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Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen’s poems are fun to read. They aren’t elaborate constructions, even when concerned with painful circumstances or disturbing displays of psychological torment, neither are they simple in statement or form. Tony Tost’s blurb mentions T.S. Eliot and Gram Parsons. This works as Henriksen is of a generation for whom turning from reading Eliot to listening to Parsons without missing a beat comes easily. (Parsons, after all is very much in Eliot’s lineage—wealthy white and southern, Parsons was a musical star who readily mixed country with rock, his personal setbacks and limitations reflected by his art and life.) Henriksen, however, is not merely deploying a grab bag of insights he picked up from the college dormitory. So, while there’s a bit of looseness deployed under cover of freehanded collage in these poems, Henriksen surprises as being far subtler a poet than to boringly lay everything straight out.

Matthew Henriksen’s poems are fun to read. They aren’t elaborate constructions, even when concerned with painful circumstances or disturbing displays of psychological torment, neither are they simple in statement or form. Tony Tost’s blurb mentions T.S. Eliot and Gram Parsons. This works as Henriksen is of a generation for whom turning from reading Eliot to listening to Parsons without missing a beat comes easily. (Parsons, after all is very much in Eliot’s lineage—wealthy white and southern, Parsons was a musical star who readily mixed country with rock, his personal setbacks and limitations reflected by his art and life.) Henriksen, however, is not merely deploying a grab bag of insights he picked up from the college dormitory. So, while there’s a bit of looseness deployed under cover of freehanded collage in these poems, Henriksen surprises as being far subtler a poet than to boringly lay everything straight out.

Ordinary Sun is broken into several subtitled sections of what are (for the most part) short lyric poems or untitled poem series. Some section titles make heavy announcements of subject “Is Holy” (Henriksen’s engagements with Christian faith don’t ring entirely tongue-in-cheek) or literary reference, “Beulah’s Rest,” while at the same time giving the impression of bold statement leaning towards manifesto, “The New Surrealism.” Much of the pleasure of reading around and through this book comes from Henriksen’s enthusiastic verbosity as much as demonstration of any poet-like skills or knowledge.

In Henriksen’s poems, such as “Fucked Up World,” the language needs not be heavily burdened—although it very well is—and is full of free floaters adrift in between the references and longings that make up his surroundings, aural drifts of a post-local universalism:

What can two people make but one bigger loneliness
before falling asleep shoulder to shoulder

in a room of crowded things
the same nameless light hits morning

after merciless morning?
A pile driver in the movie

slams mud until a slum apartment collapses,
Naples in black and white.

Pretend above all to love this thing,
this monstrous idea of a room.

The fact that Henriksen appears not concerned with knowing what to do with experience itself is one of the saving graces of his writing. His comfort to be caught up with wondering his way through puzzling detours presented by life via language affords him opportunity to weave the reader into the presence of being with the poem. He doesn’t push any agenda, but gives way to the visions of the poem that they be manifest, as in “Resolution”:

I made a whisper to make her body blink.
Her fingers rooted upon unnamable waste.

Her spine wound like a spire out
of time, contorted unclimbably.

A sickness grew out of my love, so I loved her sickness
and spoke in terms to make it grow.

I grew sick of repetition and so my love.
My love fell into the sickness of her well.

I fashioned a bower to keep out birds.
I feigned company and spoke in shades.

Pretending to hear her, I cried, “Invisible sky.”
I begged her back but brambles she became.

The only disappointingly dull rumble to be found here is the title poem “Ordinary Sun,” the final and one of the longest poems in the collection. Whether written at an earlier time than the others or a more recent dive into the ambition to write “a long poem” it needn’t been included. The stream of conscious imagery which slides throughout attempting to bind stanzas together fails to compel with the strength of poems in other sections of the book. Given the immediacy such tightly contained glimpses hold, the onslaught of rapid-fire, never evolving one-liners such as:

Bitterly the butterfly,
she said. The evening must go on.
Even if Satchel Paige must appear.
Even if Lester Young must solo on a late Billie Holliday recording.
Even if Charlie Parker must never run out of veins.
When R.E. Lee finds the infinite playground.
I am playing chess with Salman Rushdie, damn rules.

Swathed in iron, lost in government,
the critic’s history sang reverence to God
of the arbitrary structure, and
each arbitrary structure sang.

It comes across as nothing more than a slamming together of disparate parts that leads to no greater whole, quite an “arbitrary structure” indeed. While this longer poem seeks function the same as Henriksen’s shorter ones, it fails harnessing the means for doing so. Somehow the lack of space as is given between sections of earlier poem-series, or poem sequences, designating a determined breath space for pause and reflection, spoils the delight and wonder which Henriksen’s collaged lines succeed best at conveying and the slumped mass that’s left is nothing but a shrug and easily left in haste.

Henriksen writes from a perspective based on trust and is therefore trustworthy, or better be—after all, if he believes what he says it’s his own life on the line. It’s clear that he’s not faking it, “My mind tastes bitter this morning. I’m fortunate / enough, green leaf.” Whatever the grief be which drives the heart of such an Orphic song, he has lived through it enough to be recognized. Take note reckless would-be poets, Henriksen elucidates upon a few of the hazards which await you.

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