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Soft Focus: A Review of Nyla Matuk's Stranger

“A film is never really good,” wrote Orson Welles, “unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." The opposite is also true: many of today’s poets take cues from cinematography. Consider Frederick Seidel, whose Italian motorcycles are furnished with a panoramic view of the track, or Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which basks in the Hollywood-like gore of the Iliad’s battle scenes. When poets see like cameras, readers are invited to see along with them. Nyla Matuk is a prime example. Born in 1967, she first turned to poetry in her thirties after what she describes as “an intense summer of unemployed film-going.” Struck by the way the moving images reminded her of dreams, Matuk abandoned short fiction and began writing strange, hallucinatory verse that unfolded as if it’d been storyboarded, stylishly cutting from shot to shot to create vivid backdrops for her characters.

Those early poems ended up in Matuk’s first book, Sumptuary Laws. An exceptional debut, Sumptuary Laws aspired to a level of intricacy that movie buffs will appreciate. Still, to truly understand the cinematic scope of Matuk’s verse, the best place to start is the title poem of her second, and most recent collection, Stranger (Véhicule Press, 2016). Beginning with a stage direction—On the Ethan-Allen Express near Cold Spring, N.Y.—the poem swells to life with a train whistle:

A wail in a minor key along the Hudson Valley shore.
This train calls to familiars. A pond of swans

under a red maple consults in the folds
of its bishopric. I thought of an evening two Junes ago.
The first of the group of schoolgirls on the sidewalk
started to run. The others started to run behind her
in their party dresses, all yelling, “Don’t run! Don’t run!”
laughing and looking like they were having
the time of their lives. I noticed one girl

near the back of the group, laughing and yelling
after them, a bit taller, darker, swept up in it
for no other reason than itself.

Frame by frame, the images (the Hudson Valley shore, a pond of swans, a group of schoolgirls in party dresses) form a detailed montage. It’s easy to imagine the poet-director filming the opening shot on a crane, sweeping over the Hudson Valley towards a platform where the Ethan-Allen Express “calls to familiars.” The effectiveness of this call is rooted in both the poet’s pacing, which allows room for peripheral details (the red maple, for example, that signals the season), and the elasticity of the train station in recalling great films like F for Fake and Strangers on a Train. Indeed, “Stranger” is the type of poem that would be best filmed in black and white—perspicuous, razor-sharp, and increasingly introspective. Zooming in on the girls while they’re “having / the time of their lives,” Matuk concentrates on the one who stands apart from her classmates. This moment of recognition is the key that unlocks the poem, as the speaker empathizes with the outsider who lags behind, “swept up in it / for no other reason than itself.”

Outsiderism is a major theme in Stranger, turning up in poems about ethnicity, alienation, political anxiety, and linguistic confusion. It’s a theme Matuk comes about honestly. The poet’s father was born in Jerusalem and moved between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia before immigrating to Canada. Her mother was born in Delhi, India and is of Afghan and Turkish heritage. Matuk, who grew up in Ottawa, spoke English at home but was educated in French schools, and then attended a bilingual program in high school. She currently works for the Department of Canadian Heritage, and recently spoke about the synesthetic effect of living with two mother tongues she did not speak, but heard spoken:

[T]he word "avenir," meaning "future" in French, had me tasting roasted, salted cashews; "hat," mashed potatoes. Hearing "crêpe paper" had me taste fondant icing, the word "Rolodex" sounded like the taste of Kraft singles, "curtain" is soda water, "pillar" is Aspirin, and "journal" is the Jersey Milk chocolate bar. So, as a kid, the whole world was language, but almost in a 3-D sense, affecting my vision and taste.

Accordingly, much of Stranger comes alive in that “3-D sense,” playing out like a docudrama featuring a cosmopolitan cast of offbeat tropes and vocabularies. This cosmopolitanism makes Matuk the least “Canadian” of her Canadian contemporaries. In contrast with peers like Amanda Jernigan, Damian Rogers, and Sheryda Warrener, her verse is unusually dense, and often jumps between cultural signifiers without warning. The result is a kind of poetic wanderlust, as evinced in “Resolve” when Matuk writes of two stray garbage bins: “Marooned in winter country, / their green gazes presided / over me like gods on Rapa Nui.”

