13 November 2012

Rise Up

In an interview on Stop Smiling during the summer of 2007, Matthew Rohrer addresses (although rather obliquely) the influence Romantic poetry had on his collection Rise Up (Wave Books, 2007):
I’ve always felt oddly drawn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When my son was very young, things began coming back to me — especially from “Frost at Midnight,” when my apartment was cold and the winter night was howling outside the poorly sealed windows. Then about a year ago I spent an entire year reading only the Romantics — their poems and criticism, and their contemporaries.
Yes, Rohrer “felt oddly drawn” to Coleridge and “spent an entire year” reading only Romantic poetry, but he mentions nothing more (at least not in this particular interview) about the effects of that year-long endeavor.

After reading Rise Up, one gets the sense that, perhaps, Rohrer does not say much more about his Romantic influence because the poems in the collection are often conflicted with regard to their engagement with this tradition. To explain, first take Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines” (i.e. “Tintern Abbey”); it is a poem firmly rooted in a nostalgia of times past, which the surrounding environment generates. When recalling his youth spent running about the wilderness, the speaker says:
                                                           That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look at nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
The “aching joys” of childhood have long since passed, but the speaker does not “mourn nor murmur” over their loss. Instead, he hears the “sad music of humanity” in nature; but, when listening to this sad music, he is disturbed with a joy he calls the “sublime”: a “spirit” that imbues one with a subdued power rolling “through all things”: a melding the mind and nature. In this “interfuse[ion],” a certain nostalgia exists from which springs “sweet sounds and harmonies” that act as a “healing” agent when we’re confronted with “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief.”

While Rise Up does, indeed, engage that natural world (thus linking it to Romanticism), its mode and tone appear to be rather different than its late-eighteenth century predecessors. In “Four Romantic Poets,” the collection’s opening poem, the speaker says:
                           If only the universe
weren’t shaped so much like me, I might change
my approach. (1)

                                                                      teach me
to hold an image of the world in me
that isn’t cracked, that isn’t bent backwards
like my toenail, catching on the bedspread. (2)
Just like Wordsworth’s “deeply interfused” spirit that binds man to nature, Rohrer’s speaker sees a “universe” (i.e. the natural world) that is “shaped so much like” himself. And what does it look like? It is “cracked” and “bent backwards”: damaged and in pain. True, Wordsworth’s spirit is sublime and filled with the “sad music of humanity,” but it is a music that, ultimately, brings relief from the hardships of the world, not a hardship itself. Not a “toenail, catching on the bedspread.” Not physical pain.

Moreover, Wordsworth envisions nature, even if it’s with a “wild secluded scene,” as a series of “beauteous forms”; the speaker of Rohrer’s “Poem Against Wordsworth,” on the other hand, believes that:
the butterfly has terrible
powers of insinuation
It cannot be trusted (11)
In Wordsworth’s “Lines,” the speaker self-identifies as a “ worshiper of Nature” who feels imbued with “warmer love” during his communion with the natural world. Rohrer’s speaker believes that nature “cannot be trusted” because of its “terrible / powers.” Yes, at very least Rise Up forwards a skeptical view of the natural world and its ability to heal us or protect us from moments of spiritual distress. And, at worst, one gets a sense that our surrounding environment can be outright harmful to our well-being.

Placing Rohrer in direct opposition to Wordsworth and the Romantics, though, proves to be rather reductive. In fact, in the poem “Winning Isn’t Everything,” we’re told:
                       Your sister said
autumn is sad, winter hurts,
but people who say things are
always wrong. (6)
The sadness of autumn and the hurt of winter are, it would appear, nothing more than the misguided musing of people who “say things” that, yes, “are / always wrong.” So if we’re told that the butterfly is untrustworthy and the world is cracked, we’re told incorrectly. But if we’re told anything, perhaps, we’re told incorrectly. So, what Rohrer learned from the Romantics (as it manifests itself in Rise Up) might, then, have nothing to do with nature. What he might have learned is that, just like the Coleridge’s ancient mariner, it’s better to do the telling than the listening.

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