Matter of Fact by Eamon Grennan. Graywolf Press, 2008.
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Grennan’s latest collection, Matter
of Fact, is a solid collection of poems that, in general, take an
image, spin it out for a while, and don’t make a complete hash of it.
While cast in free verse, or in some cases, that strange animal “prose
poetry,” Grennan’s poems display a good amount of prosody, with
internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance tying them together. It’s the
sort of collection one would expect from a senior poet born in the 1940s
who has racked up his share of literary prizes and appeared in a whole
array of leading journals.
And that’s the problem here. All of the
aforementioned elements, which should be subjects of praise, instead
congeal into a feeling of monotony. There are no obviously bad poems, but
the book is an utter slog. One wants
to like it, but I, at least, cannot. One frequently feels that Grennan is
phoning this stuff in while on vacation somewhere well within his comfort
zone. (The use of two clichés in one sentence is deliberate.) This
collection has “sixtysomething Establishment type” all but stamped on
On the most basic level, I began to feel
what one might call “bird fatigue” as the collection dragged on. We
get cormorants, phoebes, kestrels, robins both Irish and American,
blackbirds, hawks, ladybirds, herons, woodpeckers, doves, thrushes, and
geese. This could potentially be a strength in the collection if Grennan
developed the idea of birds standing for something,
forming a consistent motif in the collection as a whole. But no. Quite the
contrary. The frequent, often specific and evocative descriptions of birds
instead comes across as something that Grennan knows he can do and that
will get him into the magazines. So he does it. A lot. To where they’re
just a stock image of his.
While this might seem like nitpicking,
the problem extends to the collection more generally. The poems too often
resemble each other too closely. This might not be a big deal when the
poems are scattered over a series of magazines with different subscription
bases, but in such close proximity, it becomes a real problem. Compare, if
you will, the opening of “In Passing”:
could be the glide and slide of traffic
wet streets—funereal, with headlights on—
some more minute distraction, looking
the woodpecker on a bare branch: black and white
braid, scarlet head, indefagitable beak.
the opening of “Innocence of Things” on the very
north. Shivers of valediction.
of the Catskills in abrasive light;
flame of a redtail riding a thermal;
geese through blue immensity…
they’re not two poems about the same thing, exactly. “In Passing” is
generally about the transitory nature of things, “the brief love affair
that great burst of steam,” while “Innocence of Things” concerns…
well, the transitory nature of things, though, ultimately, through the
prism of a dead friend evoked in the poem’s last two stanzas and a bit.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a
collection of poems that has poems grouped around a single theme or a
cluster of them (i.e. love poems, say, or poems about dentures or cars or
loneliness or the search for the perfect döner kebab). Nor is there a
problem with a series of poems that employ similar formal devices (a crown
of sonnets, for example). But Grennan’s collection is not so systematic
as that, and one gets the feeling that he’s simply milking a fairly
small number of ideas for all they’re worth. And in a poet of his
seniority—and skill (both of the stanzas quoted above are, on the face
of it, well-crafted)—this is Not Good.
And really, the sense of having read the
same thing before comes not only from Grennan’s tendency to recycle
images and rhetorical strategies, but from his whole style. One can pick
up a given issue of Poetry Ireland
Review (or, for that matter, a great number of leading mainstream
American little magazines) and find poems that have a remarkably similar
feel. While I know I haven’t seen the lines:
once said of Celan, the way the robins were yesterday
their flutterjazz between branches….”
know I’ve seen lines like them. The poem is one of those poems about
winter where all is frozen on the surface, but there’s life and stuff
burbling underneath. You know the kind of poem I mean. But what’s poor
Paul Celan doing in there? His torment and melody have a radically
different source. One almost feels Celan was thrown in as a sort of “we
need a literary allusion about now” gesture. It doesn’t especially
deepen the phrase “tormented and melodious” to know that some unnamed
figure used the words to describe a Holocaust survivor. Nor does an
awareness of Paul Celan’s story deepen the poem. No, it simply lets us
know that Grennan knows who Paul Celan is, too, and seems to have read at
least one book or article about him.
And anyway, Grennan’s muse is almost
obsessively quotidian in orientation. At times, he rounds this off with a
sort of summary of what he’s written, as in “Photo of Matisse,”
where the artist ponders a dove he is holding “like an open book.” In
the end, we get:
A matter after all
life and death. A poise
a third thing made:
be looked at, looking back.
while it’s an interesting enough notion, the photograph being neither
the bird’s reaction nor Matisse’s to the moment, but a silent, inert
amalgam of both, we’re still in the photograph. And Grennan’s talent
for description, while prodigious, can, by the same token, become rather
relentless at times.
What one really wants, or at least what I want and haven’t gotten from this
collection, is one or several standout poems that vary from the rest,
whether through length, complexity, form, or subject matter, that might
heighten the reading of the book and give the more standard Eamon Grennan
circa. 2008 poem something to play against. Unfortunately, the homogeneity
extends to the poems being a series of free-verse lyrics of one to two
pages semi-regularly interspersed with typically over-busy prose poems
running between one and three pages. Divided, naturally, into three parts,
because, for some reason, we expect collections to be in several sections.
With a younger, or at least newer poet’s collection, one might be a bit more forgiving. Much of the purpose of an early foray is, after all, to fly one’s flag, to alert the reader to the possibilities that a particular poetic intelligence might follow at some point in the future. But once one has cleared the tenth book to one’s name, as Grennan did some time back, one expects more than hints and promises. And this collection, which comes across as a somewhat nature-fixated version of that collection of lyric free verse that we have all read scores of times, thus stands as a profound (if not unexpected) disappointment. Eamon Grennan’s Matter of Fact is not a bad collection—far from it. But it is a dull collection.