Most poets would feel like they’ve “made it” if they didn’t have to work as a waitress or live with their parents anymore. Matthew Zapruder went well beyond that with his first book, American Linden, but it was his second book, The Pajamaist (2006) that earned him a seat in the pantheon. The Pajamaist, a mega-hit that put the hearts of readers and critics in its pocket, won the William Carlos Williams Award and a spot on the Library Journal’s list of the top ten poetry volumes that year—both Pretty Big Deals. It promised to be a tough act to follow, and it’s no secret that American poetry consumers are a tough crowd in the first place.
I’d like to consider Zapruder‘s latest book, Come on All You Ghosts, released in 2010, in the terms established by The Pajamist. Too few book reviews evaluate a work as a part of a corpus that is fluid and dynamic, treating the latest release as an isolated incident. This review is more interested in examining the ways that Zapruder’s writing has changed, matured, and ripened, to gain a holistic appreciation of what Come on All You Ghosts has achieved, both as a stand-alone piece of art and as a part of a sparkling career.
But first, let’s talk about style. Let’s talk about what makes a Zapruder poem, in the first place; then, we can hash the books. So what’s his deal, anyway?
I’m going to sound a little didactic for a minute, but bear with me. The word “stanza”—you know, the “paragraphs” of a poem—comes from the Italian word for room. The classical model of a poem is that it leads the reader through a series of these “rooms,” like a hostess at a Victorian dinner party. Zapruder is revamping the stanza. Most of his poems are written as medium-length single stanzas, aka in “monostrophe.” Instead of moving from the coat room to the waiting room to the drawing room to the parlor to the billiard room, or whatever bourgeois domestic tour used to come standard, Zapruder‘s single-stanza poems are more like walking into a studio apartment and looking around. And I don’t mean some Bauhaus modernist/minimalist apartment with a few pieces of steel furniture and a white carpet. It’s like walking into an apartment where someone actually lives; his poems feel inhabited and snug, comfortable. It’s a style that’s contemporary and relevant.
Besides the monostrophe, there’s a second kind of Zapruder poem, which is equally far from the Victorian dinner party model. These poems are rapid and broken, with stanzas of one to three lines and often a jagged edge, centered all over the page. The sensation of them is that you’re not in a room at all, but outside, for god’s sake, finally. This is the fresh air poetry needs.
And yet, Matthew isn’t doing anything very radical in any of his books. The man is just trying to construct a poem. New York Times writer David Orr wrote that “the list of poets willing to dare banality is short,” and he considers Zapruder a member of that list. Perhaps the poet’s enlivening treatment of banality is what makes him so extraordinary. He’s using the tools of plain language to build something beautiful, treating writing as a craft in its original sense, as though he built his poems with his hands from raw materials. What materials? Brooklyn, Diet Coke, a book of paper birds, weblogs, the “horrible/ charming Victorians of (his) new home/ San Francisco,” “the stadium shining in the sun,” “a flag I had cut from an obsolete windbreaker.” You get the picture—small things, looming large.
Take these lines from “Haiku,” in The Pajamaist:
All the things
about you I don’t know,
which is everything.
Did you never
want to be a dancer?
Were your ankles
too thin, and you didn’t
even know it?
Did you love
or were you afraid
of horses (one threw me
when I was a child)?
Did your mother show you
how to wrap a towel
around your wet hair
like an arab queen,
or did you just know
Zapruder is able to collage the small details of a life into something tender and magical, which has the ability to resonate with everyone. He is autobiographical, yet not confessional. He has names, places, products, quotes, scenes of his apartment, etcetera, but these gestures make his work accessible, not exclusionary. His poems throw a rope around the modern human experience and pull it close.
So what does this mean for his latest work? I feel like in Come on All You Ghosts , he’s pulling in more, and pulling it closer. This is truly the book of an assured and established writer. He takes more chances and the material gets a lot more personal. His previous book did deal with some sobering shit—for example, the elegiac series in the middle of the book, “20 Poems for Noelle,” a meditation on loss and friendship in a post-9/11 Big Apple—but The Pajamaist seemed like it had something to prove, a chip on its shoulder.
Like, The Pajamaist is just funnier. It’s got tons of dry, quick barbs, like, “Even feedback can be helpful,” or, “you have been here/ forever since 1993,” or, “The first and greatest of all the sufferers was the Pajamaist, an unemployed white whale in his midthirties. I mean male.” The entire poem “Canada,” for example, is a glorious exercise in wit.
Just like Canada the Dalai Lama
is now in Canada, and everyone
is fascinated. When they come
to visit me, no one ever leaves me
saying, the most touching thing
about him is he’s so human.
It’s not that Come On All You Ghosts isn’t also very humorous. It is. But in The Pajamaist, the author was too busy doing the punchline dance; in Come on All You Ghosts, he dares to focus more on love and loss with an almost exhibitionist sincerity.
For example, he’s got the sack to get a lot sappier. Lines like, “Today I am going to pick you up at the beige airport./ My heart feels like a field of calves in the sun,” or, “I love your love,/ it feels dispensed from a metal tap,” are perfect examples of this vulnerability that isn’t really funny at all, but will stick with the reader a lot longer than a simple lol.
Furthermore, Come on All You Ghosts was written after the death of Matthew Zapruder‘s father, an event that clearly impacts a number of the poems in the book.
In “Little Voice,” he even names this new sense for sorrow:
Clearly life is a drag, by which I mean a net that keeps
pulling the most unsavory and useful boots we
either put on lamenting, or eat with the hooks of some
big idea gripping the dies of our mouths and yanking them
upward in a conceptual grimace. Said the sad little voice,
The “sad little voice” is writing a lot of this book, but it’s great; I dig it, because it’s speaking right into the mouth of my own sad little voice. Or, perhaps, even your own.
The book’s long, sectioned title poem— which touches on funeral directors, the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the impossible distance of author and reader, the failings of patriotism, and more— is the sad little voice’s finale. The poem forms a crescendoing emotional din, which takes enormous risks and winds up delivering enormous rewards.
From the poem “Come on All You Ghosts:”
Come on all you ghosts,
all you young holding hands
or alone, all you older
people or people of middle
we need you, winter is not
yet through with us.
Come on all you ghosts,
I know you can hear me,
I know you are here,
I have heard you cough
and sigh when I pretend
I do not believe
I have to say something important.
There is a rhythmic, lyrical quality to this poem that, despite some exceedingly clever internal rhymes, never really bloomed in The Pajamaist. Zapruder also takes ownership of his role as the author in “Come on All You Ghosts.” The final lines of the poem are, “I have done my best to leave/ behind this machine/ anyone with a mind/ who cares can enter.” This is a volume that cares more and knows more.
When our favorite band releases a new album, we expect it to be “fresh to death,” and yet, at the shows, we still want to hear their Billboard hits from 10 years ago during the encore. So too, we want to see a writer do something, as the Thai saying goes, “Same same, but different.” Zapruder‘s still doing his Zapruder thing in his latest book, but it’s so way better. I guess what I’m saying is that you should really read this book, and you should probably also check out The Pajamaist. Sure, it’s a predictable enough conclusion, considering all of the gushing that let up to it, but hey, I’m just trying to write a review here.