Pretty, Rooster by Clay Matthews
Cooper Dillon, 74 pages, $14.00 paper
Pretty, Rooster, is recalcitrant. It’s practically experimental in its valuing of what is now unconventional: an unironical concern with the natural world and love; an investment in the concrete, linear narrative; and its utilization of the sonnet. This is a book of 50 deeply blue-collar, everyperson sonnets, and is Clay Matthews’ third book. These are deceptively simple poems. The language in the book is visceral and physical. And place, and the context created for the subject by place, are the central concern here, quickly followed by the speaker’s loved one(s) and loved things: flowers and the garden, his truck, beer, food, the porch, and so on.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote: “We live largely in the midst of man-made objects and most of the time we see them only through the human actions which put them to use.” Yet, Ponty goes on to say of Cezanne: “his painting suspends these habits of thought and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself.” When he is writing at his best in Pretty, Rooster, Matthews is taking on the same nuanced consideration of the intersection of the self and the physical world and its spaces. Some of the book’s most compelling moments come out of this simple intersection:
“I push open my heart to make more room.”
“heavier and in love . . .” [the speaker referring to himself]
“The seeds still sit in the basement.”
“I hear her hip’ slow white talk.”
As these finely-penned phrases indicate, these are poems light on their feet – given the sonnet form, they are inherently short, and are often concerned with the everyday: gardening, weddings, trampolines, TV, experiences of natural phenomena, and the like. That lightness – “My uncle / used to drink too much and then lose reason / and sleep in the garden. The seeds still sit / in the basement.” – can slip into a homey-ness that many will find very appealing: “We’re going to grow some / flowers for our wedding day. You get white / and I get cold beer.” In turn, it’s reading these poems in our current historical moment, with its weighty shade of seemingly unmasterable complexity, which adds implicit nuance to the text. Matthews is clearly as aware as any of us that our time is one that evokes a nagging sense of large-order risk, not the least of which is the risk that ways of life, which many hold dear, may be on the way out, altogether, if perhaps slowly.
One could argue, that many artists, like the superstitious, create their own faith – a way to organize, and so, a way to understand and give purpose to, an otherwise chaotic universe. Both the superstitious and the artist are collectors – they want to physically handle things. “Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion,” said Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project. All of this to say, that Pretty, Rooster is a book deeply invested in the admirable effort to keep things, not only from slipping away, but to order things which are, or were once, chaotic and always already insist on falling back into disorder.
Clay Matthews is TTR Poetry Editor.
Adam Day is a TTR Contributing Editor.