Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Matrix by Matt Bialer


MATRIX, Matt Bialer. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 60 pages, $18 paperback,


Matt Bialer’s Matrix is a book-length poem. The table of contents provides four sections of three listings each with titles such as “On the Friday night before my 60th birthday,” “The monster of grief,” and “Jiminy Cricket taught me about sex.” These entries function merely as place markers, given the unfortunate circumstance of the reader not having time to finish in one sitting, this well-crafted, poignant, yet celebratory poem that mourns loss and rediscovers love. In crisp short lines with spot-on images drawn from popular culture, science, literary history— you name it (New Coke, an 82-million-year-old Mosasaurus tooth, Shakespeare)—Bialer brings to a casual table setting, a fine meal that can be appreciated by those who devour everything from formal poetry to prose poetry, word performance and blurred genres, to readers who avoid poetry altogether for fear of not understanding the genre.

            And as in fine dining, presentation is as important as substance. Bialer has created a nonce-form structure that supports the enjoyment of Matrix’s themes. Everything matters to Bialer in his choices of form, from the short lines, lacking the interruption of traditional punctuation, yet double-spaced, leaving even more white space than is customary in a poem, both slowing down its reading and moving it forward, enacting content with its structure with lines such as “We are both forward / And backward in time” and “I’ve reluctantly / Continued my journey / Leaving you behind. // Behind.” 

This repetition of the final word “Behind” is a device that Bialer uses to season his sauce. In the hands of a less experienced person in life or in writing, this repetition could be overdone. In Matrix, it is not—providing just the right pace to easily digest what is explicit in the text and ruminate on what is implicit in the white space between. Slow down and take notice, the white space and repetition are saying—take notice of the brevity of life, the impossibility of foreseeing love, the importance of navigating the present. The journey through Matrix is emblematic of the poet’s journey of losing a partner to cancer, and then seeing the resulting grief flooded with the exhilaration of a new love, sharpening vision to see connections between narratives and images otherwise overlooked. 

                                                  But I am excited 

                                                   For the future plans

                                                  And excited about

                                                  The here and now

                                                  Of being with Mary

Time does not exist in Matrix, at least not in the chronological way it does in Newtonian physics—more as in the quantum wave that can go backwards in time to change into particles depending on the observer and whether that observer has knowledge of Jurassic World, has experienced New Coke, the death of a life-long lover, or finding love again. Time is treated in a way similar to the way Larry Levis treats it in his quintessential poem “The Spell of the Leaves” with the woman whose “…husband left her suddenly” who would “…climb in… / on the wrong side of the car, / And sit quite still, an unlit cigarette in her hand, / And wait for him to come out and drive her / To work as always. The first two times it happened / She was frightened, … because waiting for him, / Something went wrong with time. Later, she couldn’t / Say whether an hour or only a few minutes / Had passed before she realized she didn’t / Have a husband.” 

                                                I wonder

                                                How it is possible

                                                For something

                                                To survive

                                                Tens of millions

                                                Of years?


                                                How is it possible?


                                                It’s like

                                                A footprint across time


                                                A footprint across time


                                    I remember

                                    How after you died

                                    I felt like

                                    I was now extinct


                                    You certainly were


                                    With friends

                                    And your cousin

                                    We sorted through

                                    Your clothing

                                    And brought 40 large black bags                      

                                    Of your clothing

                                    To Housing Works

                                    In our neighborhood

                                    In Brooklyn


                                    Black for death

            Megan Fernandes, in an interview with The Rumpus, responds to a question about narrative in poetry. “There are many ways to think about narrative and for me, I like a narrative poem that resists chronology. I like scenes that are nonsensical and outside of time.” And later in the same paragraph: “These are narrative clips, sure, except they are not held together by any kind of chronological logic, but more by this kind of “poetic leaping.” Chronological narrative, in Bialer’s lines, “doesn’t exist anymore.” It is “…both forward / And backward in time.” This revised prosody of narrative places Bialer in dialogue with a new poetics, one in which, in the words of Fernandes, “story worlds are abandoned by context.” Bialer’s “story worlds” are not without context, they are recontextualized by appearing multiple times, each time following or preceding new material that informs and is informed by the previous narrative.             

