Secret Lives of Everyday Objects
A Hummock in the Malookas
W. W. Norton
I WAS THINKING the other day how little enchantment is left in this world. After an hour of commercials blaring full-tilt from the tube, even the landscape of a kitchen flattens into a crass consumption pit--products, merchandise, stuff! The mop is only a mop. The sink, just a functioning steel bowl. Each object from the soap to the curtain seems caught in the same destiny: to be used up and discarded. It triggers a kind of claustrophobia, this literal materialism the imagination gets snagged inside. No exit, no escape.
One remedy is Matthew Rohrer's poems, which open a passageway like a hatch painted onto a Magritte canvas--surreal, startling, and rooted in the enchanting premise that objects lead double lives. The toaster has wings, the pans dream about heat on the stove, and stars fall into the cupboards when no one's watching. A few pages into this book--Rohrer's first, and a winner of last year's National Poetry Series--and you'll start glancing sideways at the terrain, which, through this writer's cockeyed lens, looks suddenly vital.
Each poem in this collection is cut from one cloth, akin in tic and tone to the magical realism of Pablo Neruda and many European poets (Charles Simic and Yannis Ritsos come to mind) who lean heavily on parable and whimsy. Given its penchant for flights of fancy and simple, almost bland phrasings, A Hummock in the Malookas is, well, downright un-American: Here, the material world is a wilderness, untamable, prone to irrationality and quirky fits. It's an environment that human will couldn't possibly conquer.
Which makes this book such a refreshing trip, in a time when a lot of collections seem bent on exhausting the reader with grief and long blurs of linguistic blank-outs. These poems won't wow you with semantic tricks, or send you scurrying for a dictionary; in other words, they aren't limited to the poets-as-readers crowd. In that regard, the risk Rohrer takes in style is twofold, and also rare in a young poet: His language is spare, and his narratives dare to spring full-blown from wacky, innocent premises. Simply put, the writer trusts the reader to trust the poems. He doesn't fool around arguing this weird habitat into existence, but rather takes it for granted in the silence before the first line hits. Take this poem, for instance, called "A wake for the telephone":
An unconnected telephone lies dead on the table.
The cold plastic.
The holes in its earpiece like black, collapsed stars.
The mouthpiece, unable to whine, to recite original poems,
to ask that someone bring over a bottle of wine.
The old couple, eating dinner, were shocked
when the phone threw itself on the floor instead of ringing again,
its spiral cord like the wet hair of a girl left behind in a tide pool,
the way it lies in a heap on the table,
its dials stuck between numbers.
It will never be used to phone the president.
It will never help old classmates find each other.
It will no longer suffer the awkward silence while asking for a date.
There will be no more heavy breathing.
In many ways the phone is relieved.
More often than not, these poems offer up apologies to their population of objects. Sorry, they say, for treating you so badly. Sorry for underestimating your intelligence. Sorry for getting in your way. Meanwhile, snowflakes leap like banshees from the trees, the Pleiades slip out of a lover's sleeve, and a Mexican shortwave weeps in the corner. Anything without rules is possible.
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