July 20, 2011

Review by Bill Neumire

COME ON ALL YOU GHOSTS
by Matthew Zapruder

Copper Canyon Press
PO Box 271
Port Townsend WA 98368
IBSN 978-1-55659-322-2
2010, 96 pp., $16.00
www.coppercanyonpress.org

Matthew Zapruder’s third poetry collection, Come On All You Ghosts, recently available from Copper Canyon Press, has the same non-sequitir, dreamlike charm as American Linden (Tupelo Press, 2002) and The Pajamaist (Copper Canyon, 2006). As the philosophers would put it, these poems are constantly negotiating the question of other people, an issue that burgeoned in his debut and has been a motif ever since. In “The Pajamaist,” a poem that Zapruder claims came directly from a dream, the poet presented the sci-fi possibility of a discovery that would enable human beings to take on each other’s suffering. Now, in Come On All You Ghosts, the poet continues that thread and adds to it questions of the difficulty of understanding or reaching each other at all, especially in conveying accurate meaning from author to reader. As a matter of fact, the majority of poems in this collection contain the word “you” and some direct reference to the reader. The closing of “Schwinn” encapsulates this predicament:

                                                                                                     I will
                               never know a single thing anyone feels,
just how they say it, which is why I am standing
here exactly, covered in shame and lightning,
doing what I’m supposed to do.

How does Zapruder attempt to solve the problem of reaching others that he sets forth so painstakingly? Well, for starters, he reveals his own doubts and perceptions through an interior monologue that makes astounding associative leaps. While idiosyncratic and scattershot, the tone and handling of these discursive and excursive thoughts makes them gradually feel universal. Much of this book is homage to deceased poets and writers such as Grace Paley, Robert Creeley, David Foster Wallace, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Koch. The book also makes regular reference to the speaker’s own deceased father. Through an effort toward a common pathos and ethos, a bridge can begin. After all, who hasn’t experienced the death of someone meaningful? And isn’t this the time when we are most forced to consider how difficult it can be to reach the ones we think we care so much about? Zapruder has said of his poetry, “I need my poems to be intimately connected with the everyday lives of other human beings.” This is exactly what the reader gets in this collection.

Stylistically, these poems often employ a New York Schoolish habit of journaling the day. They feel very non-sequitir and absurd at times, but tonally they blend mellifluously. In this, Zapruder’s voice has remained constant over his first three books. Additionally, his use of linebreaks to torque and complicate meaning is astounding. These poems move from childhood memories to encyclopedic factoids, to philosophical questions of whether or not we can ever know each other, to resonant assertions. Look, for instance, at these opening lines of “Schwinn”:

                               I hate the phrase ‘inner life.’ My attic hurts,
                               and I’d like to quit the committee
for naming tornadoes. Do you remember
how easy it was to be young
and defined by our bicycles?

The desultoriness, though, works in the way dreams work, and the unstoppable interior monologue creates a spinning merry-go-round you’re trying to keep hold of as you read. A morality emerges in the background of all this, a morality centered on being useful and thinking beyond oneself. This is sublimely evident in lines such as, “I hardly / think of anyone but myself” (“Paper Toys of the World”) or “All I know is I have tried / for a long time to be useful” (“Poem for Ferlinghetti”). Earlier in the book, the speaker declares:

                               I want to stop pretending.
I don’t feel like I’m pretending,

                               But I want to be free
Of this important feeling.

(“Burma”)

Zapruder has also compared his poems to conversations, contrasting them with lectures. This essayistic statement is reflected in the poems of this volume. Look at the way this excerpt from “Poem for Ferlinghetti” operates like a conversation:

                               Now it is later,
                               much, the absolute
worst pure center
of night, for an hour
in bed I resisted coming
here to my desk
to search for those terrible
destructive questions still
hiding from me.
                               Do you do that? Or
                               is there some other way?

The book ends with the longer (13 pages) title poem, “Come On All You Ghosts.” This poem acts in some ways like an envoi, bringing together all of the issues confronted by the text. It begins by addressing the reader, but it ends by directly addressing the many ghosts (of which memory itself is one) present throughout:

                               but ghosts if I must join you
                               you and I know
                               I have done my best to leave

                               behind this machine
anyone with a mind
who cares can enter.

Zapruder’s latest work is an extension of the conversation he’s been having with himself, memory, readers, and even with the dead ever since his debut. It is confident, smart, and hospitable, which is precisely what a poetry collection should be.

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Bill Neumire’s reviews have appeared in the Cortland Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Sugar House Review, The Toucan, and Cloudbank. He writes and teaches in Syracuse, New York with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at: wjneumire@msn.com.