly Zapruder’s appeal; the poems within “Come On All You Ghosts” deftly place their quotidian subject matters—watching television, witnessing the death of an insect, waiting at the airport—on a revelatory plane, alongside the ineffable power of love and the anxiety of death’s certainty. As if on pinpricks, his imagery turns precisely and delicately between the mind and the world; between the past and the present; between the everyday and the sublime. Here, it seems, a technologically inclined, pop-culture bombarded, and (importantly) nostalgic generation has found a voice of sorts.

The question of whether this project is an ambitious or complacent one, however, deserves attention. However deft, the lion’s share of the 55 poems in “Come On All You Ghosts” betray the traces of an almost cynical satisfaction with the poet’s ability to draw the seemingly dizzying array of themes together into brief, tightly-coiled, elliptical pieces. What is absent, however—palpably so—is a drive for any considerable formal or intellectual engagement with the most recent movements in American poetry. The result is a collection of predominantly uninspired competence, with only periodic flashes of the sort of foraging aesthetic abandon that typically characterizes the work of (relatively) young poet or, alternatively, a great poet of any age. However pleasant in passing, much of the material in “Come On All You Ghosts” is superfluous at best and reactionary at worst.

The opening poems, comprising the first of four sections, are structured loosely around the event—explicitly or implicitly—of the death of Zapruder’s father. Suffice it to say that these are the worst of the collection, treating what could be fertile thematic ground with a tourist’s eye for existentialism. Wind blows. Moments pass or do not pass. The reader waits silently for something of interest.

The collection’s saving grace is its second section, whose standout pieces hint at the sort of bristling, un-neat chaos that might just indicate a heartbeat at the center of all this cold order. The poet eschews the clever interplay of concept and execution, of poetry that half-ironically reads itself, in favor of what can only be called the kinetic abandon of the spirit. “…Between you and me the buildings / also have a space for the sparrow named never who does not sing / yes the cities die when you leave them, yes no one cares what you do,” he almost seems to cry in “You Have Astounding Cosmic News,” in a voice whose mode bounds from playful to sinister to outright desperate. Elsewhere, in “Work,” emerges a mild interest in absurd imagery whose confounding humor is nonetheless arresting: “…I only feel / free when I am working, that is writing / this book about a pair of zombie detectives / who painstakingly follow clues they think / are hidden in an authentic tuscan cookbook.” The reader gleans a jab at the ceaseless call to interpret poetry itself, but the joke dissolves in the sheer incredulity of his frankness.

The image of Zapruder as a complete poet, however, diminishes somewhat as it appears. The restlessness of the second section gives way to a third that sees fit to reestablish the emotional tone of the first, albeit through a broader and more mature perspective. Here his visions are half-realized, happy to abbreviate their power in the interest of self-explication. “The Painted Desert” typifies this impulse; already a sort of tepid confession to a lover, the poem’s final lines nevertheless blush—for an instant—with promise: “Goodbye, someday / I’ll invent the magic lantern, then music, / then whatever’s the opposite of the need / to control everything so it can be perfect for you.” To balk at such a bare expression of love would seem cruel if that expression weren’t so trite.

The title poem constitutes the whole of the final section. Once again, Zapruder’s courage abandons him in favor of a merely appropriate commitment to emotional gesture. The poem begins confidently enough, with an image whose stirring presence returns periodically: “I heard a little cough / in the room, and turned / but no one was there // except the flowers / Sarah bought me / and my death’s head // glow in the dark key chain / that lights up and moans…” The death’s head, in its simplicity, never becomes more than a vacant symbol. The poem plods on from here, a procession of sorry aphorisms—“Please don’t feel the least bit sorry / for me or yourself, // everyone you have ever seen / has a death father, / some are just walking around alive…”—among which stands a particularly egregious invocation of the late David Foster Wallace. Some ghosts are best left undisturbed.

That “Come On All You Ghosts” succeeds in approximating the voice of its intended audience—the educated, morally-engaged, liberal (a handful of the poems have a political bent hardly worth mentioning)—and fails as a work of sufficient challenge or beauty shouldn’t come as any real surprise. Whether from the standpoint honest belief or a calculated posture—Zapruder’s could be either—the self-conscious address of poetry’s ‘crisis’ is, in itself, a fool’s errand. Those poets who come upon its solution—the great poets, the poets for whom the given paradigm of crisis shifts at their whim—do so by seeing through its artifice. Poetry is poetry. There is no crisis.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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