By: Sebastian Matthews
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Red Hen Press, 2007
Perhaps due to the growth of MFA programs, leading to more competently-written poetry as well as more competition for publication, most first books of poems don’t seem like first books any more. We Generous is no exception. Stylistically mature, with a distinctive voice and viewpoint, the poems in this book, many of them published originally in journals small and large (Asheville Poetry Review, Atlantic Monthly, Bliss, Blue Mesa Review . . . The Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review), take us on a kind of road trip, into scene after scene of late-night jazz clubs, rainy bad-neighborhood streets, rural roads, a country church, a vacation cabin, even to “Wine Mart, that cavernous retail barn” (“Buying Wine”). And just as jazz is generally considered the quintessential American music, Matthews’ subjects and cadences are quintessentially American, as in “Train Wreck Blues,” in which the speaker says to himself, “What are you going to do? / You could lie there all day, nursing / your hangover, wallowing / in your beat-up body, / in the simple truth of being awake, // or you could get up and take your sadsack self into town, / find the one café, one more / cup of coffee before you go.”
Without resembling him at all in terms of prosody, Matthews seems taken with the tough-guy bravado of Charles Bukowski, the fascination with low-life scenes, pondering the mysteries of age, death, sex. This speaker, however, is more likely to be “Drinking at Breadloaf” (as one of the poems is titled) than in a Bowery bar.
The cover of We Generous features a photograph of Louis Armstrong on stage and for the casual browser in a bookstore would be a good indicator of what lies within. Many of the poems are about music, musicians, even specific footage of specific musicians, as in “Louis Armstrong Performing ‘I Cover the Waterfront,’” described in the notes to the book as based on scenes from Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz, and “We Fall into Shapes and Breathe Deeply,” which “responds to photographs by Milt Hinton of a young Dizzy Gillespie.” It wouldn’t be going too far to say these poems are entranced by the idea of jazz and jazz musicians, by the romance of being caught up in a moment of music when the rest of the world ceases to exist. Someone less in love with such music might not connect with these poems, but aficionados will probably nod knowingly as they read.
The title poem, “We Generous,” based on a misreading of a billboard, is composed of ten sections, a long poem in couplets that simultaneously narrates the story of a night out and the morning after and explores issues of race in America: “We’ve got to find a way, Marvin crooned, / / to bring some loving here today. / But how? What ‘we’? And how generous?” As evidenced by these lines, the concerns in this book have the ring of the sincere, but the speaker’s expressed desire to be hip, to fit in with black friends and black musicians, often struck me as straining for coolness.
Not all the poems are “jazz” poems, though the book is much infused with a strong sense of rhythm, start and stop, or syncopated, or smooth. A poem such as “Fall” makes a monument out of little things that might add up to something larger: “Just today, out for a riverside / stroll, we rounded a turn / to find two goats in collars, // their sweet, alien eyes mooning / out at everything. . . . Even / now, up at my desk, the sun / shines a spot on the bookshelf, // turning my dog-eared paperbacks / into illuminated manuscripts . . . .”
It’s a matter of taste, but I found myself liking the more plain-spoken poems like the one quoted above over the more linguistically adventurous ones with such lines as “the tune’s / lush living-room of a conclusion” (“Live at the Village Vanguard”) or ”The bread-bowl of neighborhood brims / with noisy dark” (“The Night Before Avery Arrives.”)
Matthews’ work is at its best in this book when he uses his fine eye for detail to evoke scenes such as the one in “Round the Bend,” in which, as he drives, a morning fog goes from being a veil to “milk in a bowl” to “a fierce dragon” to “a bed sheet luff[ing],” images that show, without saying explicitly, how the familiar can be transformed and enriched by the power of the imagination. May 2009
Jennifer Horne is the Poetry Book Reviews Editor for First Draft Reviews Online. Her book of poems, Bottle Tree, will be published in 2010 by WordTech Press.