What We’re Reading: Black Aperture
I often wonder how poets with incredibly dark content handle reading them out loud for an audience. I heard Matt Rasmussen read recently at the Loft, and was struck by his genuineness and self-conscious humor, especially when reading from his debut collection of poems which largely deals with his brother’s suicide. He’s asking us to take a dark plunge with him into a murky place of loss. And we do, because he’s so damn inventive in his language and outlook. It is no surprise that this book won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.
What I love about this book is his attack of an unfathomably difficult subject matter from every angle: there is pure grief, sure, but there is also anger, which hits home with the poem “Aperture”:
[…] The fall after
you murdered you,
I burned your letter
in a mound of leaves
on our lawn.
stairwell of ash,
a greener door
grows there now
but not in me.
Rasmussen’s use of dark and bitter humor adds yet another dimension to the book, as seen in “After Suicide” (one of a few poems with this same title): “At the party celebrating me, / you always show up late / and dead. Ding-Dong. / Ding-Dong. No one / gets the door, we know / better.” Another perspective that Rasmussen sheds light on is what other people are thinking and the rumors that start. These different perspectives are what make the book digestible in all it’s dark moments—we aren’t wallowing with the poet in suffocating depths. Instead, we’re perched on the poet’s shoulder as he circles around a need for closure, searching in any place or emotion that can be found. Rasmussen gives us occasional breaths of air above water with poems not related to his brother before we dive back in.
Rasmussen expertly uses themes to facilitate and connect the different angles in a sense of overall cohesiveness. One of these themes is the close inspection of guns throughout, which ends with the wishful image of a rifle being broken down in the ending poem, hinting of closure that hasn’t quite happened yet. Another reoccurring image is a deer being hunted that resurfaces in a handful of poems. These themes act as a touchstone, allowing us some space from the raw subject matter while connecting each segmented perspective to the overall journey of the book.
Divided into three sections, the second section called “Elegy in X Parts” feels like the thesis of this book. It’s a series of contemplative, short poems that act as brief moments of clarity or acute observation in a dark moment. He uses silence and white space to his advantage in these poems, as seen in this section (they’re all titled “X”):
And then eternity
inside the silence
of a tree.
If I could relight
your ashes I would.
If you torch a forest
it grows right back.
Rasmussen is also master of taking his reader to a deep place, only to bring them to an even more profound place with a single line. One of my favorite poems exhibiting this is the poem “Outgoing,” in which the speaker has to re-record the answering machine message to erase his dead brother’s voice. The last line leaves me breathless:
[…] The clear cassette
lay inside the white machine like a tiny patient
being monitored or a miniature glass briefcase
protecting the scroll of lost voices. Everything barely
mattered and then no longer did. I pressed record
and laid my voice over yours, muting it forever
and even now. I’m sorry we are not here, I began.
Rasmussen’s work has been published in many places, including Poets.org, Gulf Coast, and Paper Darts. In addition to being a poet in his own right, he is the founding coeditor of poetry press Birds LLC. Since this book was just released, he’s been popping up in reading line-ups all over the Twin Cities area—I encourage you to go to one and listen. In fact, I’ll make it easy for you: Rasmussen is reading at our Hazel & Wren copresented Maeve’s Session on July 11 at Maeve’s Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis (other readers include Jeffrey Skemp, Sarah Fox, Sarah Certa, and Caitlin Bailey). Rasmussen is also coming to Boneshaker Books in August, reading alongside Mark Berriman and Carol Connolly (St. Paul’s Poet Laureate).
Who are some other poets with intensely dark work who are able to lighten the load through form, approach, or language choice?