Bring Me My Absolute Surrender
By Matthew Sherling
Plain Wrap Press, 2014
50 pages, $10
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The mid-1950s Manhattan literary scene that Bay Area poet Jack Spicer called a “primitive culture,” with “no feeling for nonsense—wit is as far as they can go” is one which describes a lot of poetry today. “No one speaks Martian,” Spicer said. “No one insults people arbitrarily. There is, to put it simply and leave it, no violence of the mind and of the heart, no one screams in the elevator.”
There are so many terrible things in this beautiful world. One of them is that Spicer died 39 years before the publication of Matthew Sherling’s debut collection Bring Me My Absolute Surrender. Goodness, what great fun those two poets might have had snapping wet towels at each other over repetition, over true feelings, over the destruction of personal rhetoric, over the religion of image—how images are not merely description, but gods to be prayed to in a poem and gods too, to be shirked.
If nonsense is a virtue, then sense itself—reason—must be corrupt. Aren’t most horror films some version of intelligence gone awry? Sherling, one of several authors to emerge from the trendy Georgia scene that includes Jaydn DeWald and Abigail Greenbaum, is earnest about scrubbing away this mental corruption. He goes after his acquired perceptions with a white tornado the envy of Lady MacBeth, until “something turns on inside my head / that feels like air conditioning.” Sherling seeks a deep sleep to put context out of his mind, to memorize the greatest poem through his dreams—his nonsense—and to engage the world as a sleepwalker.
Sherling discovers the covenant words “Damn Your Fear” in his dream of a “large book opened on a school desk in a dark room.” Perhaps those three words are the greatest poem ever written. Sherling offers a clue in his poem “What” about a man who sleeps on the back steps of a mall: “I say what is that / he says what is what.”
I’ll tell you what is what: that in having to make “everything” disappear in his head the poet fears he will erase himself. It’s more of a worry than a true fear. And maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking. Erasing himself is exactly what Sherling must do in order to feel the joy of being startled “by the beautiful things that have no longer disappeared.”
All of this was interesting to me as I made secret maps of Sherling’s poems, noting some unknown places and certain regions to keep away from, but what dearly excited me was his technique. Sherling employs several styles. Some are one- or two-line mutterings suggestive of tweets. One I especially liked was “Rose”:
it’s a minute for snowing.
there’s electricity in the air
and a rose on the table,
like a dog,
begging you to play with it.
Sherling also writes short poems with related lines or related distance suggestive of stanzas. “Jersey Shore” was my favorite of these, and finding that poem in the Plain Wrap blog is what initially drew me to the whole collection. In “Jersey Shore,” the speaker tests his shame, which comes of course from the awareness—the personal rhetoric—that Sherling desires to expunge:
I stand naked at my window with the blinds open,
kind of hoping someone will look in.
it’s okay, I tell myself, it’s okay to be naked.
Sherling’s most important poem style however is the anthem. Although its spoken word cousin—ranting—is never far from any microphone, the true anthem form has seen very little use since the 1950s. Perhaps girdled by programmatic thought, most poets seem to feel it necessary to dress their truths in perfectly balanced, narrative, metaphoric, and lyric threads. And when critics find fault it’s that there’s too much narrative, or too much extended metaphor (“The images must carry too much weight!”). Not so with Sherling whose use of the anthem is spirited, and full of passion and longing, without embarrassing the Grecian rhetorical devices that form its tradition. In particular, Sherling’s rousing anaphora lets him make subtle swerves. We hear with our eyes all eighty-eight keys of Sherling’s piano until the existential question Why? results in an existential answer as equally full of misery. Consider this fragment from his long poem “Because”:
because there are 62, 000 miles of blood vessels in my body
because the sea has enough salt to cover every continent
because the best scientists are assigned to the military
because .3% of solar energy from 1 desert could power the US
because it would take me 300 years to drive to Mars
because of the terror of indefinite space
because atoms are 99.9 percent empty
because the brain can survive 10 minutes after the body dies
because when I sleep I dream I am awake
The power of an anthem lies in being faithful to the line. The poet’s clunky confessional ego has no room to operate. I’m sure that Sherling has had a grandparent die or had his heart broken or lost his dog. Someone else can write those poems, he seems to be saying, as if a blog post did a much better job of that kind of poem anyway. Sherling’s six page “To the Reader” is another work of ascending and descending fifths which correspond writing on a super highway at great speed with the concluding image of a child using chalk on a sidewalk. This early fragment shows how elastic Sherling can be when he’s not handcuffed by narrative or metaphor:
I write this sitting in a bonfire,
as a deranged pantheist.
I write this to delay nirvana,
as an elegy for sticking legs on a snake,
for looking for the horse while riding it.
I write this, I write this, I write this! Sherling’s anthems also side step one of his weaknesses, which is common to poets who write in a plain spoken conversational style. That his, while it is still poetry, Sherling tends to write for the sentence and not the line. To some extent he can mask this by curtailing punctuation and lower-casing his capitalizations, but a lot of words in his more conventional poems are fairly inevitable, comfortable words within easy reach. The defense of this practice is the consistency of voice which it allows, but the problem with an overly consistent voice is that it permits a little self-caricature to creep in at times, undermining the poet’s soul.
The best poems in Bring Me My Absolute Surrender and these anthems are exactly what Spicer mourned the loss of. Sherling is standing naked at the window with the blinds open and doesn’t care if we can see him. Serves ‘em right for looking, I say, but even if you look all day at the window you don’t see his body—his ego. You only hear his voice screaming as the elevator soars and plunges in a building that doesn’t exist. And you were never there.