The decidedly American, Whitmanic grain

A review of Matthew Henriksen's 'Ordinary Sun'

Ordinary Sun

Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean 2011, 120 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9844752-2-3

To address Matt Henriksen’s poetry, we start with a passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

… from the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.

I cannot think of a better definition of poetry’s visionary impulse. The poet employs his or her senses in the service of a perception that is not of the order of this world. It is a mode of perception that points to another world right here in our everyday homelessness. The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.

Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain. His first book, Ordinary Sun, is a record of his process of discovery and invention as he has harnessed various strains of the American Visionary. Throughout the book we find Blakean prophecy as filtered through the Beats’ rebellion against the limits of stifled selfhood; we find James Wright’s pessimism bound in pastoral; we find a Stevensian beatitude; we find Romantic Brooklyn (R.I.P.); we find the haunting Southern convulsions of Frank Stanford; and we find the transcendentally homespun observations of the Williams lineage. 

This list of Henriksen’s influences, though incomplete, should indicate the calico quality of Ordinary Sun. Its varied inspirations are never far from the textual surface, while prosodically the poetry bounces between the baroque and the plainspoken. In terms of tone, it is a book of extremes. Take for instance its opening stanza, from the quietly powerful patchwork, “Copse”: 

An eye is not enough.
A hand rubs an unpainted fence. 

Compare this to the book’s final poem, “Ordinary Sun,” a simultaneously propulsive and idling text that at its opening declares:

The Center that Pretends to Start the Engine
Ignores the Regime of Endless Centerlessness.

The contrast between beginning and end should be telling. In “Copse” the straightforward statement that “an eye is not enough,” suggesting an uncanniness of the body (of being homeless in one’s body), gives way to a subtle, visionary treatment of bodies moving through domestic space. In “Ordinary Sun” the center continually gives out as the poem thrashes through various registers, from the bombastically surreal to the plainspoken. The book ends where it begins: with a disarmingly straightforward couplet, suggesting this time a literal homelessness: 

When she came to the curb
I held out my paper cup. 

Between beginning and end is a dappled collection of poetry that stems from a deep engagement with the doubled, dual perception of the sort Whitman espouses in his Preface. If the couplet is the stanzaic form that best conveys both duality and the turning of thought, it is no surprise then that it is the most commonly employed form in the book. Henriksen is a strong turner. Viz:

We’ll miss the world bitterly.
We’ll go on without it.

(“Ordinary Sun”)

Light from the garage: hands from the tree.
Memories stopped making sense.

            (“Gorge”) 

Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.

            (“Gorge”) 

At such moments Henriksen touches a sort of Stevensian grace. In fact, the Stevensian Moment — when the turning of thought is seduced by a hypnotic prosody — peppers the poems throughout Ordinary Sun. It can be heard in phrases like “all edges edging,” or “cloudless marrow burning stones,” or “Birds beyond the window cried the glass.” At other moments — no less charged with Vision — the rhythms are softer, the images homelier: “A bucket in the garage burned.”

What is interesting about Henriksen’s disparate influences, prosodies, and attentions are the tensions that arise between them. One could dismiss this mottledness as an indication that Henriksen has not absorbed his influences, though the presence of so many lineages converging in his poetry is one thing that makes it unique. It is refreshing to read a contemporary book of poetry that is diverse in its attentions without boasting its diversity. This evidences Matt’s fidelity to poetic process, which is finally a fidelity to poetry. But to place process over product — especially when the poet is not working in fixed forms — will lead to varied results. And the results are varied in Ordinary Sun. Take for instance these four lines from “Carolla in the Midden”:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. 

The first turn — “In refuse we find a hidden refusal / to die” — embodies a negative truth on level with Williams. It offers a clean angle on the connection between garbage and death that, though abstract, is married to sense. But “a shape // that never forms” is overly abstract, and “a blinking eye / that will not shut” is easy surrealism. These second and third turns are both abstractions severed from perception — they veer into a realm of entropic symbolism. The impulse here is visionary, but in moments like these Henriksen loses his vision.

While I feel that in these lines Henriksen is attempting to stretch the poetry beyond its impulse, they do stand as further evidence of his motley poetics, combining as he does so many seemingly contradictory influences. One of Jack Spicer’s many characterizations of the act of poetic creation was of the poet wrestling with the limits of the poem. Here Matt is wrestling with the possibilities inherent in past poetic traditions by reconfiguring them in new ways, as he does throughout the book. It just doesn’t always work.

When Henriksen’s attentions follow objects perceived, employing a visionary perception rooted in the senses, the poetry is strongest:

We set our bodies on the grass.
Stones held our breath. 

            (“Copse”) 

The plainspoken tone here conveys a densely charged moment. The scene described could be one of astral birth, just as much as bodily death. There are dual undertones of the terror of disembodiment and of creature comfort. It is a true marriage of the quotidian and the visionary, the Of This World and the Of Another World, the core dualities of Henriksen’s purview.

While moments of Ordinary Sun seem oddly abandoned, I find a poetry that makes visible its lacunae — or its scars — much more engaging than another well-wrought urn. Maybe Henriksen knows when the spirit of the work has left him, when the corpse of the words on the page is all that’s left. Rather than cut open the corpse and attempt to Frankenstein a new poem, he lets us readers do what we will with what he has.

Of course I am hypothesizing here, projecting a philosophy of poetic composition onto Henriksen’s practice based entirely on my own bias. Maybe “a blinking eye / that will not shut” will be the one relic from this book to survive a millennium from now, after several apocalypses have occurred and only shreds of shreds of our era remain. If so, so be it.

But here is the point: Ordinary Sun offers a variety of visionary embraces of ordinary life, and in much of its prosody is an acute awareness of the ways inspiration momentarily inhabits and slips away from us. Poetry does not care whether the poet is able to finish the poem. Matt Henriksen not only knows this, he has reckoned — and wrestled — with it within the space of poetry itself.