Review of Matt Mason’s When the Bough Breaks

When the Bough Breaks, poems by Matt Mason
Lone Willow Press, 2005

Matt Mason, Omaha, Nebraska’s leading poet under 40, has a new chapbook out entitled When the Bough Breaks, which takes his body of work into uncharted territory. It’s a great read on its own, but to fully understand the impact of the new book, which continues and deepens his sometimes absurd, always poignant Midwestern poetic voice, we should take a minute to go back and think about his other works, and maybe a little about why we should be watching Omaha’s leading poet under 40.

First let’s look at Red, White and Blue (2004) and Coffee and Astronomy (2001), which seem to be mostly collected slam poems. Mason is a frequent and very good performer and has a cadence that my husband points out many people in Omaha now imitate. One thing you should know about Matt Mason is that he is a Good Person: a real, genuine believer in poets and poetry who with little obvious incentive organizes readings and runs a poetry calendar website (http://poetrymenu.com) that keeps the whole scene connected. In fact, he is so Good he has bravely written two whole chapbooks trying to figure out the Old Testament, which I can’t really get into through no fault of his; discussion of the Bible generally does little for me but make my eyes water with boredom. However, his Goodness is his particular weakness, however slight, when it comes to slam poetry. Mason remains the only adult who I have heard utter the word “groin” outside of the classroom, and it appears here too. Some of his poems display a sort of geeky innocence that belies his years and intelligence, especially when he titles a poem “Matt’s Wild Years” or commits the indefensible act of titling the sex section “Blue” in Red, White and Blue. Even so, there are some great lines, like in “Matt’s Wild Years” when he discovers that “each internal organ . . . now has a voice and volume and something to say,” and at least one really good poem, called “The Problem With It,” the last poem in Red, White and Blue, about not being able to perform sexually with someone he is falling in love with. Slam poetry is all about the ego, for better or for worse, and euphemisms notwithstanding, Mason’s slam poetry (along with his being a Good Person) is kind of refreshing compared with a lot of slam poetry/poets out there, which show no restraint whatsoever in melodramatically describing the most banal coming of age rituals as if the poet had never read another poem or talked to another human being. So in the end, these two books are enjoyable, if not award-winning, reads.

However, to really see the seeds of Mason’s capacity as a poet, we must go back to the beginning: Cow Poetry. In his first two chapbooks, Old Froggo’s Book of Practical Cows (1997) and Desire For More Cows (1998), we really see the best of his self-published work. He writes with all of the poignancy and yearning of a young poet, except where there would be something predictably “meaningful,” insert obscure news story or lyric narrative about cows. It’s the absurdist element of his work that keeps me coming back, along with the sincerity and humanity with which he treats his subjects – both bovine and human – especially in Froggo’s “The Myth of La Belle Bovin Sans Merci,” a takeoff of the Keats poem in which the lovelorn Steve follows his bovine beauty across the pasture, but ends up brokenhearted with nothing but a Sprite to console him, “closing out a Sizzler.” It’s enough to make a poetry geek like me swoon. And the beauty of that particular poem is that it could be pretentious, it could be boring, but it’s not – Mason manages to capture the soul of the original but retell it in his own voice and time. Plus one alluring cow.

So when Mistranslating Neruda (New Michigan Press, 2002) came along, I was ready. I remember feeling at the time like Mason’s first non-self-published chapbook was a breakthrough, and so different from what he was doing onstage – more complex, more enigmatic. The title is self-explanatory, but to get the heart of the matter, all you need are the first two lines:

Body of a woman, white as flour, as egg whites,
you break into the world with the immediacy of warm cookies.

I wrote a review for the Omaha weekly The Reader at the time in which I said, “This turns out to be an ideal vehicle for Mason’s trademark combination of absurdity and poignancy,” which is all well and good, but I wish I would have said that these poems are little gifts to poetry that I hope more people than fans of Nebraska poetry will someday read, because what a waste if this tiny lovely thing is forever relegated to the world of stapled bindings.

So now we come to When the Bough Breaks (Lone Willow Press, 2005), Mason’s newest chapbook. Take a deep breath, because we’re going deep this time, past the cows, pork rinds, and Clamato; past the leftie politics, screeds against Wal-Mart, and awkward personal confessions. Mason approaches a new level of disclosure in Bough, in which he tells us, “my dad died of AIDS,” “I didn’t start writing about having a father / until I didn’t have one anymore,” and “only now can he squeeze / into my poems, as if they were too small to fit flesh before.” In this collection, Mason has altogether quit trying to be cute, except maybe when he claims his dad’s death from AIDS is “not what this poem’s about,” since that’s what the whole collection is about, pretty much, along with his dad’s life as an alcoholic, a John Deere dealer, the father of seven children, and the cornfield ship captain of Matt Mason’s dreams. The first reading is beautifully harrowing, especially to a reader having some familiarity with Mason’s previous work – nothing he has written before has approached the unflinching honesty of lines like “I sat with my dying father, still not believing that / he could be dead, that I could wish / he would die.” Reading these poems, you start to realize that even though, according to J.V. Brummels, Mason’s work possesses “clarity, intelligence, and generosity of spirit,” up until this point Mason has been holding back something, adding up to that much obfuscation of what was possibly driving the absurdity of Mason’s voice. Not to say his work was dishonest before; there was always a tenderness to his silliness, and the story of one’s father does not a man, or poet, make, which may be why Mason perhaps wisely kept it out of much of his slam poetry when lesser poets would have used it up in the first five minutes. This time, instead of cows or clever mistranslations of love, we are treated to real, dark absurdity, the absurdity of trying to name and wrangle onto paper the feelings of losing your father to AIDS not knowing how he got it, the intense complexity of how to write about someone you never thought to write about until he died. Bough shows a maturation of Mason’s voice and style and is a luminous illustration of his restraint.

With all this, Mason still has time to squeeze in his usual ruminations on what it means to be American. Poetry geeks take notice – in Billions, modeled after Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Mason contemplates his place as one of the crowd at McDonald’s, again capturing the soul of a classic poem and adding his personal 21st century twist. But perhaps the most remarkable poem in the collection is “Watches to Warnings,” comparing Mason’s evolving emotions about his family stuff with the weather lingo ubiquitous in the Midwest this time of year. “Understand,” he asks you,

where I grew up, when a sky soaks
with a pink or orange tinge, when hail starts popping
across the blacktops, you expect sirens,
expect watches will turn into warnings
when you feel your skin bristle.

He goes on to explore the looming anger and pain of the comedian, the guy who witnessed angry teenage rebellion from siblings and explosive fights between parents but himself dealt with it all with laughter, the kid who “had pork rind poems with [him] / in case [he] came upon the scene of an accident.” And of course you knew it had to be something like that, even though of course you did not. It doesn’t make the cows less pretty; it just makes the Midwest landscape of Mason’s work more complete, and this recent Omaha expatriate just a little bit homesick for the poetry readings back home. While his subject matter has deepened, Mason’s style has tightened as well; just listen to this:

So my concerns are real: I, for the first time, have bombs
to say, have pestilence in my teeth, I am that action
I grew up gagging on, not the distraction
I played hide and seek with in the back yard.

So what comes next for Matt Mason? Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll be looking for a book that is bound, not stapled. When the Bough Breaks has taken Mason to a place where poetry geeks outside of Omaha can meet him halfway. So here’s your warning: keep watching.

To buy Mason’s books or peruse his poems of the week, visit his website: http://www.novia.net/~mtmason/fropoems.html

Selected works also available on amazon.com .

Lone Willow Press can be reached at PO Box 31647, Omaha, NE 68131

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