by Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press, March 2014
112 Pages | Amazon
It’s Saturday night and my wife is on a rare evening out with her girlfriends while I stay at home with the baby. He is in a particularly foul mood—a product of being over tired, over hungry and over stimulated. It’s been a long week. I’m frazzled. In an attempt to soothe him, we lie down in my bed with all but a lamp on and I read to him from Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear.
I like to read my son poetry when he’s fussy. I believe my deep, bass voice and the vibrations against his ear while lying on my chest helps him fall asleep.
As I start reading the book, my eyes fall on the lines
in order to love anything
but an animal you cannot allow
yourself to believe in those things
that are if we don’t stop them
going to destroy us.
I chew on those for a bit. This really resonates with me now that I’m a dad. There is so much that weighs down on me—anxieties, shortcomings, gripes—that they can easily crush me if I’m not careful. And yet, now that I’m a parent I don’t have (as much) time to devote to these apocalyptic things because now I have to keep a smaller being alive, and that motivation has defined love better than anything I’ve experienced before. Here’s an illustrative example from my life: I was eating lunch with a friend from out of town and he asked me what “squicks me out the most about parenting” and I was hard-pressed to come up with an answer because in the middle of the night when my son has a stomach virus or when he has a blow-out shitty diaper, I don’t have time to be grossed out, because he needs me to care for him in those moments.
I read the next poem. Now my son, no longer cranky, is trying to snatch the book out of my hands. The collection is kind of hard to read with a squirmy infant because the lines don’t have much punctuation—if any—as in the poem “Public Art”:
I hate bees E. said
holding a spoon
and I thought how zen
to admit it
those mechanical golden
among the crops
on their wings
be super fucked
, but this effect works remarkably well, pulling the reader down and across the page. It adds a sense of urgency, despite the contemplative subject matter, provided you aren’t reading the book with a wiggle worm in your lap.
Reading with a child kicking my ribs is a unique challenge. My eyes pause, now on this poem’s lines: “The completely to me magical screen / sits in the middle of this black desk …” as I receive another blow beneath my armpit. My wife complains that she can’t do it at all. She says she hasn’t read a book since before she got pregnant; she says she’s jealous of my opportunity to read (I’ve been making reviewing books more of a job, so it gives me the argument that I’m reading for work). It’s curious how we decide what we have to do with our time.
We make time for what we care about, even when what we’ve made time for isn’t our true priority. When it comes to examining my priorities, I’m never 100 percent proud of my answer. In this new collection, Zapruder worries about his Ikea desk, his computer, what’s going on in Africa, Russia; he remembers his father’s fondness for Einstein’s theory of relativity and he remembers former teachers, nights out with friends, but underneath it all, we are reminded that Zapruder is just a common man who wakes up and checks news after “… plugging / in of the useless / worry machine”; that, like us all, he has his rituals and priorities, even if they’re not the most noble.
I put the book down. My son is trying to crawl off the edge of the bed while I’m dictating this review into my cell phone. hi your hair hey hey hey hey—that’s what text-to-speech types as my son talks into my phone as I hoist him above me. What he actually says is more like an aoohooablleblabble, but text-to-speech gets the general meaning right, despite his lack of English vocabulary.
Now my son is sucking on his fingers and kicking my throat. This is par for the course. He has his free reign of my bed these days. I pick the book back up and try to read another poem while holding him at bay. This line of “Poem without Intimacy” jumps out at me: “all I truly love is sleep.” Now my son is bending the bottom corner of the book and sucking on the edges and getting spit everywhere.
This present tense conceit is starting to fall apart. You can see that I’ve gone back and edited this: polished it, added thoughtful comments to make it seem that I can think up lucid, incisive criticism of poetry off the top of my head all while being a perfect father. It’s designed to make you envy me, but at the end of the day, it is a falsity.
The poems in Sun Bear operate on a similar conceit. The happiness depicted throughout so much of the collection cannot possibly be pure and uninterrupted. Zapruder uses the romantic ecstasy between Sarah and He to underscore the bitterly anxiety and sadness that seep through the cracks of these poems. The horror of suburban life, the abiding “ultimate white person problem,”—which is to say having enough while still feeling guilty (but not too guilty)—is omnipresent in Sun Bear.
Art is artifice, but whatever that invention is, it still serves a purpose. Whether it’s to make a reader long for a different life or to just appreciate his or her own situation, art is meant to heal, to entertain, to make life better. The collection ends with a poem dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt:
the water carrying
what we need
you can rest
light as nothing
we will take it
and go on