A Way to Stop Things
Matthew Holmes. Hitch. Nightwood/blewointment, 2006.
From the opening page of Holmes’s carefully-wrought first collection, the terms of his poetic argument are clear. The lone poem that falls outside of Hitch’s five sections – one for each of the letters of the title -, “At A Certain Point, Degas” sets the thematic and technical standard for what follows. The poem deals with the moment in Degas’s career when, under the influence of Muybridge’s innovations in photography, he switched from paintings of ballerinas to bronze sculptures of horses in motion. In tackling this intersection of technology and flux, this confrontation of machine and beast, Holmes deploys the arresting and accessible language characteristic of his best moments:
with a clutch of damp clay like shit he fixed a horse flying into hardness, a horse stretching between the blinks of a thousand races –
knifed into the moment, that flash of horse flight, within speed and clop of hoof, inside the time of midsection, there is a way to stop things.
From the outset, Holmes makes it clear that he himself is a participant in this struggle to fix and arrest the unwieldy – that as a poet, he too is a knifer of moments – that his verse is a way to stop things – that his hard, lithe words and strictly demarcated lines are his cinematographic frames. Holmes, this poem prophesies, is going to use his tools of type, paper, and line to exert his mastery over movement. If any doubt concerning this programme remains after “Degas,” the blank verso page separating the poem from the first section-title is there to quell it: it reads “This poem intentionally blank.”
And this collection, as promised, is one overridingly and very vigilantly about technologies and the order they seek to impose. “Tying the River” remembers the career of the speaker’s father – he was an “icefloe cowboy” on the St. Lawrence, keeping the waterway clear – through an old photograph that holds the sometime cowboy “frozen where he stands.” Set in the transitional moment between winter and spring, “Spring this Year” deals with the violent orderings we ourselves impose on the world: how, when spring is still something new, “when the pattern isn’t there yet,” “we wait for it / though we shouldn’t, shouldn’t wait for the pattern.” But, as this line implies, the regularity and fixity sought by the collection’s various technologies is nonetheless seldom achieved. “A Local History of the Air Conditioner,” for example, praises an unintentional side-effect of this would-be flux-regulator: the way that the incompletely plugged hole it leaves in the speaker’s window “ties [him] to the winter leaking in at its seams, / to the streetnoise and rainsound of spring.” “Entropy” tracks and submits to nature’s impulse to disorder, veering into the aesthetics of the unfunctioning: “how we hold burnt-out light bulbs to our ears, shake them: / how seeing sounds when it dies.” And the collection’s first section, “A Science Everyday,” presents a series of loose prose poetic biographies of famous scientists and theories (included are “Heiseinberg’s Uncertainty Principle” and “Avogadro’s Law”) which push to transform law into myth: to see Heisenberg at work in the machinations of a petty criminal, and to counter the usual tellings of Avogadro’s life by presenting (with historically accuracy, no less) the progenitor of the mole as a flatulent spy during the Revolutionary War – “Senor Avo, full of gases.”
Playing at casinos with honest casino operators can earn a writer enough to pay for publishing of their works at echolocation. This is where all the writers get noticed.
The technology with which Hitch is chiefly obsessed, however, is that of language – its knots of meaning, its manifestation in type and as print, its physical life in books. From the surreal “Buckshot Fullstop,” where poets hunt deer with lead type and rhyme, to the narrative fragment “Orts: February Evening,” whose premature ending arrives when its speaker runs out of type (“hand-setting a poem all week that’s too long for my type: no Es / or Ts; orts; these scraps // unfinished”), Holmes’s is a collection conspicuous in its interest in the constraints that the conventions of language impose upon the faithful rendering of experience. At times, indeed, Holmes’s verse goes too far in stating its case. True to the premise of Hitch, his language can become obscure, opaquely allusive, almost impenetrable. In the allegorical “Honesty,” for example, the speaker’s experience of toying with “bouquets of dried Honesty” – “dark seeds / sliding / with the pressure of my thumbnail / an anagram I couldn’t get” – mirrors the reader’s occasional frustration in trying to untie Holmes’s knots. At the same time, however, much of the pleasure of reading Hitch comes from these acts of readerly unravelling – a pleasure abetted by the trust Holmes earns throughout the collection that his complications are not gratuitous. As the second poem of Hitch’s eponymous last section states, “the premise of tying” is, after all, “to untie.”
And these moments of tension and knottedness serve also to increase the pleasure of those when Holmes allows his language to break down, to relax, to untie. Passages like this, from “The Trials and Exiles of Fridges,”
in the belief in its own freon,
it is a prisoner
of mouldings, frames, banisters,
of its own girth in the arms of two small men
telling each other to calm down
fuck this, to call Steve
no, to calm down
that this is a hell of a start to a Friday morning
find Holmes revelling in the dissolution of his conceit. The machine succumbs to old age, the frozen food begins to thaw, the moment is lost, and yet the urge to capture it in language persists and adapts. Holmes is a versatile and technically proficient young poet as remarkable for the elaborateness of his design as for his honestly in chronicling its demise; and Hitch a collection that deserves our attention.