‘American Chew’ by Matthew Lippman
“chew my American chew”
The last lines of the title poem in Matthew Lippman’s new collection, American Chew, present a speaker who finds himself feasting on the visceral disappointment of the world in which he lives. This disappointment is equated with America and what it is to be American, but it also lies in a paradoxical recognition of the speaker’s own animalistic disappointment in his particular human self. Lippman possesses a subtle awareness of the flaws in the human animal as an individual, as well as in the societal pack, and he makes a conscious effort to chew through the torment of this recognition:
So, I make my lion breaths deep and low,
smile at the bloody cut
then chew my American chew, quick, fast,
full of buffoonery,
sloppy with the happy fat.
Lippman becomes the king of the jungle, instinctually devouring and attempting to enjoy the fat of humanity. It is in this image of an all-consuming carnivorous human beast that we are able to glean the perfect metaphor for both the good and bad in Lippman’s new collection.
At its best, this book is the vehicle for an impassioned speaker who absorbs the world around him. Neighbors, religion, weight loss, immigration, blogging, marriage, politics, and even the attempt at achieving a worldly epiphany through meditation or metaphysical conceit are smiled at, chewed quickly, and devoured as they appear across the eighty plus pages of this collection. However, this almost orgiastic rampage through so many topics via poems that are, for the most part, structurally similar, often leaves a reader stranded and overwhelmed by the “happy fat,” not entirely privy to the book’s emotional center or capable of sharing the poet’s particular awareness.
Still, at times, the structural similarity of these poems can have a powerful effect. “Voyeurism,” a poem about the market value of the Jewish holocaust in popular culture, is sandwiched between a poem about Mexican immigration and a poem about killing birds for weight loss. The connections between these seemingly disparate subjects rise quickly to the surface through their physical proximity and intended juxtaposition, but these kinds of connections risk being overused.
On a poem-by-poem basis, there is much about this collection that is admirable. Lippman toys with his readers’ expectations by either forcing them to consider his strange assertions through leaps of logic and image or by subverting his own opinion and changing the logic of the poem, often moving it into a realm of the politicized individual as representative of the cultural zeitgeist. The Poem “Meaningful Beauty” contains one of my favorite passages in the entire collection. It is also a poem in which Lippman is able to successfully politicize the individual speaker in order to create a unique emotional and social commentary:
One Day at a time, I think,
is the meaningful beauty that I try to throw my arms around
and my wife,
who told me she was fat
but who looks better than all of them Valeries and Cindys
and Susies put together
no matter what the madness is
that wraps itself around the sense of self
when one looks in the mirror.
There is enough consistency to his balance between the use of short and long lines to build tension and rhythm within each poem, but not enough to suggest any sort of “true” formalism. At times, within the context of the collection, this type of “almost” formalism is distracting enough to make the reader feel as though the poet is going through the motions of poetry, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “Castalian,” that feeling that a reader gets when something written starts to be too characteristic of the writer. Lippman’s poems that were once inspirational of at least, as Hopkins would say, “Parnassian” praise (lines that contain beauty and movement but lack the magic or mad momentum of the language of “high inspiration”), become commonplace.
American Chew is the first publication from Burnside Review’s new book imprint, Burnside Books, and, overall, it is a strong one. The design of the book from cover to cover is impeccable, and as an art object, the collection is visually and tactilely exciting. It is usually the small details of the book that make this kind of success possible: the inviting touch of a unique, slightly rubberized cover, a clean composition of type face and layout, as well as quality poems from a writer who is pushing his craft as hard as he can towards the next level.