By Matthew Guenette
Published February 8, 2008
Reviewed July 16, 2009
On my summer reading list, I labeled Matthew Guenette as, “The Hometown Hero” because, unbeknownst to me, he has been teaching at the technical college in Madison for a few years now and Sudden Anthem, was released shortly before I graduated from the UW. Since most people living in the Midwest tend to be friendly and laid-back, I imagine I could’ve managed to chat with him or get a signed copy of his book for less than I paid to have it shipped to Asia from some faceless, worn warehouse in Indiana.
My point is: Poets. You are shopping next to them at the farmer’s market.
“Sudden Anthem” is the product of a seven year labor, which I think ends up suiting the book well. Guenette is still a really young poet, but his first book is evidence that he’s already spent a lot of time experimenting with his style. Like photographers, poets can create a lot of pictures of the same thing or the same place in their work, trying to get the perfectly worded money shot. But this book has obviously moved with Guenette, seen a lot of different landscapes and taken on a lot of different jobs. In his biography, Guenette mentions that he’s been a busboy, a landscaper, and a salesclerk. It mentions a childhood in New Hampshire, several stops in and around the Midwest.
Instead of posed shots and still scenes, the book offers up a disorganized scrapebook of gas stations, malls, and contorted self-portraits. In the “Seven Prepositons of a Bus Boy”, the split narrator states, “The Ghost of Me/It already exists…My ghost should have serious questions for me/like, who do you think you are? Or, what the fuck?”
Guenette, however, doesn’t resist this chaos and seems willing to promote range as a strength. The first half of the book is written in a more straightforward style while the second half toys with form, drawing you further into Guenette’s clever imagination. What keeps it all together is the consistent tightness of his language, which has punch that hovers between joking and real. “The evening/ divides (in two) couplets./ Sizzle steak. Wasp’s sting,” the poem “Problems of Transcendence” quips. Figures from popular culture and the academic world drink in the same bar, and Guenette’s narrator, like much of the world, seems confused as to who to look to, who to take seriously, or at least, unable to look away. He writes in the poem, “The Hush of Something Endless,” “But a stone-rhined Dolly Parton/kept bring more and more bottles of wine./Pretty soon I was terrifically drunk,/tripping from room to room like one/of Faulkner’s minor fools telling ridiculous/ lies to anyone who would listen.”
While reading this book, I immediately thought of how well it answers to a quote by David Foster Wallace I furiously underlined in his introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays,
“Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”
We receive a million hits of all kind of information and images every day. We, ourselves, are more popular than any video on YouTube. It’s the reality, as we all know by now, of the modern world. And Guenette, unlike many writers, doesn’t seem fearful of it. He’s critical of it, certainly. In “Problems of Transcendence,” he writes, “And look how helpless we are; that’s one message/Another one is huh? and what?” But he also pushes forward, and that’s what makes his poetic voice sane. “We know the dream is other dreams smashed/to fragments but sometimes the fragments/fight back,” he writes in the poem “Arkein.” Guenette’s voice is smart and witty, almost nimble enough to seem one step ahead and laughing at all of us. But there is still a sense of intimacy there, and poignancy, rooted in a willingness to embrace the near-infinity of experiences available in the world.