Bring the fatted worm to the altar
I will pin down the skin
The body open
What you imagined
An orphan cannot say her father is no man
A worm cannot say
No No Don’t do this
But the fatted baby will say
When she is older I don’t remember
What my father cut from me (“Baby”)
On the heels of his Ordinary Sun (Boston MA: Black Ocean, 2011) comes Arkansas poet Matthew Henriksen’s second poetry collection, The Absence of Knowing (Black Ocean, 2016), a book composed of incredibly sharp lyric poems. The narrator of The Absence of Knowing works through a hardscrabble series of lessons, often hard-won, attempting to claw out of the dark and into, if not necessarily light, at least a kind of comprehension, which would perhaps allow a better navigation of that dark. Near the end of the sequence “VERY SMALL BOOK,” he writes: “I ate a small flower I don’t know the name of / Not difficult to get comfortable in this world / As long as this is not the world [.]” The same poem also features a kind of lyric density in short lines reminiscent of the work of Rae Armantrout, for how much can be packed into such a small, clipped space. I’m curious about the mix of short lined lyrics and longer prose works—different poems requiring different constructions—set side-by-side, and the structural variety throughout the collection only highlights the strength of that variety. Henriksen appears comfortable moving between shorter lined lyrics and longer prose-forms, and I’m intrigued to see where the structures of his poems might go to next. The poems in The Absence of Knowing exist as a sequence of contemplations through beauty, absence, violence, philosophy and a series of connections and disconnections, as he writes in the poem “Therapy Poem”:
We agree every morning on coffee
We eat the same meals
Share a toilet
Variations of happy sounded out in time
Animals animals and sleep
We do this thing when one of us plays Nina Simone
We both listen and sooner or later we start talking about her
I beg my wife to read Clarice Lispector
I do not know how to tell her about Celan
In Joseph Bradshaw’s 2012 review of Ordinary Sun online at Jacket2, he focused on the “Whitmanesque” elements of Henriksen’s poetry, writing that “Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain.” Bradshaw writes: “The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.” In The Absence of Knowing, Henriksen, perhaps in response, includes a four-page prose piece, “My W/hole Aesthetic” that opens with Whitman’s standalone name in quotation marks:
Rust on the balcony, leaves. The trees are made of scratch-scratch. Terror of the leaf raking over concrete. I am trying to destroy my way out of Blake. Walt says, “I,” and it is so. I am tired of talking about I, defending I. Accept it all.
Send something south and it blooms.
We wrote in a rapture of distress. Self-destruction. Not I-destruction. Went south and found an unmarked grave, now marked, two birth dates, a wedding day, awaiting the second day of death. I am god. Good, too. Good for you. For good. For ground. In a rapture of distress we unwrote ourselves and wrote a Self, receptacle of God, larks, lungs, longitudes, dung, and dogs. The barking of the howl, the day of the night, the sleep of the sun. Tomorrow we woke alone and I sat on the floor all morning, staring at a finch an hour. It came as far as the television table, perching for many minutes in silence—silences be damned, this was silence—aware of me completely and unafraid, flying away never fearing. Self-destruction leads to a lack of emitting fear, all fears admitted and culpably calculated in the lungs, where in choked breath a waking blackness comes, the pit of absolution, the absolute precision of a dream, a sleep-waking, a Hell-not-a-hell, through no false hell, for all’s a false hell but exclusion from the Earth, and Heaven then is either ripening in the soil or it is Hell as certain as a Heaven. World and underworld then, and if the world is round then through logic one may find that under the sphere is the center, the zero, the nothing and the nothing-there, nether-world, never world, darksome hole, yes, love-hole, center of the flapping cry.
Words for women, death for men.