Matt Rasmussen. Black Aperture. LSU Press 2013. 63 pp. $17.95 (paper)
Black Aperture, Matt Rasmussen’s first book, is the 2012 winner of the Walt Whitman Award and a National Book Award finalist. Any volume so heavily laureled is bound to raise suspicion, at least among poetry’s small and often cynical readership. It is my duty, however, to inform these dour few that Black Aperture deserves its honors.
The book has been described as an elegy for Rasmussen’s brother, who committed suicide. So it is, but in giving a public face to a deeply personal tragedy Rasmussen pins down an oft-ignored aspect of elegiac writing, which is the inherent danger of putting things as subjective and ephemeral as memory and pain into words on a page.
Every attempt to make art from tragedy, whether personal or shared, runs the risk of being facile, of leaning on content over form—or of aestheticizing violence without the self-awareness that act requires. Rasmussen remains alert to the ethical dictates of his situation without sacrificing intensity of feeling. He directly confronts the realities of his brother’s suicide, both psychic and mundane, but he has the discipline and craft to transform his record of grief and death into something beautiful without sacrificing visceral immediacy.
The second poem in the book, the first of three to carry the title “After Suicide,” exemplifies this union. Rasmussen doesn’t come right out and tell the reader what happened. Instead, he conveys the truth of the scene in a way that is somehow more striking and brutal than plain English:
My brother stood
in the refrigerator light
drinking milk that poured
out of his head
through thick black curls
down his back into a puddle…
It is milk, not blood, that flows, but one’s stomach turns at the thought of those matted black curls; this innocent, even humorous domestic scene—Rasmussen’s brother standing before the open refrigerator, chugging milk from the carton—comes to seem like something from a horror film in light of the suicide. “A hole is nothing / but what remains around it,” Rasmussen asserts in the first lines of the poem, and, in a way, this captures his entire project. He addresses the figurative “hole” or vacancy left by his brother’s suicide, and the literal one left by a bullet. But his best material comes from what remains: memory, pain, the strained trips to and from the funeral home, a pair of gloves Rasmussen finds himself wearing now that his brother has no need of them. The milk, pooled on the floor, “reflected the light // then became it,” suggesting the possibility of illumination or fuller understanding. And, indeed, the light “[floats] upward and outward // filling every shadow,” but the process is not a gentle one. We ourselves do violence, Rasmussen seems to suggest, when we examine what we might ordinarily prefer to leave alone (the bodily aspects of death, the inconvenient emotions that surround it). He closes the poem on a note of bemusement, watching the light as it “[blows] the dark open.”
In “I Am Not a Poem,” a piece of writing gains sentience as it is created seeing violence everywhere it looks. One of Rasmussen’s favorite gestures is to convert a lovely—even trite—image into something darker, and he uses it to particularly strong effect here. “The sun always set,” Rasmussen writes,
but to the poem it seemed a body
floating on its own blood.
The poem saw a snowflake
and wanted to melt it.
Haunted by the death that permeates the book, the poem also chooses to die:
Through the mirror, it saw a house
of air falling inward. The poem heard
the poet calling and it jumped.
The poet’s call prompts this suicide, which becomes linked to the act of writing—for the poem to appear on the page it must jump to its death. It is Rasmussen who becomes responsible for embedding a memory—a necessarily fluid one, subject to constant reinterpretation—in the text, and for him this process seems to entail a loss.
Because of this loss inherent to the act of writing, Black Aperture gives off a sense of the author’s implication or guilt by association. The second poem in the “After Suicide” series evokes this guilt most directly:
The lamp asks
is it the shadow writing this,
the pen, or their converging?
The paper asks nothing.
Prompted by a strong emotion or a singular experience, writers sometimes speak of poems “writing themselves.” Words, they say, simply come out of them. Rasmussen interrogates this phenomenon. The paper he writes upon is passive and seemingly refrains from judgment. The lamp overhead demands to know the origin of the writing: Does it come from the shadow, unknowable and dark, or the pen, wielded by the (more or less) rational poet?
Rasmussen doesn’t answer the question. But by identifying these two sources of writerly inspiration, he acknowledges that the process of creation isn’t necessarily pure, even when the words seem to come from somewhere else. Even when the aesthetic impulse demands that he write, there is always a filter, always a change of light that takes place as memory turns into poetry.
Other voices chime into the poems, most effectively in the long “Elegy in X Parts.” Branches urge the reader to listen, a pistol declares, “I will only // say this once.” Kafka, a field, a black suit, and a brother’s eyes all have things to say. Perhaps they are meant to compensate for the fact that, as Rasmussen claims, “My imagination erodes / my mind,” or else to let air into a record of grief that might otherwise seem hermetic to the reader.
In fact, many of these poems end with a gesture toward the external. In “Elegy in X Parts,” for instance, Rasmussen finds “a small ring / of your black hair // in the shower.” Taking the ring out of its domestic setting, he proceeds to turn it into a marker for the passage into the next life or a different, utterly imaginary, world: “It could have been // worn like a laurel / by a mole // or hung like a wreath / on death’s tiny door.
This technique of turning from the internal to the external is most surprising and effective in “Land O’ Lakes,” a surreal snapshot of a man inhabiting the world depicted on a carton of butter:
I can hear the vegetables
dying in the crisper
and through the door,
the television weeping
The success of Black Aperture rests to a large extent on this willingness to acknowledge both the inner world, turning obsessively on a single experience, and the outer world, which insists on continuing as it had been. “I can hear the vegetables” is absurd and eerie as a line, and as the eye follows the tight, careful couplets down the page, the poem only becomes stranger and sadder. The best poems in Black Aperture, like “Land O’Lakes,” explore this tension or resonance. Rasmussen also has a gift for picking apart an image and examining its various meanings, which gives him emotional range.
The book isn’t entirely elegiac. Rasmussen includes a sort of not-quite-love poem (with typical self-awareness, it begins, “The last thing the world needs / is another love poem”) and some descriptive lyrics (“Monet as a Verb,” “747”). If they lack the power of his elegiac poems, they offer reprieve for the reader and make the suicide poems seem all the more urgent.
What wins a reader over is Rasmussen’s insistence on earning the right to his own poems. Black Aperture is spare, haunting, and beautiful; that alone would have been an accomplishment. But the reader also comes away from the book with a deep sense of the author’s responsibility, and of what becomes possible—through empathy and alchemy—when a poet accepts this kind of burden.
by Hilary Vaughn Dobel