Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless by Matt Hart
(Typecast Publishing, 2012)
reviewed by Adam Love
I raise my Black Flag to declare my dis-allegiance
Always do the opposite of anything I tell you
I’ll do it too Whatever you say
Matt Hart’s newest collection, Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, is chock-full of opposites and a love/hate relationship for opposites. At times both Taoistic and sagacious, dark and brooding, the collection is honest and open—always in love with itself and its many worlds. It’s essentially a book that has been waiting to be written for the longest/shortest time. It attempts to re-define the entire human experience, or perhaps to reconnect with it, in the digital age: in this very time that defines us:
How to grow and grow along without turning
into a devil/red giant Or if one must, how also to be
a sequoia One thing’s certain: I won’t do it typing
The sun a sort of burning white hole in my pocket
Better to spend life spending one’s life, shouting
and rocketing, blasting the igloo
Hart argues that it’s “impossible to say anything for sure,” that all men are mortal—it’s as if his speaker is trying to tell its readers how short the human life can be. But one thing that nearly seems infinite is the idea that technology, and our use of it, will likely outlast us. However, it’s not necessarily something Hart seems to be confident in—and treats it more as a curse: “I wake up typing letters / Alphabet, alphabet—thought not to anyone in particular / To the circus To Fluoride Beelzebub or Beelzebubba.”
As a front-man of the punk band TRAVEL (the book is available with a full album by Hart’s band, with Hart himself shouting each poem over a discordant and harmonic wail of guitar and drum), the speaker throughout Hart’s book constantly references its own punk roots. Artists like Patti Smith and Alice Cooper, among others, are often conjured or quoted directly: “Buried / in the forest by seven singing dwarves, still waiting for a kiss / from The Slits or Patti Smith But ‘When we die we go / to recess’ is the end, that’s it Which seems perfect.” And each of the five poems of the book surmount as a kind of private concert for the reader, where he/she may find themselves in the relentless urgency of their own moshpit on the page.
The book is perhaps best experienced in its entirety, as a cohesive piece, like an album. The collection is woven from the ashes of burnt vinyls and fistfuls of postmodern algorithms. What makes this such a stand out, fiery bundle of poetry is the substance between the quirks and tics of a neurotic and self-afflicted speaker, who might have more in common with contemporary language and the inner world, than most voices could strive for.
Walking home drunk the other night, I said a bunch of weird, good things
and you did, too and while it’s hard to remember exactly what,
the shadows of what and the feelings still linger—even now,
even sober—we were so fired up, because
the night was so ridiculously in flower, so and so and me and you
electrified and shocking, terrific and true, and we were laughing together,
leaving our strung out presence like presents around the city,
me an amplifier and you a defender.
The heart of the book seems to be the third poem, “Amplifier to Defender,” from which the above excerpt is taken, where the speaker suddenly jolts into a strikingly different tone separate from the punk-driven, near non-sequitor declarative sentences and brooding musings throughout the sections titled “Lamplighter” and “Sermons and Lectures.” Hart invites the speaker into a private arena, as if “Amplifier to Defender” were really a letter written to a lover and left on a kitchen counter. After realizing its clear and direct command, the poet merely diced it up with line breaks:
Just back from running—it seems I am always writing to you
when I’m just back from running, but that’s what happens:
My mind in motion works better in motion, or maybe it only works
more furiously. Or happily, clearly, seriously. My plan is to make a few notes
on who we are/what we might be.
It is in this poem where Hart might be at his most poignant with lines like “As Matthew Rohrer / put it, / ‘I must learn to say the things I never intended to say,’ and then / I want to add: I also want to learn to say all the things I intended to say— / intended and unintended in the very same breath.” A dualistic view on both poetry and the act of creating poetry; vision and near desperation, as conflicted and complicated as a Jack Myers poem; verse that conjures up an almost William Carlos Williamsian sentiment that is completely devoid of sentimentality.
The syntax of the book alters between use of white space and non-sequitur lines; the speaker seems to remain keenly in tune with the trials and tribulations of a postmodern world, both in the literary and worldly sense, through the duration of the collection. It’s as if the speaker present throughout the entire collection treats the notion of postmodernism and its uncertainties—at some times absurdness—as a metaphor for the human condition he is perplexed by and obsessed with: “To live we keep living Some minutes / The instructions You read and you weep / Or you act and then curtain I can’t stand / the suffering, so give ‘em enough rope, / then occupy my life with anthemic meander.” At times comical and nearly acrid, the final poem, “Blood Brothers, Weird Sisters,” seems to do exactly what the speaker is obsessed with: dis/re-connecting the human life to its own vague, infinite temporality. The speaker becomes a proselyte who doesn’t proselytize:
At the root of human being
is a dot disconnected, wishing to be connected in earnest
to a mission, a set of instructions, a deep inflated thing,
hissing and red with a nozzle and a label.
You’re a rabbit painted sunset, so I speak of you fondly
to anyone and everyone who will listen to the music.
And whoever won’t listen will also have to listen,
you can bet I’ll keep singing/find a way.
It’s easy to assume, while listening to the album version of Sermons and Lectures, that Hart might be referring to himself as the punk rock poet he is. The collection, in and of itself, is a grungy album in a dank basement of some shitty bar where kids with half-greased Mohawks sip PBR under the cold blue glow of a LaBatt sign. And this is where all the meaning is: the voice throughout Sermons and Lectures is a voice that will consistently keep singing and find a way to make its readers listen as well. Perhaps what’s most interesting is how the untraditional line breaks and use of white space mirror the untraditional music that classically defines punk rock—rhythm and discordance: “Nature awaits us, / and Nature’s got fire I’ve been cool for too many / summers Temperature is rising Joe Strummer.”
Sermons and Lectures both Blank and Relentless is a book that will leave its readers both satiated and dissatisfied, as each reader will be moved by Hart’s darkly tender observations—at times to the point where they might feel as if they’re staring into a mirror and simultaneously frustrated that they will never be able to write poems the way Matt Hart does. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a book of poems the reader will want to return to again and again, constantly finding new meanings—as any good collection of verse (or album) should do.
Because, as Hart tells us,
Nothing is perfectly nailed to the wall.
I want as much as possible for the carnival of what is. Better worn out
and wary, than a mannequin pretending. “The slightest loss of attention
leads to death,” said Frank O’Hara. I say: “Be prepared for the darkness
when it takes you, but stay alive and stay light
for as long as you can.”