by Matt Mason
The Backwaters Press 2006
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
Beasties are Better
I have to disagree with Ron Block in his foreword to Matt Mason’s Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, when he says of Mason, “He’s funny.” It’s solemnity, not humor, that wets Mason’s whistle, and perhaps his solemn musings are mistaken for an attempt at dark humor.
In “Coffee and Astronomy” the speaker is lamenting; he doesn’t have a girl, he’s a “screwup,” and maybe if he weren’t such a screwup the girl would like him, and they could “shower together to save water.” Ignoring the “unrequited love from a girl across the room” cliché, if the poem continued in this manner then yes, I might say it was funny, funny because the speaker’s situation is pitiable. However, the poem takes on a more serious tone by its closing. He admits he’s scared of the girl and says:
as small as stars,
the light having taken years to reach me here
at this gargantuan table as big as my life.
The idea of enormity here is frightening and we’re able to understand the speaker’s fears as opposed to just laughing at them.
Unfortunately, Mason’s seriousness doesn’t always produce the desired effect. At times his lines resemble the emo lyrics of awful bands like Dashboard Confessional rather than the lyricism of a bona fide “poem.” The poem “I May Not Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Making Damn Good Time” contains the lines, “and it’s raining/ and she loves me again.” Another poem, but with a much more interesting title—“The Swedish Turnip”—succumbs to the same sappiness, “…I probably still love her./ I read some Vonnegut for answers.” Ick.
When Mason successfully avoids somber sap he forms strangely clever lines like, “We would lasso and break wild/ facultative anaerobes and ride those proud beasties.” Mason, a Nebraskan, also can have an acute and striking ability to make nature seem unnatural. In “The Thin Line of What I Know” he writes, “I watch the trees along the road perform / all their acts: fat, naked, flowering, flaming, green, chainsawed.” By giving the trees the ability to “perform” these acts rather than succumb to them, Mason creates a world in which trees could be our equals—odd at least.
Mason took the title of his book from an anti-terror speech given by Donald Rumsfeld in 2003. Mason is clearly horrified by the Bush administration, and quotes Rumsfeld in an epigraph for the poem “Code Orange”:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
Yes, Rumsfeld is a snake. Still, Mason’s political poems tend to miss the mark, as in “How I Love You (the John Ashcroft Remix)—“I have done this /…for Al Gore and sex among consenting married heterosexual adult / women and men.” And other tricks—i.e. stealing a line from Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert”—offer little more than a dull thud.
With the knowledge that Matt Mason is foremost a “slam” poet—both he and his wife, Sarah McKinstry-Brown, holding workshops and performances at schools throughout the Midwest—it is clear that the poems in this collection are missing and in need of the stage, for better or worse.