Then And Now: Matthew Rohrer


The violin the in the pawnshop says,
I will never laugh if the gun tells a joke.

The statue of the maid with her vast bent back:
you hang wreaths on her in spring.

A child who is stung by twelve wasps
will have a better understanding of time

and a child who speaks kindly to an iridescent hornet
which stings him by the lake says,
Now I have a better understanding of time.

The old stone tower that rises above the red-tiled roofs
is disappointed to discover that the sky it has admired all along
is colored by the lights in the parking lot.

The dark slits in the side of the tower are there
to remind you of history.

The river stumbles out of the forest and moves through the city
with its eyes closed.

You think the grass would taste sweet,
that a fox is humming while it inches through the shade.

The truth is, the dirt is spotless,
the river has a migraine,
the waiters are ashamed to serve anyone.

The truth is, when youíre alone your bed is smaller,
and you are a bird with a sense of tragedy,
a bird in a room with a fever.



bucolic postcard
reaches out to strangers
marvelous to number
a soft air that falls across
mirth & dread is
darkness, is my mistress
I feel lighter, I am going on her trip
I rise, rise through
the eternal day
but she cannot hear me, she does not live
solely in my mind
when the sky seems holy
lead me out of my own heart
but lock her heart
quiet birches rise up

-from RISE UP © 2007

Typing up the old poem I found myself unconsciously making little corrections, and then having to change them back to be like the original, so I think thatís a good place to start talking about how things have changed. The first thing is, I wouldnít use punctuation like that now. Iíve got nothing against punctuation, I just have been trying to find ways not to use it when it isnít necessary. Iím also more interested now in ways that lines can point both forward and backward a little. Nothing crazy, like the meaning canít be gotten if you donít read both forward and backward -- but I like that suspension of judgment that you can get reading a poem with no punctuation and lines that are short and insufficient unto themselves. An example is the lines

but she cannot hear me, she does not live
solely in my mind
when the sky seems holy
lead me out of my own heart

Line 1 moves pretty clearly into line 2. Line 3 could easily be a continuation of Line 2 Ė ďsolely in my mind when the sky seems holyĒ. Could be. But then Line 4 is only one word, and it seems to modify Line 3. Which probably means now weíre talking about a new phrase, which begins with Line 3. And so then by Line 5 the reader realizes that yes, this is the end of a phrase that begins with Line 3. Thereís nothing complicated about that, and thereís really only the opportunity for one brief pause to wonder if Line 3 is the end or beginning of a phrase Ė a very brief pause. But for that small time, the mind is floating around waiting for certitude, waiting to lock into the meaning and move on. And I really like the feeling of floating over the poem like that. I donít even do it as well as others -- Iím thinking about Eileen Myles, I think I learned a lot from reading her poems, in terms of how lines can work without punctuation. It feels like reading not just the words of the poem but the possibilities of the poem too.

Another obvious difference is the personification that happens in the first poem. Back then, I was quite adamant about the power of personification. I wasnít even adamant, it was so self-evident to me that if I met someone who disagreed, I didnít even bother trying to change their mind, like you wouldnít if you met someone who said that you canít get sugar from beets. It just seemed like everything else: it could be done well or not. Like country music. But now that is almost all gone. If I do it now it is like in the last poem of the first section of RISE UP, where I say ďthe room is gently lit by the green shirt you gave meĒ Ė so the shirt is more than a shirt, but it isnít staring heart-broken into the reservoir.

When I look at the poems in A HUMMOCK IN THE MALOOKAS I see how many of the poems donít have an ďIĒ speaking them. I guess Iím a little bit happy about that. But now Iím more interested in an almost spoken sense of the line, and the kind of shimmery way that lines can point both forward and backwards, as I said, and that just seems to be easier in an ďIĒ voiced poem. Also, I do think, as impotent as poetry is in terms of political speech, that it is good for you to write something in a coherent voice saying something coherent about the terrible reality of living in a complicit way with a greedy and immoral empire. I think it certainly isnít bad for you to do that once in awhile.

I was going to say next that the title of THE WORLD JUST BEFORE THE AT EASE was longer and wordier than I would use now. But even though most of my titles are much simpler now, thatís not really true Ė I still like a long pretty ridiculous title now and then. RISE UP has both IN A BOWER OF ROEMARY and THE DARKNESS NEEDS A LITTLE SHOVE in it. So then I realized that the difference isnít really the length but itís in how involved the title is in the working of the poem. THE WORLD JUST BEFORE THE AT EASE does a little work for the poem Ė it sets it up, at least. It creates an a priori (and I donít even think I know really what a priori means) situation or back story out of which the poem emerges. I think whatís happened is that the poems in my first book were more likely to be ďaboutĒ something Ė I was more likely to have written a poem then that really made a point, and so I wanted to be sure it got across. Now Iím much less sure what my poems mean, and in fact have had the experience a few times recently reading aloud at a reading somewhere and having it essentially dawn on me what Iím saying as Iím reading it. Which is a little uncomfortable, having something get through to me only then, well after the book is out.