The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

Magnifying the Mundane: A Critical Introduction to the Poetry of Matthew Zapruder

Since 2002, Matthew Zapruder has produced three volumes of poetry—American Linden, The Pajamaist, and Come On All You Ghosts—along with a forthcoming chapbook, The Odyssey, and has co-translated the final collection by late Russian poet Eugen Jebeleanu. Many of his works have been reviewed favorably in a variety of settings, such as The New York Times and Publishers Weekly, and have received numerous awards including the 2010 Booklist Editors’ Choice for poetry and the William Carlos Williams Award for his second collection, The Pajamaist. His most recent collection, Come On All You Ghosts, was chosen as one of 2011’s top five poetry books by Publishers Weekly and also appeared on The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2011.

Although Zapruder can be considered an academic poet, currently making his living as a faculty member at UC Riverside-Palm Desert, his poetry reaches out to grasp the mundane life of everyday people, distort it into something unrecognizable, and pull in even the most indifferent reader. The subjects of his poetry vary from people and objects that are encountered on a daily basis to pop culture to scientific research. Stripped of the formalities of set structures and rhymed lines, his poems are honest and bare. The single voice used throughout his work is one closely aquatinted with a surreal view of reality, diving deeply into the energy and mystery that is often hidden behind the repetitiveness of life and capturing these camouflaged moments in his poems. This relationship between reality and the unseen is often suggested in Zapruder’s titles, “Pocket,” “January,” “Canada,” “Spring,” “Scarecrow,” “They,” and “Lamp Day,” many of which consist of experiences that can be felt by any person.

The key to Zapruder’s poetry, however, is using language that conveys a dark, wild, or comical side to the mundane and capturing the surrealism hidden within it. The vast world of a pocket, for example, is something that any person wearing pants is carrying around with him or her. In “Pocket,” a poem from Come On All You Ghosts, the pocket of the speaker suddenly becomes “dangerous” and exciting like “standing in a forest and staring at a picture/ in a plant book while eating scary looking wildflowers” (ll. 6-7). Zapruder is pointing out that something as fundamental and placid as a pocket can become deadly, something that a person would only go to when pushed to extreme lengths, like eating a possibly poisonous wildflower. The poem doesn’t stop there, though, and the geography of the pocket becomes uncharted and dark like “the bottom of the sea” (l. 34). Suddenly, the pocket turns from being a potential threat to being an alluring and mysterious place of discovery. Zapruder doesn’t let the reader’s mind stay in this imaginary world, though, and suddenly, the poem plummets back to reality as the speaker “[places his/her] hand on this/ very dusty table. And brush[es] away the dust” (ll. 29-31). There is nothing more mundane in reality than dust, and Zapruder’s juxtaposition of curiosity with the grit and dirt of the day is an excellent representation of his work.

Zapruder’s language is the speech of urban life: direct, accessible, and dynamic. It is both experiential and technical. His decision to avoid the standard usage of punctuation mirrors Zapruder’s desire to create poetry that is approachable to those readers who may be weary of the modes of more traditional poetry as well as interesting to those readers who are looking for a more personal experience in their reading. The lack of commas, and often periods, to separate thoughts and sections calls upon the conventions of conversational writing. At times in reading his poems silently, it is difficult to discern where one idea stops and another begins. However, Zapruder’s poetry demands to be read aloud, so that the reader can catch the verbal cues that indicate breaks in thought, which mimics the work that a person must do when involved in a conversation. A verbal conversation has no punctuation, but the listeners are still able to pick out where the punctuation would usually go and understand accordingly. Zapruder’s work relies on this principle.

Through his use of conversational writing, Zapruder reaches out to the reader and asks that s/he engage in the poem as it moves forward. Throughout all three of his published works, as well as his upcoming chapbook, Zapruder often transcends the written page and directly addresses his readers. Sometimes he asks his reader questions, such as in “Frankenstein Love,” a poem from Come On All You Ghosts, where he describes a different kind of love and asks the reader directly, “will you be the one unable/ to control your temper, sewed together/ as you are from the past? Or the one/ who always ends up turning away in search/ of another likeness?” (ll. 17-21). With the previous question, and many others, Zapruder asks his reader to take his poetry to heart and use it to question his or her motives, feelings, or actions. In no way, however, is he prescribing anything to the reader, nor is he trying to give any advice. Other times when addressing the reader he is looking to create an intimate connection, such as in “Sweet Jesus,” a poem from American Linden, when he states that “[he] vow[s] [he] will touch you/ always more distant stranger” (ll. 36-37). In other words, Zapruder is acknowledging that he will never be able to know each of his readers or critics personally, but he will always write his poems with his readers in mind and with the intention of reaching into their lives. For a poet like Zapruder, his readers are just as important, if not more important at times, than what he has to say or how he feels. He writes specifically to reach out to the people that will be picking up his books, and not for any other reason. In this way, his poetry is unique because it does not push its own agenda; instead, he allows the reader to make his/her own decisions about what s/he is reading.

Besides posing complex questions to the reader, Zapruder also uses his poems to explore the themes of large topics, such as death and love. Often in his work, death is slowly revolving around the life of the speaker, who is trying to understand and cope with the loss of life around him. Despite repeatedly using the theme of death throughout his publications, Zapruder manages to stray away from being cliché by making the act of death a part of everyday life in his poetry. In “Aglow,” a poem from Come On All You Ghosts, the speaker begins casually with “Hello everyone, hello you” (l. 1). The speaker then continues by commenting that while he was at the El Rancho Motel, “someone in one of the nameless rooms/ was dying, slowly the ambulance came, just another step/ towards the end” (ll. 3-5). However, the threat of mortality doesn’t disturb the speaker, and he continues throughout his day. In fact, in some of Zapruder’s poems death even becomes somewhat of an inconvenience for the speaker, such as in “Poem for Happiness” from The Odyssey. Again, the poem immediately begins with the prospect of death as “the dead spider rested on [his] windowsill,” and the speaker is forced to discard the dead spider using two sheets of paper. At no point does Zapruder stop and allow the speaker to contemplate the meaning of the spider’s death or the meaning of the spider’s body lying on the windowsill. For Zapruder, the word “death” is equally as important and weighted as any other words, which is the way in which he is able to confront large, philosophical ideas without the reader feeling that it is forced or insincere.

