Letters Toward Jim

by Matthew Langley
Catfish Press 2006
Reviewed by Ben Mirov


Desert Wisdom

langley_coverMatthew Langley’s chapbook Letters Toward Jim is a collection of correspondence poems between a narrator and someone named Jim (potentiallly Jim Goar, editor of Past Simple and Catfish Press). Whereas other notable correspondence projects such as Jack Spicer’s After Lorca use the oblique relationship between sender and receiver as a justification for compiling and categorizing the collected poems, in Letters to Jim, the motivation behind the letters is open-ended and the relationship between sender and receiver is left unspecified. In this sense Jim becomes an idea rather than a real person. Who Jim is and what he represents remains to be embodied by the letter-poems and not by historical context or narrative explication.

As the title implies, these communications may never actually reach their destination. Their function is as an indicator towards the possibility of Jim. Who is Jim and does he exist? Is Jim and editor, a friend, a synonym for God, or all of the above? In a way, Letters Toward Jim is a compilation of uncorrespondences or communications sent with the awareness that they may never receive a response and that their recipient may not exist. Individual poems reflect this uncertainty:

We horsemen, astride our horses, what
do we care about?
The answer a loud wondering:
“Stroll to your profit; flick the wind east.
Gather a mighty following, a ranch
of desert wisdom. And if men balk
at your entreaties, beat it straight
to the mountains, trailing bullets
from your heels.”

The answer to “what / do we care about” is generated by the rhetorical nature of the question and not from a second party, as one might expect. In this case the answer or “loud wondering” implies more questions than answers. What is the “profit” mentioned in the fourth line? What are the consequences of flicking “the wind east”? What composes the “mighty following”? None of these questions are answered by the poem. The various components all seem to amount to “desert wisdom,” or a type of knowledge that is only as useful as it is barren. Many of the poems in Letters Toward Jim embody this idea of “desert wisdom,” or knowledge or insight brought about by the act of “loud wondering” and not via dialog as the letter-form suggests.

The aim of Letters Toward Jim is admirable if not wrought with Sisyphean challenges. One could picture Langley continuing his letters indefinitely, filling at least an entire volume a la The Dream Songs. The best poems have prayer-like qualities and a settle, self-effacing sense of humor and pathos, while the weaker ones get tangled on themselves and never quite produce enough energy to provoke repeated readings and or meditations. For the most part, the poems are lighthearted and attractive and make for a solid collection.