Ordinary Sun, by Matthew Henriksen (Black Ocean, 2011)
The timing could hardly be better for Matthew Henriksen’s first book of poems, Ordinary Sun, to appear only a few months apart from his long-awaited feature on the poet Frank Stanford, published last summer in Fulcrum. Stanford is a singular influence on Henriksen’s poems and ideas about poetry; in the biographical section of the feature, he cites a passage from Stanford’s essay “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes” that could serve as a valuable entry point to Henriksen’s own work:
Jean Cocteau said mystery exists only in precise things—people in their situations, situations in people. Because I believe the visionary life has nothing to do with a necessarily transcendent existence, I like most of the poetry I read. I believe most poets know this is the world; and when you try to lead a special life or write a special poetry, you are dancing with an imaginary partner at a meaningless dance to which you have invited yourself and no one else.
The precision of “the visionary life,” the situational nature of transcendence—these are the themes of Henriksen’s poetry as much as they are of Stanford’s, and it is a tribute to Henriksen’s poetic ambitions that the work in Ordinary Sun rises to this state of “mystery.”
Henriksen announces his visionary aspirations in the first line of Ordinary Sun: “An eye is not enough.” The poetry that follows is intensely visual, so packed with images that it overloads the eye and forces the imagination into spirited bewilderment. Understood in a religious or mystical context, vision both relies upon the sense of sight and reaches beyond it; the visionary sees ordinary things but sees them in extraordinary ways. The sum of what John of Patmos describes in Revelation is radically unfamiliar, but its parts—swords, fire, precious metals, various animals—are all available to the earthly eye. A similar transfiguration happens in the fifth poem of Henriksen’s opening sequence, “Copse”:
There were days I climbed the hill
and rested, though I’ve outgrown
sleeping on the ravine’s scarred side.
I woke on the carpet, opened
the patio door and stared.
A swallow flew in and perched.
I’ve grown out of
that sort of miracle.
From about the tracks she offered
bees as blessing and pestilence,
history as war, tongue as blade.
I lived lovely in a cut, day-long buzzing.
We have seen ravines, carpets, patios, swallows, and bees often enough in the world, but not in this configuration, conjuring as it does a sense of disturbance in any natural sequence or plan. The poem asks that we make the sudden cut from the ravine to the carpet, that we juxtapose multiple images in the mind. The imagination must do more than remember what the eye alone has seen. But while the speaker wakes into miraculous vision, recalling John’s prophetic language in the poem’s fourth strophe, Henriksen delivers no discernible prophecy. One may seek in visionary images messages or lessons that, if properly translated, provide clearer understanding of the relationship between temporal and eternal realms. Such interpretation assumes that the order of things is more or less logically intelligible, that revelation consists in breaking a code. Henriksen’s visions, however, defy this kind of decoding—indeed they perpetually reassert the distance between image and message, symbol and analysis. The speaker of these poems is explicit in his subjectivity, in the understanding that his only authority for utterance is the force of his own imagination. This allows Henriksen to work up a potent mixture of clarity and doubt, assertion and negation. If he is knocked to the carpet, it is not by any outside agent or power, by “one like unto the Son of Man,” but by Stevens’s necessary angel.
Despite the long history of numerological and other systematic attempts to parse the secrets of Revelation, the images that John recorded may demonstrate nothing more or less than a mystery whose defining feature is its irreducibility, its refusal to be assimilated by any system. The radical strangeness of the images—their seeming nonsense—might itself be their meaning. In his essay “The Poetry of Anywhere,” Henriksen writes,
Mystery more accurately depicts our predicament than any civilized explanation. Art, more often than other disciplines, attempts to demonstrate mystery rather than explain it away. Poetry, in particular, does little to explain away its mysterious elements, often taking liberties in emphasizing or exaggerating a sense of mystery, especially through images. The nonsense of an image—the indeterminable aspects of its relationship with the rest of the poem—contributes largely to the energy of the work.
Throughout Ordinary Sun, Henriksen demonstrates an energetic commitment to the indeterminable image. If John’s images reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, Henriksen’s reveal the mysteries of “our predicament,” the earthly kingdom. For him, what divinity there is issues from this flawed world: “The Seventh Avenue traffic sighs Deus. / We’re living in the kingdom of an idea.”
What’s more, these poems propose that mystery is the nature of selfhood. Another poem from “Copse”:
Waking to whiteness and unsure
who is there,
the shape in the cloth,
my dove and blisters.
The voice inside a jar sings anthems in the field.
The openness of that place expands backwardly.
what I gather apart.
What I cannot find in the morning is most myself.
Again the speaker awakens, this time to “whiteness,” a quality of light but also a blankness. This is vision as bewilderment, not knowledge. “Unsure / who is there,” since “the shape in the cloth” may be either a partner in bed or the speaker’s own form made strange, he is confounded equally by others and himself. Another abrupt cut (Henriksen contends in “The Poetry of Anywhere” that “of any other art form [contemporary poetry] most closely resembles cinema”) locates us in some combination of Stevens’s Tennessee wilderness and Duncan’s meadow, places at once ordered by the imagination and redolent of mystery. The cryptic but resonant lines “Immediacy pushes / what I gather apart” recall another claim from Henriksen’s essay: “Attempts to characterize our experience—through religion, philosophy, politics, and art—rely on abstract assertions about faith, truth, fate, or beauty that expose little more than the absurdity of categorizing the totality of existence.” If “immediacy” is the experience of the world without the mediation of the categories that help us “gather” ourselves, then the sheer fact of existence disintegrates any idea of self that the speaker may pull together. This is why what eludes his understanding is most truly him. The poem’s juxtapositions contend that selfhood is bewilderment, and that poetry—“the voice inside a jar”—is a way we experience bewildering immediacy.
Henriksen does not demand that his readers share the totality of his faith in poetry, only that we look for that place within ourselves, as he does, where skepticism might give way. Writing that so loyally allies itself with mystery and refuses “to explain away its mysterious elements” may fail to communicate anything to readers who are uninitiated in the faith. But the considerable pleasures of Henriksen’s writing occur on a range of aesthetic levels. His ear is sharp, his brio unabashed, and though the tone is vatic throughout, his voice is varied and far from pure: scripture collides with rock and roll, Stanford with Blake with the New York School. The poems are full of love and rage, but their subtle craft works its way through the architecture of the various sequences and the book as a whole. Phrases and images repeat at intervals and in new contexts, gaining talismanic resonance. With his swagger and generosity, Henriksen might convert a few, and to those who already share his faith, Ordinary Sun offers nourishing communion. He humbly welcomes us into bewilderment and shows us that we’ve always been there with him:
I am not more than light on the brickwork above
the D’Agastino and am the turning across that wall.
I am a blink as blank as the caught fish turning
its eye, or the stones turning always within.
I’m a hive blinding inward, and I’m fire cast through the eyes.
When I look, I see nothing, and when I turn away, I find,
for example, the dumpster behind
the hospital, the asters on the lawn.