WASH YOUR BOWL
-Reviewed by Kendra Bartell–
Wallace Steven’s taunting epigraph, “The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,” opens Matthew Falk’s collection of poems, Wash Your Bowl. Falk’s poetry hits the mark. The poems are at the same time witty, empathetic, emotive, and imagistic. One poem may have a little more of one flavor than the other, but each reveals aspects of Falk’s searing gaze into what it’s like to be alive.
The poems alternate between swift vignettes meditating on nature and portraits of the earth’s human inhabitants. Falk shifts effortlessly between these two themes as though they are the two sides of one coin he’s tossed high in the air. One poem pictures a poet speaker as a man of the streets almost shouting for connection to other humans. The next, “Imago,” contemplates a cicada’s exoskeleton. On the surface, these movements appear abrupt and disjointed, but taken as a whole, the grand-scale natural images and precise portraits of humanity fit together neatly, like puzzle pieces.
“Corner of Guilford and 29th St., Tuesday, August 6th, 10 am,”immediately announces itself as an ode to Frank O’Hara, situated in modern day Baltimore. The poet speaker declares himself to be a man of the people, praising poets past: “I know you; I am you. Help me / summon the ghost of Walt Whitman!.. Let his mighty beard be / Baltimore, and each of us as / unique and interchangeable / as hairs in that beard.”On first read, it’s hard to see the poem as anything other than an evocation of Whitman and of O’Hara, but Falk brings his own eye to their poetic legacies. Falk isn’t presuming to be either of these greats, but he adopts their impulse to include, speaking to readers as though they are his friends and he has called them on the telephone. Caring tones of humility, friendliness, and due pause for equality underlie the collection.
“Imago,”the third poem, is striking. This is the first poem in the collection that moves beyond the talky, O’Hara-esque beat on the street voice, offering lyrical strides. Here the speaker meditates on a cicada skeleton clinging to his screen door:
I don’t know how to know
if he was really a he,
but the act of naming
made it so. He was,
and is, iridescent.
Again, the surface meaning of the poem is easy to grasp, but Falk’s diction is layered. On one level, the poem is merely a description of this physical thing, the exoskeleton, something a man can carelessly name. On another level, the Cicada is something hollowed of life, though still permanent—a memory. This question of permanence captures the speaker’s imagination. How do enduring forms impact the soul and poetry? By speaking of naming, and the power of naming, Falk explores the influence that writing and poetry have on our lives. The cicada’s “affront to the doctrine / of non-attachment”can be read as a poetic philosophy, akin to Shakespeare’s sonnets predicting that the words will live on long after the author’s death. Words can and do cling to “whatever surface / present[s] itself,”if we only let them. In many ways, Falk’s diction is just as sticky, grabbing and holding onto us as we read through the collection.
The lyric poems are the most fluid and remarkable in the collection. The voice is predominately introspective, but one that surprises. In the poem, “Unmapped,” the lines as “My words turn/into fingers, my fingers / into flowers,” project a playful though distorted reality, each word operating as a medium that carries multiple meanings across and into the next line. Witness Falk’s blur of rapidly changing imagery, captured in snapshots by his supervising consciousness. Falk demonstrates impressive control of line throughout the entire collection—allowing breaks to do their complete work and create arresting double-exposures in the reader’s mind as they parse through the white space.
Falk’s work moves from sadness to humor, from lyric to conversational, and covers the range in between. In its wide approach to aesthetic and creation, the poems in this collection offer something unique to each reader and each re-read of the poem is rewarding. Especially endearing for a poetry collection, there is an Index at the end, where readers can glance to find poems that contain “Faces,”“Salt,”or even “Unicycles,” at once a helpful gesture and one that pokes fun at reducing these poems to singular meanings or images. Falk’s poems offer us much more than one face or one pinch of salt, showing the complex nature of a human being witnessing the world around him. Wash Your Bowl is an engaging, layered collection that will resonate uniquely with each reader, so grab a copy and check it out!
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