Vaulting southward from Montreal to South America, “Resolve” demonstrates Matuk’s proclivity for abrupt breaks in continuity. But rather than being a shock to the senses, the leap from inanimate bins to Easter Island gods is supported by the poem’s movie-like construction. This is one of the means to parsing Matuk’s new collection. Much of Stranger counts on a familiarity with film to provide a gateway into the book’s more challenging sequences. “Bon Aventure,” for example, repurposes imagery from The Shining, and one can easily picture a slack-jawed Jack Torrance musing at the end of “My Demon Poesy”: “”I stand back and my mind races, trying to remember / how I managed to get myself into this predicament.”

The more one returns to Stranger, the more its poems intersect and begin to take on soft focus. Validating the book’s opening epigraph from Adam Phillips—“You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, / if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself”—Matuk’s cast of strangers lack self-realization. But for the poet, not knowing oneself or one’s wants can be a catalyst for curiosity about the world. Tired of the monotony of a fixed lyric perspective, her poems hunger for the camera’s eye. Matuk switches registers often, conjuring up what the late Christopher Middleton dubbed “an atmosphere of infinite suggestion.” Consider the final stanza of “Then and Now”:

Everything is parenthetical,
then this
then that but
now and then
a clear view of sky
as if the sky was
the whole view—
(it wasn’t, then;
it isn’t, now).

If “everything is parenthetical”, how does one interpret reality? The crux of this question pushes the poem forward, with the sky driving the speaker to self-erasure after a poetic reconstruction of her life. The passage also mods to the lingering presence of social media, and is cleverly positioned to demonstrate the impressionistic nature of memory. It’s hard not to conceive of the poems in Stranger playing out in a Truman Show-like vacuum—paranoid, to be sure, but in keeping with the scale of Matuk’s disillusionment.

A good poet’s outsider status is never simply a function of content. In Matuk’s case, her diction demands a kind of hyper-literacy—etymological, socio-cultural, political—that makes her poetry challenging. “New England,” the longest poem in the book, is studded with a dictionary’s worth of references to literati and literary texts. It even contains an excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1951 essay “Exile.” Try unpacking the following, without Google’s help:

Here are the journals and the people to read at the
great revered libraries, and I am not being ironic:
The Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, LIFE,
Randall Jarrell on Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot
on everybody, Bunny Wilson some of the time.
Clive James for the parting shot, Delmore Schwartz
saying Auden was too “prosy.” Skidmore, Smith,
Rhode Island, Seymour Glass, Lane Coutell.
Clement Greenberg, Vladimir Nabokov. Ossining,
Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Metro-North;
the 70-year old man from Mamaroneck who
travels into New York once a week to attend
the reading series at the New York Society Library
on the Upper East Side, eating lunch beforehand in
the Viand Coffee Shop at Madison and 62nd.

Matuk is an outsider, in other words, not just in her struggle to achieve what she calls a “seen position” in “Beech Spleen”, but because her defiant deployment of language makes demands of her readers that very few writers are comfortable making in 2016. Italo Calvino wrote that “Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond hope of achievement.” Such is the scope of Stranger, which takes Oscar-worthy artistic risks, and often succeeds. Poems like “Appetite,” “Resolve,” “I Declared My Ethnicity,” and “Screens” command near constant rereading, and have a crossover appeal that’s already kick-starting Matuk’s reputation outside of Canada.

To get a sense of Stranger’s replay value, think Blue Velvet meets Twin Peaks. Matuk’s work is unconventional yet oddly compelling—verse to satisfy both traditionalists and fans of unusual music. When Matuk posits “what if I wrote lines that took nothing / but the shape of my thoughts?” she reveals one of the hallmarks of her success: Stranger is a book only she could have written.