Like many of his contemporaries, Zapruder has largely abandoned the use of a formal rhyme scheme; however, the use of sound is still important within his poems. His poems often employ sound to mimic the subject being discussed, as is seen in “Tonight You’ll Be Able,” from The Pajamaist. The poem is largely about how people view themselves and how they are seen through the eyes of those around them. As a result, when the speaker mentions a social gathering, he states that, “Tonight,/ you’ll be able to talk to anyone about anything, make all the loved ones/ muster up, chat with character/ keep alive the conversations” (ll. 20-24). During this section, the speaker is contemplating the importance of speaking well and fueling interesting conversations in a social setting, which is mimicked by the use of alliteration and assonance in these lines. The hard and soft “a” sounds are used a total of eleven times in just four lines, and the hard “c” sound is used six times. Zapruder’s use of sound in this section of the poem allows it to flow well and connect each line smoothly, just as the conversation must flow well in order to “keep [it] alive.”

In addition to mimicking the content of his poems, Zapruder also uses assonance and alliteration to control the rhythm of his poems. In “Sweet Jesus,” a poem from American Linden, the assonance in the last lines of the poem mimics the slowing down that the lines are describing: “About us a Cambridge was revolving./…but it wasn’t us, we were refusing/ to cross that most glorious/ breed of slowness” (ll. 29-35). The repetition of the “s” mimics the sound of silence, which is the sound that is left after movement has ceased. When the “s” sound is used, the line slows down and then feels as though it is in slow motion when it reaches the last word, “slowness.” In comparison, the beginning of the poem uses hard sounds, “Tea, tea, butter, the structure,” which cause the line to feel rushed (l. 1). The hard “t” sounds used are reminiscent of rhythmic tapping, which is usually heard in quick succession. The juxtaposition of the hard “t” sounds at the beginning and the softer “s” sounds at the end makes the poem appear as if it is slowing down as it progresses. Just as his language represents the speech of urban life, Zapruder’s distinctive sounds and rhythms capture his sense of urban society. One of Zapruder’s unique qualities is his ability to mimic life in his poems through his use of rhythm and sound, which is the life source of an urban city.

Given Zapruder’s use of the qualities of urban life, many of his poems are internally structured in a way that also mimics fast-paced, unbalanced life through the use of reflective (or meditative) structures. Often beginning with a single idea, his poems move forward by letting the reader’s mind follow a zigzag line of thinking that often (logically or not) jumps from one sound to another, or to related thoughts or objects as Zapruder encounters them in his thought process. The impulsive structure that results can be seen in “Summer Camp,” from American Linden, which begins with the observation that “The day is wearing a white lab coat./ It is experimenting on us” (ll. 1-2). However, the poem itself has nothing to do with science or experimentation, but instead follows his thoughts about the origin of his cat, Helix, whose mother Zapruder believes to be “a sofa, a whole/ neighborhood of comfort, support” and whose father “was a cloud, as are all the fathers/ of cats. Try to find one” (ll. 18-28). “Summer Camp” finally appears to justify its title in the last two lines of the poem—“There was a girl named Holly./ We knew each other in the park./ We were pineys”—but before this point, the setting or memory of a summer camp does not appear in the poem (ll. 34-36). In this poem, as well as many others, Zapruder doesn’t want the reader to know what is happening in the poem but rather wants the reader to listen to the connections in the language or the sounds in the poem. Instead of creating obvious or predictable poems, Zapruder instead writes narratives in a way that allow the reader’s mind to create connections that are separate from his own ideas of what the poem is about.

Not only does the reflective structure allow for the reader to investigate his/her thoughts and connections to the text, but it also reveals the complex nature of life itself and the emotions that are tethered to memories. As stated before, many of Zapruder’s poems deal with the themes of love and death, and through his writing about these themes, Zapruder is attempting to discover his feelings and memories related to love and death. The reflective structure lends itself well to the sporadic journey of discovery and memory and the complex connections that emotions have to things such as sounds, sights, or even smells. However, in the style of Zapruder, the poems are focused more on the connections that the reader makes, and Zapruder’s own discovery and journey is merely in the background of his poems. Again, “Summer Camp” is an excellent example, because after finishing the poem, it becomes obvious that the speaker has some sort of connection to Holly, but the connection is left ambiguous to the reader. Instead, the reader is left contemplating his/her own memories of summer camp and the people that were once in his/her life.

Matthew Zapruder’s poems struggle against the current of every day urban life, and his speakers represent the common humanity that all of his readers share. He captures the monotonous elements of the lives of his readers and pushes them into a realm of curiosity and discovery. At no point is his poetry boring or routine. Instead, he offers a view of the world that many people have passed up in favor of forward motion; his poetry demands that his readers look closely at every aspect of their lives, including the pockets of their clothes. His writing is complex and energetic, but Zapruder never forgets the role of his readers in his poetry and, instead, asks them to engage in his process and the worlds that he creates. Moving away from the traditions of poetry, Matthew Zapruder is paving a new way for the poet and readers of poetry alike.

Added May 25, 2012

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Nominated by Dr. M.R. Hofer, English


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