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.

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