A Tale of Two Chaps

I got two new chapbooks in the mail this week, one I ordered because the poet is one of my all-time favorites—They All Seemed Asleep by Matthew Rohrer (Octopus Books, 2008)—and the other as a review copy by a poet who’s name was familiar but I don’t think I’ve read before—Hit Wave by Jon Leon (Kitchen Press, 2008).

Matthew Rohrer’s They All Seemed Asleep

Octopus Books

I’m always eager to see what Rohrer is up to and They All Seemed Asleep does not disappoint. It’s a 43-page off-kilter adventure that culminates in an explosive battle outside some kind of sailor village between a tyrant named “The Cat” and gay freedom fighters.

You’ve never heard of anything like that, right? As I was reading the poem it did call to mind some antecedents: Bob Dylan’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the sacking of the port in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Dazed and Confused, the battle of the Alamo, the French Resistance, and a bit of the Dominican history as presented in footnote form in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. None of that seems to fit together, and while at times the poem points, very indirectly, to these things, it remains pure Rohrer. If you look back at Rohrer’s past books, you’ll find the same elements of surrealism, politics, compassion, humor, altered-state reality, and readability that is condensed in this poem.

This is a poem that offers something for everyone, without sacrificing its chops. The narrative, while strange, is grounded enough to maintain its footing in the midst of its associations. The language is as surprising and alive as one has come to expect from Rohrer. The poem offers something new for poetry, an almost sci-fi style commentary on war, gay rights, and the confusion that confronts rational Americans on a daily basis, in the form of an epic poem.

This is a chapbook I’ll be returning to because there’s so much here. I’m also looking forward to the day when Rohrer’s A Plate of Chicken appears all in one place, though I’m not sure when that will be.

Jon Leon’s Hit Wave

Kitchen Press

Hit Wave is an entirely different story, and I do mean story since both of these poems are basically narratives. Leon’s follows the career of a poet, pornographer, and provocateur as he conquers the literary world, indulges in every excess available, founds his own private pleasure palace, yet remains bored and unimpressed with everything. Perhaps it’s the bright yellow cover or his recent legal troubles and penchant for sex-filled advertising, but I found it helpful to picture American Apparel CEO Dov Charney as the speaker.

I should say that the chapbook begins with two quick odes that immediately sold me on the whole project. The first is to cocaine, the second is to Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.” From there, it’s divided into two section, “1982” and “Kashmir”. “1982” follows the immediate rise of the protagonist through literary and business success along with his sexual exploits, drug abuse, and seemingly inborn ennui. “Kashmir” shows the same speaker later in his career, living at “Kashmir,” a sex retreat, still surrounded by some of the same friends, but also emotionally isolated and unenthused with his own achievements.

The voice in this chapbook is so strong. The book reads like the confession/brag of an '80s Wall Street executive crossed with Caligula. Given the current economic crisis, this book, which can be read as in praise of or damning hedonistic self-serving excess, strikes at the heart of the American paradox—we are simultaneously what is best and worst in the world, the most skilled and equipped to realize our material dreams, but often by way of greed and solipsism which effects the world in ways we cannot be bothered to consider.

I’ll be seeking out more of Leon’s work. Both he and Rohrer have that rare gift to successfully cross poetry and politics. But politics aside, the poetry is what counts and these books are excited with phrases and metaphors and images that stay with you, that work over the world in a way that makes things a little clearer or at least a little less lonely.

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