by Matt Shears
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016
by Brennan Burnside
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye in an interview said that “words can give you something back if you trust them, and if you know that you're not trying to proclaim things all the time, but you're trying to discover things.” Words take control of a poet, words lead. This idea troubled me as I read Matt Shears’ Dear Everyone, a sprawling prosaic poem that comes so crushingly close to elevating a violent ambivalence and disappearing into nonsensicalness. The collection reads like a deceptive cadence though. Reading his work is like listening to Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor: every ending only leads to a further suspension. Shears accomplishes this through the repetition of stock phrases, more in the tone of advertising slogans than verses, that appear truth statements at the beginning but near the end of the collection take on a mocking tone, a non sequitur appeal in their seemingly rote repetition. The collection is broken up into four sections – “Emergency Procedures,” “Total Quality Management, Or Essentialism,” “Descriptive Analytics, Or The Highway Of The Past” and “Coda: The New You” – that read more like a training manual and differ very little stylistically from each other. The dryness and sameness of the tone is their shared conceit.
The book, although broken up into sections, has no sense of rest or pause. No sense of beginning or end. Shears often uses enjambment to refuse natural breathing space. The end of his sections have no punctuation and unfinished phrases may lead the reader to think there is a cyclical nature to the work. Not so. The responsibility is given to the reader to engage the poesis and slow it down to a natural speed. What is a natural speed? For me, it was pausing on individual phrases to examine the reemergence of leitmotifs in different forms (Dear Everyone rests on these thematic ideas as nodes to establish or continue rhythm). Recurring images that Shears approaches are the notions of “whiteness,” “capitalism,” the “police dream” pursuit of docility to and abuse of power as well as the production of interiority that would otherwise be the only bastion against such psychic threats. There is a modernist sense to his presentation, much in the vein of T.S. Eliot’s refusal to spoon-feed poetic imagery to the masses. Shears places ideas that are passed by like a billboard advertisement to a passengers of a speeding subway train.
On the surface these ideas are given no more credence than anything else in the nearly 200-page poem’s media-saturated landscape. This is a reorientation of Nye’s notion that poetry must be trusted in because it will lead the reader somewhere. Shears work shifts the focus of Nye’s quote (which, it really should be said, is far more true of her or William Stafford’s work, for example, than Shears’ experiment) and challenges the reader to slow poetry down and interrogate it. His lines are arranged in a form that disrupts their ability to move. Just before meaning or essence seems to prepared to emerge, it crushes itself into submission or pushes itself into silence by its very form.; kaons requiring the reader to step away from the text, create space for ideas and consider them. For example, “Connections are essential” is a phrase Shears uses that can’t fulfill its own mission, misses the gesture for sake of a gesture. “Connections” becomes another theme for Shears work, themes that rest on hypocrisy as a foundation to existence. It’s obvious they’re not true but you are encouraged to move forward and just accept them. Connections for connections sake is a meaningless, rootless idea. One who lives by the poem without considering whether it should (or was meant to be) read against itself risks leaving the verse with a sense of anomie. A discrediting of individuality under the false auspices of the embrace (but really, dismissal) of the individual. The enjambment and unfinished lines that lead to nowhere could leave the reader with a space where things have been allowed to remain rootless while an unspoken center remains: whiteness, capitalism, etc. Exterior things (celebrity and material culture) create interiority and only reveal how it wants to be responded to.
Does Shears offer an out or is his landscape an inescapable Spinozan purgatory where all objects are reified into internally infinitesimal nonliving things? There seems to be. Shears leaves gaps in the poem’s thrust. The verse is sometimes nervous about itself in self-affirmative statements that seem to carry the essential tenuous essence of language and truth statements. In short beats it opens up. For example, “becoming white” is similar to a Deleuzean notion of escape except it is not escape into freedom but imprisonment, stasis: “Consider monopolies, cartels, business as/ unusual. Yes, they have now become white,/ stuck in a photo album somewhere,/ or the facility.” Further down the page, the poem admits that perhaps human beings are the predicate of an entirely different subject, “The vagus nerve soothes cargo, trucks/ in troubles. You pass yourself around./ Your life is a soundbyte culture”. The next line contradicts this by leading into a fog of rootlessness: unfinished phrases that permeate the work and resist full expression. Yet, the hint was left. Shears reveals how the verses could be read against themselves. What is or could be is what is meant to be resisted. The species of Shears poetics is one meant to be dismantled and discerned. If anything, this is a collection about deletions, a Zen-like exercise eliminating ego to reform perception, clarify existence. The reader, to borrow a term from philosophers Hebert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, is a “craftsman” and its task “is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in [it]self the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.” However difficult the landscape’s structure attempts to obfuscate them.