From two poetry collections, two views of the invisible

By Michael Brodeur
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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“Readers I am sorry/ for some of you/ this is not a novel./ Goodbye.’’

San Francisco poet Matthew Zapruder understands poetry’s waning place in today’s bustling lit-scape, but he also understands its enduring power. So when these four lines appear toward the top of the stunning long poem that anchors and provides the title for his newest (and third) collection, they are less a signal of resignation than a call for clarification: Both he — and, ideally, his readers — come to poetry for something less certain than a story, less tidy than a riddle, something more like a question than an answer.

In a recent essay titled “Don’t Paraphrase,’’ Zapruder makes clear his belief that poems “must be saying something that cannot be said in any other way’’ — that they are “not necessarily goal oriented’’ and that poems that function as code to be cracked for their “true message’’ are “all just one step up from a crossword puzzle.’’ Thus, “Come On All You Ghosts’’ is, throughout, a collection animated by its own making, with each poem working itself out on the page. It also contains some of the most arresting poems Zapruder has ever written — certain in their confidence and confident in their uncertainties.

From poem to poem, you can watch Zapruder’s lines unfurl as they go. In simpler times, his style might have been tagged “stream of consciousness,’’ but consciousness these days seems a lot more akin to a flooded delta, and Zapruder navigates his terrain with an impressive balance of honesty and intuition. His lines like to contradict and double back on themselves (his voice “pretends to be shy/ and actually is’’ in “Aglow’’), and they often writhe within the limits of language. Take these lines from the title poem: “I have lived in the black crater/ of feeling every moment/ is the moment just after/ one has chosen forever/ to live in the black crater/ of having chosen to live in the black crater.’’

More often than not, Zapruder’s poems make themselves worth following by simply rising to the responsibility of leading us into their respective unknowns, as in “Pocket’’: “. . .Today the unemployment rate/ is 9.4%. I have no idea what that means. I tried/ to think about it harder for a while. Then/ tried standing in an actual stance of mystery /and not knowing towards the world./ Which is my job.’’

As its title suggests, Zapruder’s poems challenge the unseeable by attempting the unsayable. “Ghosts’’ like David Foster Wallace, Robert Creeley, and Zapruder’s own father emerge and withdraw, and what could be a sustained tone of mourning feels more like an acceptance of solitary togetherness — presence and absence become equals in Zapruder’s poems. He may go gently toward his own good night, but never silently — and that’s how his process gains purpose, with or without a goal in mind.

In his newest collection, “Master of Disguises,’’ Pulitzer Prize winner and erstwhile former US poet laureate Charles Simic stays faithful to his knack for making the familiar wholly unsettling, imbuing his lines with a lightness and darkness that never quite cancel each other out.

In his “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy’’ in 1989, Simic outlined his preference for “a poem that understates, that leaves out, breaks off, remains open-ended,’’ suggesting that “to ‘complete,’ to pretend that it is possible to do so, is to set arbitrary boundaries to what is boundless.’’ The 52 new poems that constitute “Master of Disguises’’ stay true to this inclination. While their sturdy stanzas and economic lines seem, at first glance, dispatched in service of a clear mission, these structures (and the comforts they inspire) are just a ruse — Simic’s poems are more like slats of a fence through which readers can peer for a clue of what’s really going on.

Simic supplies a generous trail of stray details with ominous shadings for us to follow; but as his father cautions in “Little Boat, Take Care,’’ “We see nothing except what is unimportant to see.’’ Simic’s real interest — and his pursuit over the course of his 20 volumes — is to capture that which can’t be held in language.

Like Zapruder, Simic sturdies the end of his collection with a long poem, “The Invisible’’ — a work that leaves a bread-crumb trail of stray details and sinister nuances: “a company that offers insurance should you end up in hell, a blind man who pays children to read the dice he rolls, a man groping for books in a darkened library.’’ And while his absurdities can be soothing in their dark humor, a more sinister presence (or absence) presides from the poem’s first few lines: “It was always here/ Its vast terrors concealed/ By this costume party/ Of flowers and birds/ And children playing in the garden.’’

Even if you’ve read Simic’s work for years, “Master’’ makes for a thrilling, revelatory read. Like his “cat with a mouthful of feathers,’’ there’s always more to the story than he’s willing (or able) to share — and ultimately, the endings are up to us.

Michael Brodeur is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached at

By Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon,
108 pp., paperback, $16

By Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
75 pp., $22