Described as “a rollicking epic adventure poem of foxy revolutionaries battling a fascist government,” the guts of Matthew Rohrer’s newest chapbook ask for more than just lighthearted fanfare. A departure from the thoughtful and romantic altered-states found in his defining collections Satellite and last year’s Rise Up, They All Seemed Asleep is a minor politically driven marathon that confronts the outrage and confusion brought on by authoritarian powers.
An epic to be sure, the trouble begins in a foggy port town as an unnamed narrator returns from a long journey at sea only to witness a crazed mob impaling a man on a spear. He quickly flees on an overnight bus and arrives in a mountain village. He befriends a man named Don who tells him about the nationalist coup that took place while the narrator was at sea. A colonel known as The Cat, an educated and deadly man who quotes from Socrates and Poe, has overthrown the progressives party in power.
Over many pints, the narrator expresses his contempt for the “fascist bullies;” threats Don takes literally. Don brings them to a cave on a hill where the narrator meets a rebel militia planning to overthrow the Cat, who is after them. The militia requires the narrator’s help:
Don patiently described
The Cat’s horrors, the campaign
against the interesting,
the doubtful, the terrific
in this world, poets digging
their own graves, though half-assed,
parents of festive teens shot
in community theaters
after seeing the whole cast
humiliated in death
even in the best of times
freedom of speech a sham
free speech zones at demonstrations
citizens of the empire
arrested and held without charges
or put in airplanes
and tortured in aerial
secrecy, above all laws
It is this knowledge which draws upon familiar paradigms of tyranny, evoking Argentina’s Dirty War as well as the Patriot Act; Rohrer creates a nebulous cocktail of political indignation, an outrage only some are clued into. In the domiciles of the poem’s dreamlike village, every concern is far off and unreal (“distant thunder seemed like fake thunder”) and the politics of life and death have been hijacked by the blue vortex of enormous televisions. As the narrator puts it, “The idea is not to think about your life passing / and it seems not to.”
Further on, he name checks political revolutionaries such as Jean-Paul Marat and Sendero Luminoso, the Peruvian guerilla militia that waged a war against its government. In this way, Rohrer’s motivations are clear: he aims the poem to lay an edifying blow while acting out its terrifying fantasy.
This idiomatic charm of They All Seemed Asleep will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has read Rohrer’s work before, but here the political blows are softened by the support of his fluency in conversational tone. Similarly, the spare language that compels the narrative is never far from pleasantly surprising. But where Rohrer’s voice in his last collection Rise Up was an attempt, as one critic put it, at “trying to shove away the darkness,” in They All Seemed Asleep, the narrator embraces, though reluctantly, the risks of the darkness.
Personifying the shade of the cave with the plight of the guerrilla soldiers and their rhetoric of action, it is in these confines that the narrator ventures to see if the “shining path” does indeed exists. Too smart to commit to absolutes without some poetic trepidation, Rohrer explores the moral contradictions in the narrator’s actions:
the question of violence
and its utility plagued me
before the cataclysm
and preventable is calm
With They All Seem Asleep, Matthew Rohrer takes the rhetoric of rebellion and pits it against the visceral occurrence of bold action, creating an enduring, adventurous and immediate tale that does not overwhelm the reader with its memorandum, but attempts, very plainly, to explore what happens when you put your money where your mouth is.