Borrowing from a villanelle’s or pantoum’s repetition of lines to place them in a different context, being both the same and not the same at the same time, early on, Bialer begins a cycle of repetition of large segments of the poem. Among others, the following passage appears multiple times:


When I was a kid

Dinosaurs were reptiles

The word itself meant

“Terrible Lizard”

I had a favorite

Named Brontosaurus

That doesn’t exist anymore

Doesn’t exist

It got renamed

Or was actually

Two different dinosaurs

That were no longer lizards

But birds


Like New Coke


I used to play  

With toy T-Rexes

And Brontosauruses


And Pluto

Is not a planet anymore


The first time we read this passage is on page six after a description of the Mosasaurus—a sea creature like a dinosaur, but technically not one, capable of swallowing a great white shark in one gulp. The second time, the passage appears after an explanation of the habitat of

Mosasaurus. Between that description and the one on page eighteen, we have this passage:


                                    I remember

                                    How after you died

                                    I felt like

                                    I was now extinct


                                    You certainly were


                                    With friends

                                    And your cousin

                                    We sorted through

                                    Your clothing

                                    And brought 40 large black bags

                                    …Black for death.

And then immediately following this third instance of the “When I was a kid” passage, we have


                                                So I’m resting up

                                                Because turning 60

                                                Makes me feel

                                                Like a dinosaur


            This repetition invokes music—both the repetition of symphonic themes with variations and the hook or chorus of popular music that is remembered long after the title or artist is forgotten. In addition, Bialer brilliantly creates in Matrix a form that works both horizontally and vertically to enact the dislocation of a 60-year-old life having love ripped away and then unexpectedly returned and of simultaneously living forwards and backwards in time. Notice that line margins are slightly offset every other page, images and words appearing in each of two slightly misaligned columns as one turns each page.

The poem ends with a final celebration of the poet’s 60th birthday on Zoom—the go-to, post-pandemic platform that has brought the world together even closer than social media. Bialer’s lines are filled with sentiment, walking up to the precipice of sentimentality, hanging their toes over the edge, but never falling into the abyss—that imbalance of emotion in relation to the emotional connection they have previously built as a safety net. The passage begins:


                                                  Takes a turn

                                                  With a memory

                                                  About me


                                                  Some of it embarrassing…


After stories about writing letters from camp and collecting Band-Aids, various family members and friends speaking words of love, the poet resumes:


                                    I think of

                                    The old game show

                                    Hollywood Squares

                                    With celebrity contestants

                                    Each in their own square

                                    Like an onstage Zoom meeting


                                    Paul Lynde

                                    Phyllis Diller                

                                    Vincent  Price

                                    Joan Rivers

                                    Zsa Zsa Gabor

                                    Charles Nelson Reilly


                                    And Benjamin

                                    The Brontosaurus


                                    All extinct



                                                Like New Coke


                                                I look at

                                                All of us

                                                On Zoom…

And then the poet closes with:

                                    And for

                                    A moment

                                    We all freeze


                                    We’re all 

                                    In Bullet Time

                                    Or Frozen Moment

                                    Dead Time

                                    Flow Motion

                                    Time Slice


                                    We all freeze


                                    We’re all

                                    In Bullet Time

With straightforward, easy to parse diction, Matrix is deceptively simple, and yet capacious with fresh,

vivid concrete imagery, unfolding a clear, compelling narrative arc that allows for mystery—all 

undergirded with a strong, unique structure that enacts timeless themes of love, loss, and life—quite 

rare in these times of poems that often are devoid of emotion and in service of a pre-determined 

message. In Matrix, readers and writers alike may find or re-discover their inspiration for all that life 

and writing can bring.


