“What dream was I born into / and what will happen / when the dreamer wakes,’’ Matthew Zapruder asks in his eloquent new collection, Father’s Day. It’s a cri de coeur about the times in which we live and the complex issues of patrimony, including the difficult emotions he and his wife had to confront after their son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
Zapruder’s talents are already on display in four earlier poetry volumes, as well as in Why Poetry, a book-length argument against the obstacles that deter us from understanding and enjoying verse. Anyone familiar with his work—he’s the former poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine and an associate professor in the creative writing MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California—knows he’s not advocating an uncritical return to the style of, say, Robert Frost. Rather, he’s searching for hard-earned truths, expressed as carefully as such truths can be.
Born in Washington, D.C., Zapruder combines the vernacular ease of the New York Poets with an appreciation for the pleasures of living on the rim. In “Poem for Passengers,” he mordantly observes our current nightmare: “soon we will pick up speed / and pass the abandoned factories / there has lately been so much conversation about.’’ But in “Another Song,” nodding to Allen Ginsberg, he reserves space to be a poet: “I will put / whatever is queer / in my shoulder / to the infamous wheel, / but please don’t / make me decide / what will happen / to the souls who must be punished.”
Zapruder is aware of the paradoxes of privilege. In the title poem, he notes: “the children sleeping / alone in some / detention center / don’t need / our brilliant sincerity.’’ Beset by both politics and family complications, the poet is stunned: he’s flying closer to the ground than in 2010’s Come On All You Ghosts, which offers a Whitmanesque invocation to spirits above and beyond, or in 2006’s The Pajamaist, with its homages to James Merrill and envois on the aftermath of 9/11.
He misses occasionally: poems addressing Paul Ryan and Roseanne Barr are directed at too-easy targets. But when he soars, he’s unmatchable, as in a tribute to Paul Éluard: “he who said / the earth is blue / like an orange / which for an instant / seems precisely / correct because / it will always / be a solution / just out of reach.’’
It’s the reach, the attention to daily life and the dream world we simultaneously inhabit, that gives Zapruder’s work its distinctive force. He quotes Virginia Woolf approvingly: “The poet is always our contemporary.’’
Yes. It’s always Father’s Day, too. But how we handle it is up to us.
Paul Wilner is a longtime poet, critic, and journalist based in Monterey County.
• By Matthew Zapruder
• Copper Canyon Press, 96 pages, $17
THREE QUESTIONS: MATTHEW ZAPRUDER
In Why Poetry, you recall John Ashbery “asking something different of me, a different kind of attention.” What does that mean to you? Allowing ideas to connect in a more intuitive and associative way, I discover all sorts of things. But for me just sitting and thinking doesn’t really work. I have to write to discover it.
What about criticism of poetry? So much criticism overemphasizes the meaning of the poem without addressing why it’s a poem. Good criticism is good because it clarifies. Wordsworth has that line “We murder to dissect.” But poetry is pretty strong. It can handle a little analysis.
And the line between personal and political? I’ve learned to fly close to the sun of content without destroying the poem. You can get close to the line—and I’m excited by that.
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