Book Review: Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen

“Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the Walt Whitman
Award is given annually to the winner of an open competition
among American poets who have not yet published a book of poems.”

black aperture

Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen

Each year the Academy of American Poets sends its members a copy of that year’s winning volume. This year the title was Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. And if good poetry is meant to rattle in your head, nestle there a while in the corners of your mind, and then come unbeckoned to the forefront of your consciousness, then Rasmussen’s poems pass the test and the Academy made an excellent choice.

Within the collection, there are poems about deer hunting and bird hunting: “when cleaning a grouse,/puncture the crop/to release the scent/of fresh clover.” (from “O”). There are poems that re-imagine the creation:

The animals gathered
and having cried enough

would never again.
God knew he had

asked too much. He threw himself

into the sun and burnt
into white ash. It fell

from the sky and covered
the mountains. The animal

who named everything
called it snow. (from “And God Said”)

And there are poems about poetry itself: “Through the mirror, it saw a house/of air falling inward. The poem heard/the poet calling and jumped.” (from “I am not a poem”)

But the overriding theme is the suicide of a brother.

There are three separate poems called “After Suicide” and one poem, “Reverse Suicide,” which takes the events in reverse to when both the speaker and his dead brother are once again raking and bagging leaves. In truth, the majority of poems take this momentous act as its subject. And those that don’t address it specifically are tinged with the shadow of it, a shadow that hovers over every poem.

Yet the poetry is not maudlin or morbid. It is, in fact, a source of liberation, as the speaker attempts to clarify through language both the act and his reactions, both his grief and his understanding of it, both his dead brother and his relationship with him.

Midway through the book, Ramussen places a poem called “Chekhov’s Gun.” Chekhov’s theory is that if a loaded gun appears in a play in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 5. Rasmussen begs to differ:

Nothing ever absolutely has to happen. The gun
doesn’t have to be fired. When our hero sits

on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol
on his nightstand, you have to believe he might

not use it. … (from Chekhov’s Gun”)

It is a clever argument within the Black Aperture, because that gun–not only loaded but already fired–is present from the very beginning of the collection. The possibility of “not firing” that he posits in the Chekhov poem, is no longer a possibility. The speaker circles the once possible act of not-firing, while coming to grips with the already accomplished fact. That he does so with clarity, compassion, understanding and brilliance raises Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture from a mere elegy for a dead brother into something much more universal and accessible to us all.


Central Park in Spring…Poetry in April

Went up to NYC for two days. The weather was glorious. Bright sunny skies and comfortable 70-degree weather. Central Park was bustling–workers extending their lunches, children climbing rocks, skateboarders, bikers, and roller-bladers whizzing around. There were even some early sun-bathers stripped down to the bare essentials. Good energy all around–New York at its finest.

The reason I went up to New York was to attend the 10th annual “Poetry and Creative Mind” gala held at the Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center on Thursday night.  Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the gala celebrates National Poetry month by presenting various writers, directors, and personalities to read two or three poems of their choosing.  Simply, the night was fun. The presenters were relaxed and entertaining, and the audience was appreciative and receptive.

The readers were Meryl Streep, Brook Shields, Diana Reeves, Colum McCann, Chip Kidd, Bill Keller, Terrence Howard, John Wesley Harding, Claire Danes and Tom Brokow.

Chip Kidd (Master of Ceremonies) dressed in an extraordinary red-and-white striped suit jacket, Kidd was humorous and quick. He handled a small mishap very well when he introduced out-going Academy president Tree Svenson who reached the podium and had to leave stage to retrieve the speech she had forgotten.  He also performed a skit based on his assertion that all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of the “Yellow Road of Texas,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and the 1970 theme song for Pepsi.

Colum McCann. McCann’s National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin was a dramatic, emotional,  exciting portrait of New York City in 1974.  (see and hear McCann talk about the novel here:

McCann recited “The Road Not Taken.” He said that instead of gifts for Christmas, he asks his children to memorize a poem and gave us one that he had asked them to memorize. It was “A Meeting” by Wendell Berry and dedicated to Frank McCourt. His poems all tended to celebrate “the road not taken.” They included Rukeyser’s “Then I saw What the Calling Was” and Amy Clampitt’s “Blueberrying in August.” He ended with the very powerful poem by Nikky Finney called “I Have Been Somewhere.”

Claire Danes, the actress, recited e.e. cummings’ “if up’s the word.”  The poem had been read at her wedding.  She then read  Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with you.”  It was new to me–although I inherited O’Hara’s completed poems from my uncle–and it was such a wonderful love poem. Here it is:

“Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

Having a Coke with you
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it.

John Wesley Harding –John Wesley Harding is the stage, folk-singing name of the writer, Wesley Stace. As Wesley Stace he read Thomas Wyatt’s  “They Flee from Me”  which he calls the greatest poem ever written. (I’m not sure I agree). For his second poem, he brought out his guitar and sang the poem, “The Examiners”–which is on his latest album.   He had seen it in a contest in the Times Literary Supplement and was immediately struck by it.  As he noted, the poem may have come in 3rd in the contest, but “numbers 1 and 2 weren’t being played on the stage at Lincoln Center.” Here he is singing “The Examiners”:

Terence Howard, the stage and screen actor, seemed the less comfortable of them all. He haltingly read Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers,”  but then hit his mark with Rod McKuen’s “Gifts from the Sea.”  It was moving and lovely.  And to me a surprise.

Brooke Shields gave perhaps the best performance of all.  She first read “The Spoilsport”  by Robert Graves, then the very funny “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins and then Howard Nemerov’s “To David, About His Education.” Her delivery was relaxed and humorous and each of the poems themselves were both light and thoughtful.

Bill Keller said that the only reason he had been invited to read was that he had written a NYTimes article in which he said that Congress would be a much better governing organization if they read more poetry. (He said that maybe that would be better than the “Congressional prayer breakfasts” that so many like to boast about.) He cited the late Adrian Rich who once said that “poetry was the perfect antidote to moral certainty” and felt that that was something sorely need in present day Washington. He read three love poems, one each by Brad Leithauser, Kay Ryan, and Frederick Seidel. He ended with Stephen Dunn’s “Our Parents.”

Dianne Reeves. The great jazz singer showed that she can also sing the blues. In the middle of  the Gwendolyn Brooks “Queen of the Blues,” she sang the middle verses in  throaty, bluesy voice that wound back into the poem gently into the poem. It was the high point of the evening. She also read a humorous one about a woman’s hips and another about language and grammar by Kenneth Koch in which the elements of a sentence vowed their love ”until the destruction of language”

Tom Brokaw. Affable and charming, surprisingly his remarks fell flat and his poetry selections were not that memorable. He joked about having been placed between Reeves and Streep. Affable enough, but not that great a performance.

Meryl Streep is always regal, even when she is casual and comfortable. She read W.H. Auden “As I walked out one evening” and then Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”–she flubbed her lines at the end, but the performance was still spell-bounding.  To atone for her slip-up, she then recited a Chinese poem, first in English and then in Chinese.  It seems that she can do anything.

There was a large reception at the end–one could see in through the glass walls and it looked fine and sumptuous–but it was for the performers and the higher-priced ticket holders only.  Instead I walked across the street and had a whisky and replayed the night in my head.