MATT BIALER is the author of dozens of poetry books, including VIEW-MASTER LAND (Finishing Line Press, 2023), MAZE (Finishing Line Press, 2021) and ALWAYS SAY GOODNIGHT (KYSO Flash, 2020). His poems have also appeared in many print and online journals, including Retort, Le Zaporogue, Green Mountains Review, Gobbet, Forklift Ohio and H_NGM_N. In addition, Matt is an acclaimed black-and-white street photographer who has exhibited his work widely. Some of his images are in the permanent collections of The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of the City of New York and The New York Public Library. He is also an accomplished watercolor landscape painter with works in many private collections.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Tools & Ornaments by Tracy Rice Weber

TOOLS & ORNAMENTS, Tracy Rice Weber. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 56 pages, $18.00 paperback, 

It is rare in the 21st century to find poems that are as emblematic of WCW’s maxim, “No ideas but in things” as are Tracy Rice Weber’s in her recently released collection, Tools & Ornaments (Saint Julian Press, 2023). Even the title foreshadows the strong, concrete images to follow: “level,” “coping saw,” claw hammer,” “…a chain / link fence, the slender mimosa…,” “crayon-blue mountains,” “loblollies,” a “Radio Flyer.” These “things” are only a sample of those that populate the collection’s first three poems. But Rice Weber’s poems are not mere lists. As in Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” her title, “tools and ornaments” provides a figure to a narrative that is infused with ideas, emotions, and abstractions that are not only grounded in the things of this world, but proceed from them, rather than simply appearing alongside. In addition, the structure of this collection is a one heroic crown of sonnets (15 interlocking sonnets) that has been divided up to open each section. The subject of this sequence is of a father with mental illness—bipolar disorder, most likely. His daughter celebrates his bright days and mourns his dark ones. She also refers to his troubled childhood and what may have been the trigger for his mental illness. A cento alludes to his suicide:


            Between the green tip and the root

            Any point of a circle is its start:

            Trying to find its way

                        by a current I could not name or change.

            In the framed black and white photograph

            Divine shapes, scents, their sorrowful voices and silences.

            Memory was the room I entered down a long corridor

                        and the cold bleak lack to come.


These lines cobbled together from other poets’ work also create an ars poetica for Rice Weber. She demonstrates in this collection that between what triggers—to borrow a term from Richard Hugo  (Rice Weber’s “root”)—a poem, and what the poem ends up being about (“green tip”)—any place can be its beginning. And there is no formula for how a poem finds itself (“trying to find its way / by a current I could not name or change”) except in the things (“framed black and white photograph[s]) that spring from “memory”)—a memory that includes what Sasha Pimentel calls “the absences…the unspeakable spaces we pry open inside language.” Not only does this cento allude to a father’s suicide, it strengthens themes of presence, absence, and perseverance.

The opening series of poems in both sections I and III lay out what is at stake both with figure and background in section I. After introducing her father as “a buyer in retail, circling / home when he could to truer callings—handyman, dreamer / if impossible projects—…,” the daughter relays a story of organization, grounded on a pegboard of tools, and the impression the negative space made on her when the tools were in use:


                                                                        …he traced tools

            then painted their silhouettes—inventory on pegboard

            where they hung. A practical matter, to see what was missing

            by the shadows they left. Memorizing those shapes,


            I learned the value of negative space. The work done bit


            by bit there, the comfort—puzzling out repairs, favors

            for neighbors, gifts for friends. What you might need—


            a solid table, a sturdy mantel. He taught me how a man may be


            remembered by what his hands made. He also taught me

            sometimes what’s missing serves mercy’s greater cause.


These themes of presence and absence or negative space, are ones that are conveyed not only with the re-appearance of the final line of one sonnet in the first line of the next in the crown of sonnets, but in other ways, as in the disappearance of text in the caesuras of poems like “Leveled.”


                             Once, you picked him     up at school for another

doctor’s appointment

you saw him     on the playground

his mainstream class     doing laps     to burn     off third-grade

enthusiasm     before the slog     back to cruelty     of seat work.

                        That time     you saw him running

                        among neurotypical peers     blonde hair     whipping

from his high brow     in late afternoon sun.

