Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Matt Mason

Things We Don't Know We Don't KnowLast April when I blogged about the similarly titled book of poetry We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz, I mentioned that Lantz wasn’t the first poet to use that Donald Rumsfeld quote for a title, and lamented that I hadn’t read Matt Mason’s 2006 book. A few months later, Mason saw my post and promptly sent me a copy, complete with a friendly inscription, which of course endeared me to the book right away. On second reading today, I still find much to admire. I don’t usually pay much attention to publishers’ descriptions, but this one happens to be spot-on: “More entertaining than you’d think a book of poetry should be and more poetic than you’d think an entertaining book can be.”

I gather Mason is a regular on the poetry slam circuit. Many of the poems in this volume must be very effective for live audiences, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t work on the page as well. I was pretty sleep-deprived today, and moreover short on time to read since I was also shopping, and Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know proved to be a good companion. It’s much more of a miscellany than the Lantz book, and we don’t even get to the aftermath of 9/11 until page 59, but by that point we’ve been well prepared by poems about Stonewall Jackson, the ghost dancers, the Strategic Air Command Museum, and the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, built by the heir of the Winchester repeating rifle fortune to try to fend off the malicious spirits of those killed by the rifle:

With Dad off work for the weekend, families pay
and tour the stairways to nowhere,
doors to brick walls, the thirteen bathrooms,
ghost-driven sprawl
cracking and spiraling for fear
of all those killed by her husband’s creation,
“the gun that won
the west” fattening the skies with those angry dead…

“Ghost-driven sprawl” is a nice example of Mason’s gift for succinct phrases which are at once humorous and accurate, with a dash of pathos. I must say that, much as I enjoy good light verse, it’s also nice to see free-verse poetry that takes humor a bit more seriously. A poem called “Navigation,” for example, ponders the poet’s approach to his art in tongue-in-cheek fashion, and pines for “moonlight that shows everything/ more mystically, slower.” And then the closing stanza leaves us with a quite indelible image:

But the best I can find tonight is refrigerator light,
that shows everything
too bright, giving the illusion of cold
calm, as if nothing is slowly molding or souring,
as if everything stays okay if
observed in the right wattage.

Mason’s love poems are hit or miss with me, but the subject he seems to know and love the best is driving — not surprising for a poet from Nebraska, I suppose. One poem is titled “I May Not Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Making Damn Good Time,” which is kind of the U.S.A. in a nutshell, I think.

Why do I keep shoving
fries in my mouth, trying
to find the one bit of deep-
fried potato shrapnel that finally satisfies?

Another poem, “The Thin Line of What I Know,” not only anticipates the Rumsfeld meme later in the book, but really captures the experience of interstate driving and the shallow sort of familiarity with the landscape it imparts:

I never go farther off the interstate
than the Have a Nice Day water tower smiling from Adair,
never go past the gas stations,
never put my fingers
in the skin of the East
or West Nishnatoba Rivers,
never slow at mile 71,
  where that pond, always flat and still no matter how windy,
   stretches two drowning elms like bony arms
clinging onto the sky.

Though Mason is a humorist and not a comedian, he has that essential streak of self-deprecation common to both on display in poems such as “The Funny Poet Renounces Funny Poetry and Concentrates On Making the World a Better, More Beautiful Place (In Which He Has Sex More Often)” and “How I Love You (the John Ashcroft Remix)”:

My job
is just to keep you laughing, keep you listening
to the funny poem
so you won’t stray too much,
pay more attention to that stream-of-consciousness ramble some
other poet’s reading: that
sloppy poem, that overuses-the-word-“revolution”-too-much poem, that
heartfelt poem, cast-your-vote-with-a-stone poem,
that register-your-sad-ass-to-actually-vote poem,
that get-out-of-bed-on-election-day, put-down-the-gordita-and-actually-go-to-a-polling-place-and-vote poem,
have accepted John Ashcroft
as my personal

But don’t let him fool you. He’s also capable of writing lines like these, pondering the age-old connection between food and love in “More”:

I’ve spent years
casing menus for your touch,
searching under grocery store fluorescents;

I’ve shrunk so thin,
I can only hold a measured shock,
the lemon water of small kisses

building me back
from bones to flesh,
smoke to mountain to sky.

In the prose-poem “Wood,” Mason’s lament for the gradual dwindling of things made from trees in our domestic surroundings struck a chord:

It is in us somewhere, if only in the chipped ringlets of a fingernail: the maple, the eucalyptus, those crooked little bushes that lead us to forsake that damned formica paneling and lay down solid, processed oak on our counters as the primeval brain within us screeches and tries to recall the feel of branches in paws, winds and leaves stroking and scratching fur as we pull ourselves upward, inward and bare yellowed teeth at the dirt. So we bend ourselves onto the counter, open the cabinet and push aside the soup, the flour, the paprika, and climb inside: baring our teeth at the linoleum below, not minding the maple syrup bottle pushing into spine, close the dark, brown door and feel like Jesus, so much pain to finally be rejoined with wood.

I totally didn’t see that crucifixion reference coming! And you know, in poetry, surprise is surprise: it doesn’t matter how solemn or humorous the delivery system might be. There are enough surprises in this book to keep me coming back for more.

Oh, and Rumsfeld? Mason nails his ass in a five-word apothegm in the poem “Code Orange”:

Sometimes the wolf
cries wolf.

One Reply to “Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Matt Mason”

  1. Thank you for this very compelling review Dave. I have to find Matt’s book and read it. You tease us into wanting to read this, clearly the mark of a good review….

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