By: Matthew Graham
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
River City Publishing, 2006
This is Matthew Graham’s third volume of poetry and the sixth book in the River City Poetry Series, edited by Andrew Hudgins. The title refers to one of the book’s two epigraphs, this one from the Book of Isaiah: “ . . . ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end.” (The context of the verse is God’s loyalty to the Israelites.) The book’s other epigraph, from Henry Roth, is “Oh, dear departed days not so dear, just departed,” and the two together, played off one another, suggest an opening foray into what Hudgins calls Graham’s “thoughtful elegiac voice” as well as an ironic sensibility that nevertheless refuses to give up on wonder and mystery.
Like many books of contemporary poetry, this one is divided into four sections (an archetypal remnant of the four seasons, the four compass points?). The first section is centered on childhood; the second on love and its losses; the third on history as enacted in various localities—Detroit, Cape Cod, Indiana, London, Berlin, Venice; the fourth on death.
Stylistically, Graham’s work is primarily identifiable by a loose free verse, an almost baggy poetics that is a comfortable fit for his introspective, observant voice. The two explicitly formal poems, “Childhood,” a pantoum, and “An Irish Ghazal,” are successful but seem like overdressed guests at a casual gathering.
Graham’s affection for Philip Levine is apparent in “Looking for Levine in Detroit with Some Last Words from Henry Ford”; his absorption of Levine’s working-class aesthetic is revealed in the poems immediately following. In the wonderful “Two Small American Verses,” divided into “Work” and “Street,” Graham catalogs and in so doing praises those aspects of daily American life that could easily be overlooked, writing, “Remember always / Thy metal lunch pail, its thermos of coffee, / And blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, / And blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out.”
At times I found myself wishing for a greater tautness and musicality in the lines, but I also admired Graham’s attentiveness to language, unsparing honesty about his/the speaker’s occasional failings, his perhaps unfashionable sincerity, and the sense that I was reading a coherent account, poetically mediated, of one man’s search for meaning.
Whether grieving a miscarriage, reflecting on making peace with his father, remembering the injustices and uncertainties of childhood, or memorializing the dead, Graham reminds us of “how sometimes in spring, in a field / A border of jonquils will rise up / In the shape of a house no longer there.” At the risk of committing writing-workshop cleverness, I would say that many of Graham’s poems serve the function of those jonquils, forming a shape for us to remember what is gone, what should not be forgotten.
Jennifer Horne is the poetry book review editor for First Draft Reviews Online.