February 2, 2014

Searching for Permanence: A Review of Jacar Press's What Matters by Marc Sheehan

cover credit: Jacar Press
What Matters
Jacar Press, 2013

Reviewed by Marc Sheehan

Jacar Press set out to bring together poets to speak about topics core to their being—a truly admirable task. Because if poets can’t address what matters, why spend the time forging one hundred well-crafted poems?
It’s a high bar to set, and What Matters largely succeeds in clearing that bar. 

Almost all of the writers, according to their bios, have some connection to the South, and particularly to North Carolina, Jacar Press’s home state. Despite that, What Matters does not, for the most part, read as a collection of southern poems. However, some of its best poems deal with race, an issue by no means exclusively southern but one that is inescapably associated with the notion of “southerness.”
For example, in her very fine poem about the legacy of Emmett Till, “Perpetua Holdings Inc.,” Rebecca Black writes:

                        I wanted to stop writing about the South,
                        but then the mother possum and her babies skittered
                        out of the casket lined with shredded satin, its glass lid heavy

                        and still unbroken—Emmett’s first casket left rotting
                        in a shed by some gravediggers and their office manager
                        who’d pocketed the funds donated for its preservation.

Black’s poem is followed by Michael White’s “Coup.” Set in Wilmington, N.C., the poem continues Black’s exploration of how the present is haunted by the past. A walk along the banks of Cape Fear becomes a meditation on the racially-charged Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.  The poem ends:

                        One of the last men killed that night was killed
                        right here, on Water Street. Two white men claimed
                        an unnamed black had “sassed” them. Therefore they shot him;

                        therefore they “toss his body off the dock,”
                        where fathers & daughters ramble, & lovers talk,
                        & everyone loves to go for an evening walk.

In this same vein is Joe Mills’s slyly effective “My Daughter Continues to be Annoyed by George Washington,” in which the poet offers to keep his daughter’s allowance so she won’t be sullied by money bearing the slave-owning president’s portrait. “I saw the struggle, the realization / that this wasn’t how it should be, how it is,” Mills writes. 
In addition to strong poems about race, there are wonderful odes to place, family members, life-partners, and nature, among other objects of desire. However, a couple of the finest pieces are characterized less by their subject matter than the sheer joy of language they employ. Tony Morris’s “Night Time Closes In” is one long sentence in praise of—among other things—automotive repair. It begins:

                        Kenny popped his head above the hood and yelled
                        over the roar to shut the engine down
                        because the timing wasn’t right and as the night
                        pressed in we know we’d need to cap the headers
                        with a muffler or the cops would soon be called
                        and nothing killed a buzz like quitting on a rebuild

What matters here, more than anything else, is language that rushes along more powerfully than “…a 327 cubic inch, bored 30 over, high- / torque cam lobe, [with] Headman Hedders…” 
Equally compelling is Al Maginnes’s “Love Song for Electricity,” which has the wonderfully Baby-Boomerish lines:

                        For the kool aid, the strobe, the nightmare wash
                                    of black light, for the tape and the tape loop,
                        for the recordings and the gaps in recordings,
                                    how different would this present be without you?

More than others in this collection, these two poems manage not just to reflect and meditate upon what matters, but also to embody and luxuriate in it. As Archibald MacLeish so famously wrote, “A poem should not mean / But be.” There’s no denying these poems’ striving to mean. If anything, it’s their being, their existence on the page, that is not fully realized. Although this is a good anthology, a few different editorial decisions could have made it even better.

Holding the anthology back is a lack of context. Although I admire gathering poems about essential things, What Matters comes across as overly broad. Poems are often grouped thematically, and it would have been better for this to be more overt—for the groups to be in discreet sections focusing on themes of family, place, etc. In addition, incorporating white space to create breathing room between the sections would have given readers a moment to re-group and re-focus.

Also, though lengthy introductions and forewords are usually unnecessary, here the single-page editorial text could definitely have been longer to single out some of the themes and perhaps individual poems. Although a poem has to stand (or fall) on its own, some editorial insights would have helped the book’s cohesion. Additionally, it is unclear whether the editors took regional affiliation into consideration when making their selections because a few international poets are represented, which drives home the fact that meaning exists within different cultural contexts. Knowing more about the editorial process and expectations would have helped make those contexts clearer.

Overall, What Matters is an ambitious collection of poems whose goal could have been even more fully realized. But whatever its shortfalls, the anthology brings together both accomplished and emerging poets to remind us that words do matter, that they point to things and events beyond themselves, and are not an end unto themselves.

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