by Mathias Svalina
Big Lucks Books, 2014
166 pages / $12 buy from Big Lucks Books
John Berryman wrote in a letter to Allen Tate, “I don’t write these damned things willingly, you know,” an exclamation that fits the vertiginous, character-addled world of The Dream Songs. Certain writers demonstrate this possessive spirit effortlessly, and Mathias Svalina fits in among them in perfectly discordant harmony. Wastoid, his latest collection from Big Lucks Books, has crawled inside the desiccated body of the Sonnet and formed an impenetrable shell from its remains. Like The Dream Songs, Svalina absorbs the personal into a visionary metamorphosis of the real. They both discard tight form to maintain the bare mechanisms of the sonnet. In Wastoid, men swamp to and from the path to gaze into mirrors, open doors into other doors forever, tell their shitty dads to fuck off, and eviscerate themselves to gift themselves to the lover.
Early on, Svalina gives us two aesthetic choices—substance or form—on how to “tame the unrammable will,” a nod that feels self-conscious, an impossible promise. The unrammable will, like Berryman’s immutable drive for substance and form, is a concept that gains traction from isolation. And isolation, more than in any other poetic form, carries a potent smell in the sonnet. While I don’t want to convince anyone that this early moment is manifesto’s sneaky thread, it points to a duality that is signature in these poems, a duality also signature for the sonnet. The lover is the volta sluicing the flood, spilling the guts, trapping the speaker between water and whale. Any other feature of the sonnet falls to the wayside, because, in this heightened realm of lovers all called “Wastoid,” it is only the slaughter of arguments that count for anything.
Most of the poems organize themselves around the lover’s growing imperialism, fame, opposition, deterioration. Pick your poison, the lover seems to say, as their agency bloats into objects while the speaker flattens under the power of decorum, becoming more and more corporeal. The lover is an obstacle when the speaker is crushed beneath doors. The lover is a window when the speaker is only skin. The lover is a trampoline when the speaker is a “canyon killing a praying man.” The lover is a tinfoil quilt when the speaker splits into two writers. Steeped in the logic of the poems, such declarations make perfect sense. We know that the subject-predicate is at war with itself, and the battle is pathetic and terribly effective. Take this poem in full:
My lover has an enormous name. It only just fits in the minivan when we go to Home Depot. We used to fold the name up neatly for travel when our relationship was new & he wore all the jewelry that were gifts from me. But now my lover’s name has such strength & such wealth that it is impossible to fold. There are so many things that command the attention of men—for instance, I love prizes. But my lover looks at photographs of horses online & looks at how much they cost & imagines what it would feel like to purchase a horse. He drags his name from one room to the next & rarely can I edge my way past it.
In “Dreamsong 88: Op. posth. no. 11,” Berryman concludes “I didn’t hear a single word. I obeyed.” We understand authority to work similarly in Wastoid. We are not made complicit to the laws of Svalina’s verse, though they circle in curious carousel around a central heartbreak. If there are laws, they exist in a trail of essentialized anguish: As above, “There are so many things that command the attention of men”; elsewhere, “To immerse oneself in another man is to become a contraption,” “It is fear that makes the world so solid,” “Even marvelous things can be effortlessly forgotten.” Most poems carry similar assertions. Svalina ballasts his domestic and nautical imagery with accessible phrases like these, and through this negotiation of reason and landscape do we find ourselves clasped entirely in his spell.
Nobody in any relationship ever wins, though the heroic sonnet might masturbate itself into a frenzy of false victory. This is how the poet obeys. Shakespeare said in one of his sonnets to a young dead boy, “For having traffic with thyself alone / Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.” Gross, Shakespeare, pull yourself together. Svalina is as alone when he writes, “I spend most of my day in the office looking at porn. In porn love is always demonstrated: one man comes on another man’s face. One man comes on another man’s face—it is like forgiveness and the photographer is the priest.” Svalina deconstructs his loneliness in these banal settings, fuses it with other more wild lonelinesses so both can resist forgiveness, pornographic or fatalistic or otherwise. Always there is a sense that to say anything is to say every version of its self-destruction:
My lover is a 911 call. At night the outlets leak electricity onto the hardwood floor & I lick at it. I want everything emergency, the frantic phrasing, the rapid breath uncalmable by an operator’s calm. The first time I saw a dead man I was ten. He lay beside the train tracks & what I remember most was he had no shoes on & his socks were very dirty & I still wanted to leave my pennies on the train tracks but I did not leave pennies on the train tracks. I step in front of speeding trucks. I walk with my feet on the roof’s edge. Out on the ice one cannot know if the ice is moving.
Svalina is not afraid of the more Romantic imagery associated with the sonnet because of the ease of dismantling it: Time, Light, Hearts, Nature/Naturer, Blood. They exist in the same terrain as Home Depot parking lots, bear genitals, and the Chicago Manual of Style. The lover transforms only when these essentialized ideas of Time and Light and Nature touch this other suburbia. Sometimes, the lover is cruel, a result of the trope out-troping the trope. Sometimes the lover feels like Prince and we can’t hate him because he sings against the insect stings and horses, “I want to be your brother / I want to be your mother and your sister too / There ain’t no other / That can do the things I’ll do to you.” In either case, this is a book chock full of men, writhing and fucked inside a place that can no longer writhe or fuck. Out of the heavily guarded images, we are given these manic parables of disorder. The men roam forever sick inside the seasons of this disorder. It has been a long time since I’ve been this excited about a book made exclusively of men. Svalina can’t help but expertly turn phrases inside out, resolve to find their invisible meanings. Each poem is its own collection of poems, its own annihilation of his collection of poems. Like men they have the power to deny or condemn as they have the power to enable and motivate further. The simple quiet of his wasted world goes on and on: “The ATM screen tells me press enter to exit. I must enter to exit.”
Natalie Eilbert’s first book of poems Swan Feast is forthcoming from Coconut Books in 2015. She is the author of the chapbooks Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. (Big Lucks Books, forthcoming). She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.