Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: "Heart of A Comet" by Pages D. Matam

Pages D. Matam’s new book is a model of becoming the change you want to see, of living as if the revolution is over and a new world needs building -- now!

Much political poetry, and certainly much slam poetry, is structured on the observation-and-complaint model -- witness to injustice. In this age, when we feel as if we should have made more progress for the people and the ecology without which we are doomed, these poems of witness are more needed than we want. These poems turn our gaze out, to a world made accountable: a prejudice hard to escape, a power relation rusted into place, a history none of us can revise. The tensions of these poems are usually between the speaker and the world.
For all that outward gaze, however, the world of spoken word and slam poetry is a real community of mutual encouragement, appreciation of difference -- a culture where we become poetically honest in sometimes indecorous ways. Because safe haven is made for that honesty. The slam is, after all, a game. The poetry is what matters, the heart.
Heart of a Comet is born in slam, where the broken in you is welcome, where you can and must name what is breaking you, make it weak by its naming. The honesty of these poems is scouring-pad-to-skin intense. Even for this context, these poems are permission and challenge to turn the witness a little more inward, and the result is so transparent it almost hurts to read:
When you wake up drenched         in tomorrow’s amnesia,
your pulse still burning   
              filled with troubling memories
that reminds you that you are still human, that your heart is not a dandelion, so you must stop scattering yourself to pieces …
You’ll feel beaten down by the weight of your own galaxy
The shooting star emptying its clip into the sky on celestial drive-by;
But if we’re going to live on the shoulders of giants,
We will have to stop complaining of our fear of heights.
This poem arrives early in the first section of the book, called “Apology of a Confused Tornado, Part 1,” and it signals much of what is to come: motifs at once cosmic and personal, Matam's wit that interjects traditional and pop cliches into a confession of personal disaster, a sense of form that mixes and mingles elegantly and at will.
These elements mix with lines clearly in the slam form -- “But drinking more Absolute only made me more obsolete” -- that roll onto the more difficult, and arresting, cadence of a “fiendish appetite for earthquakes at the dripping enjambment of a woman.” There are moments in these poems when the onslaughts of linguistic and symbolic bounce are hard to keep up with.
But this brings me to the matter of theme. The poems present us with a man rebuilding his masculinity from one fractured by immigration, linguistic alienation, racism, victimization, and self-punishment to one still mending but radically changed. A man who chooses to father another man’s son, a man who saves himself from his addictions, a man whose god is feminine and for whom women have become whole and human, a man who puts himself up against the imago of corporate hip-hop and burns it to a crisp.
A series of prose allegories cast the poet as Comet, the son as Sol, the woman as Sky, and the larger (unfriendly) culture as the Fog. The tropes are clearly meant to place this personal drama on the cosmic scale, and this conceit is well placed. When it’s your life on the line, the stakes are cosmic, for you, for your little human constellation. The extended metaphor supports the poetic tension of the whole book. We are discrete beings, but we are also completely part of the larger universe, each other. Our being affects all beings.
The allegorical Comet, paradoxically, zooms through the solar system and lives in a city imbued with a fog of wrong ideas and dead or dying hearts. Matam uses this allegory to think through a transformation, the wrenching tear-down-to-studs that we hazily call “personal growth.”
The Fog has a number of problems with black men, with post-colonial black immigrant men to boot, one of the deepest of which is the matter of carnality, of sexuality. On one hand, an Anglocentric culture wants to reduce black men to their bodies, their sexuality or their violence, and then wants to punish them for its own inability to see much else in them. Matam’s honesty addresses this carnality full-on in beautifully rendered metaphors that are impolitely honest about sex, about the gorgeous fall into the Right Here of the body.
But, the Divine Feminine can be an easy ocean in which to drown. This being a complicated masculinity, rather than the consumer-friendly kind, it exposes the abandonment that can hide in the worship of women as source, as mask. Her orgasm can be his false sense of value. These are not things admitted in the larger culture. Poems titled “Lovemaking Is a Flightless Bird in a Burning Pit” are not the kind of poems about sex that men are “supposed” to write.
On the other hand, Matam’s Comet reminds us that a poet bent on seduction, especially for self-deluding purposes, is a dangerous creature. Embedded in the realization story of Comet we are presented with a barrage of compliments few women would dismiss:
The fire in your eyes potty trained the big bang at gunpoint. The wrinkles in your hands taught phoenixes of resurrection. I have a heart full of ashes ready to Holy-Ghost dance anew at your beckoning call … Allow my lips to learn your bow-legged truth, squeezing your parabolas into a symphony of waves … You make me feel like I mean something.                                                                                                                                                                   
These poems render sensuality as spiritual revelation and as addicting escape. We witness a man’s evolution from soul-killing abandon to tentative learning of love, to really, really blowing it, to rebuilding from the atom outward a whole, more engaged self. In charting this exploration, Matam gives us permission to say – out loud -- that we know what That is. We are rebuilding ourselves for the sake of the world we want to live in. Matam's poems are the rebuttal to every thin, easy, profitable lie ever laid over the black male self by an Anglocentric culture jealous of its status.
Matam is not working on the revolution in this book, but on what comes after. He’s got witness, and complaint, and analysis -- he’s a master of his genre -- but more importantly, his poems chronicle a question: If I don’t want to be what they think I am, or don’t want to live my pain as self-destruction; then how shall I love myself in a country that does not love me, and how shall I live my love as a whole life?
This is what I love most in Matam’s poems. Beyond the formal dexterity, the complex echoes and refrains through the book, the bravely (pointedly) incomplete allegories of the prose poems -- I love that this book is a model of becoming the change you want to see, of living as if the revolution is over and a new world needs building -- now! We do need to live as if, and become our selves replete -- or we’ll just make another muddle of it. More poems of evolution, more poems of enjoyment of our new being and living, more witness of what is loving and nourishing and brave.
… poetry is another name for heartbreak
and just like air
  or a home
     or a chorus
         or a memory
it will fill
until there is no more room
to expand
and you must find somewhere new to

Write Bloody publishes many page-stage poets, and page poets, and fiction writers on the condition that they tour hard like an indie rock band to promote their own work. Pages Matam is touring now, so buy his book and help fund the tour!
To purchase a copy of this visionary work, visit Pages’s site here.
Written by Simone Roberts, Split This Rock Poetry and Social Justice Fellow, a feminist activist, and a scholar of post-symbolist / hybrid poetics and feminist phenomenology.

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