                        That time     on the blacktop          he was more

beautiful     than all the others—     body lithe, unfettered     as wind.


In “Not a Lion,” Rice Weber utilizes Haibun to bear witness to the onset of a child’s neurological disorder. (“He said mama and / dada and then he didn’t. / The seizures began” is the closing Haiku). Filling in spaces between formal poems are collections of nonce forms and lyrical-narrative free verse poems that develop the theme of being and non-being with gorgeous language and narrative arcs are quite unusual for these days. In “Balancing Act,” the poet weds lyricism with a narrative about a mother scraping together enough to buy groceries in front of her eighteen-year-old son, resulting in a seamless, memorable work of art in a unique, tercet form:


Autism doesn’t keep

                        my eighteen-year-old son,

                        my shopping wingman,


            from understanding how

                        these kinds of awkward

                        episodes unfold. We retreat


            from Checkout Line 4,

                        abandon our cart of

                        bagged groceries to find


            a bunker in the privacy

                        of the family van

                        where I am grateful


            for the miracle of

                        Consumers Cellular

                        and dial 1-800 numbers


            on the back of every

                        charge card I carry

                        to find one


            not currently maxed.



            Each first line of Rice Weber’s tercets “unfold” into insight after insight into the emotions felt of not having enough money to cover a cart full of groceries, with diction that remains in the exterior world of concrete, sensate experience, rather than in the interior world of abstract emotions. And each of the remaining two lines “abandon” the first in the same way the narrator abandons her cart, but doesn’t abandon her persistence in finding a way to get what she needs, if not what she wants:

             though today

the Lord doesn’t see the need

                        to provide a box


            of Chardonnay,

                        a Boston Butt, or a bag of Cheetos.

                        I consider the adventure


            whenever I pull our cart up

                        to a check out,

                        my tank needling E.


Tools & Ornaments is filled with poems of trauma and responses to it. Section III, A Falling Weight, a Shifting, opens with the final line to the crown of sonnets—the form that has held the collection together and now will speak directly of final abandonments:  suicide (“Traveling, parked car running in his garage, hose and exhaust pipe— / his fixing hands—they did what they could,” final lines of 7th sonnet in the series), and then give way to other poems with dire consequences—disease (“After Chemo”),  death (“Another Passage”), and the pawning of personal belongings to buy groceries again (“Pawn”). However, this collection never gives up hope and never fails to find the right forms (tools) to demonstrate that play is always possible, amidst the difficult work that must be done—not as ornament, but as necessity in order to retain one’s humanity. The penultimate poem of the collection, “Etymology,” a short pantoum, demonstrates this in both form and content.

            After twenty-six years, he still flirts with me—

            sharing honeyed Words of the Day.

            He sends only those choice syllables

            he is certain I’ll want to possess.


            Sharing honeyed words of the day

            like halidom, a holy place

            he is certain I’ll want to possess,

            to hold in my mouth like a deep kiss.


            Like a halidom, this holy place,

            he sends only those choice syllables

            to hold in my mouth like a deep kiss.

            After twenty-six years, he still flirts with me.


Not only this poem, but this entire collection gives the reader a halidom, a holy place with “…choice syllables…to hold in our mouth[s] like a deep kiss.”

Tracy Rice Weber’s Tools & Ornaments has conveyed to the reader the critical nature of negative space—in all the poems, from the absent father to the shapes and shadows left by those who’ve passed on, leaving their “things” to be reckoned with, epitomized in the epigraph the author chose from Ruth Stone: “and what is note there / is always more than there.


Longtime educator Tracy Rice Weber teaches in Virginia at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk and as an adjunct at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. A graduate of the Old Dominion University MFA Program, her work can be found in River Review, The Bangalore Review, on as a recipient of the Academy of American Poets College Poetry Prize, and forthcoming in the 2024 winter / spring issue of CALYX. In 2021, her chapbook, All That Keeps Me was published by Finishing Line Press. Tools & Ornaments, her first full-length collection of poems, was just released by Saint Julian Press.