Unfenced Existence; The Circuits of the Negative; and, What Is Grace?

Ordinary Sun

by Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean, 2011

120 pages / $15  Buy from SPD






Matthew Henriksen’s book, a beautiful yellow with a lovely orange orb on the cover, is aptly named, and when I first read it, I thought: “Blake! William Blake!” And of course, I was not entirely wrong, for Blake’s vision, his sense of wanting the writer to be essentially Romantic, revolutionary and ultimately Christian (though in an idiosyncratic way) is part of this book’s ethos. But to assume that one poet—now just a name to many—can influence a complex and intricate book about waking and sleep, vision and its oblivious counterpart, is perhaps misguided. On rereading, I find echoes of the canon and what also is not included there; I find places where Henriksen’s guided eye finds a way to relish the negative, and I think of theory, just a little: the series of “short-circuits” that someone like Slavoj Žižek would want us to find in something like a parallax view, the view “from both sides” of a picture or a noetic gap. This is what I think Henriksen is doing, ultimately, and I relish the intricacies of such poems that wonder with presence and absence inextricably connected by the beauty of the images that Henriksen employs. “What is love but a negative collaboration?” (“Afterlife Ending as a Question”).

There is something visionary here, and yes, there are the Zoas, and yes, there is (gulp) Hegel. We know all about this Blakean, lit-up way of seeing—or do we? And what’s seen when spoken, and how do they connect, yes, yes. Henriksen is interested in what Northrop Frye might call “the double vision,” I think, and Blake certainly was, decrying Newtonian wisdom for its monocled perspective, etc. So there is a lot going on in these poems. But they are not without their cheekiness, hence: “The boy’s symbolic acquisitions equate to a rhyme // representing the quantitative semblance between fishes and birds, / if you catch my drift. Could only the boy read signs.” (“Went Down to the River, That Angel”). It’s as if he   writes from new perspectives, to invoke the angels as if, having been one of them, he is able to see that their vision is both holy (hence the beginning section’s title, “Is Holy”) and yet also untainted, as life is. And somehow these poems realize that, within this vision, there are stains. Lesson one of theory, perhaps, at least for me.

There are places in this book (within these lovely Larkinian poems) where the stains are both  present and absent, vacillating on the hinges, and with a hint of knowing what it might mean to be stainless—or want to. Yet always with “having been there” attached. The light changes. As light does. To wit:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. (“Corolla in the Midden”)

Waiting for, well, perhaps something that has been experienced. Lesson two: everything leads toward, again, an everything—at least we wonder about this, the implications of what this universal belonging (some say common or Real, some say O) might be like. Of course Hegel makes an appearance, but not only that. There is a sense of shifting pronomials here that is quite complex and introspective, while also perspectival. Henriksen writes of “our annihilating impending lack / of doubt, our angel flesh that won’t burn” (“Corolla”). One wonders who is speaking, if it matters—to whom can we impute these intimations? Perhaps we all are, in this sincere moment: “I can only say / we cherish ruins” (“Corolla”).

In the center of “Gorge,” there’s a poem I remember reading on a blog, well, years ago. It still resonates, though differently. There are Futuristic and slightly Objectivist tinged workings in the form—one thinks of an Oppen or Loy here, and the poem is a set of propositions (the beginnings of saying) on vision. Henriksen writes: “there is a sun that feels / and a sun that doesn’t” and “the sun had wings / the sun has no wings.” There is a sense throughout this dense text, with its lovely invocation of tulips “barking” (yes! so true!) that we are somehow (hi, Apollo!) in the crux of what (at least what I know of) this poetic moment is about, what poets have almost always been about, only differently, with different uses of materials and means. Somehow, as “Gorge” continues, we get to year zero, as Deleuze would have it: “my hand a box full of zeros.” And also there is the lovely truth that “The moon and the broken egg are one.” We move through the book from shifts in timbre and perspective—though always carefully written and stylized—to a sort of falling in, apart. Hence:

We’re living in a time made clear by the idea
that muddles all thought and mangles the age of a lion’s jowls to a dog’s bone….…Pound said Bunting’s definition of poetry (“condensed light”)
consisted of more than all the man’s creative works. I agree. (“The New Surrealism”)

Still Blakean, yes—still very much canonical, in a sense, but not to be judged for that. I think that the chiaroscuro implicit in something like Frye’s double vision (borrowed from Blake) starts to become more “real” here as Henriksen begins to write about his poetics in relation to the authors who have influenced him, Katy (his wife), and New York City (which appears throughout the book, and where he lived for a while). And somehow, between the personal references, there is an enveloping that includes, well, us—our history with poetry, what we know of its antecedents, what we know of the cities within which we have lived as writers. We’ve all heard of Pound, no? And perhaps Bunting (at least I hope). So there is in this section a redefining of what poetry means—Pound was not surreal, and neither was Bunting, for the most part, but they stand as reference points to what poetry is doing, for the most part, if it is not yet fractured into sects and schools. Not quite Ashbery, a little imagistic (throw in some Lowell or Loy), what other modernists we can think of, not yet a revival of the Beats in academic circles….

In “Beulah’s Rest,” the book’s penultimate section, there is an emphasis on what ends, again, and the same reaching toward real. Poignancy here, I think, read it as you will: “Shall we redeem the violet in a sewer?” (“Death Certificate”). In “The Goat,” we have more sun references, and the same sort of blinding real that is the subject of the book, though not, to be emphasized, without shifts that move from light to dark, allegorically complicated shifts: “Gutted immaculate memory / The sun subsumed our modesty.” There’s a sense in which the following lines, from “Forecast,” in the same section, seem to speak for all of us, a sort of inclusivity (reciprocity, perhaps, at least in terms of pronouns) that resonates:

Once we stopped
to see a horse we didn’t have to say what we meant. We didn’t have to mean we knew
what neared or where that smear came from or when it crossed the sky.

In a poetic climate (at least in my paltry knowledge) such as this one, I think this is telling—one can read Freud into this, or Lacan, but I choose to isolate the aesthetic and to see these “short-circuits” as epiphanic literary examples, not unlike Joycean moments of light, but much less carelessly rendered, more wrought and tightened to create intimate connections between words:.

There’s still a curmudgeonly vibe to some of the lines, though, as in these from “Apology for a Miserable Spring”: “God blessed me with broken glass // this morning on my filthy block.” This little section, “Beulah’s Rest,” short as it is, leads into the ultimate section of the book, “Ordinary Sun,” which is one to puzzle through, a sense of an ending, feeling, etc., with questions to think about, ponder, structurally hystericized speech that somehow wants to be psalmodic:

When did you learn to weep?
What is the action of the mind?
Where does Hell go?
Why can’t we refuse?

There is even, one page over, a wryly self-conscious “letting on” that structure and criticism are part of the mythos:

Swathed in iron, lost in government,
the critic’s history sang reverence to God
of the arbitrary structure, and
each arbitrary structure sang.

We know that this is a book about looking, but, “This is the house / of no cameras.” This is the house of the imaginary, yellow, a short-circuit of what is contained within what we might think of as flowers, and what do flowers—really—contain? “The imaginary dances / so hard it causes / the blister on the son’s finger to yield, yellow as the sun can hold.” So what are we left with? Again, our time:

I love the way metaphor can corrupt
but so seldom allow it.
Though each allowance is
an interruption.
I sing loud enough.

The desire to be this “sighted singer,” to invoke Allen Grossman, for this reconnection, communion, is a universal one. We read all about it here.



Laura Carter is a PhD candidate in Atlanta. Her website is

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