Year of the Ghost, Pt. 2: A Review of Matthew Rohrer’s DESTROYER AND PRESERVER


This is part of a two-part essay series on the emergence of ghosts in poetry. Take a look back at There’s a ghost in my poetry, Part 1: G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher’s Your Father on the Train of Ghosts.

destroyerIf Harold Ramis, in Dr. Egon Spengler’s infinite wisdom, has taught us anything it is this, that  1) print is dead 2) collecting molds, spores, and fungus can be a fun and exciting hobby, and 3) ghosts need busting. Then the ‘90s reared their slightly less fuzzy head, and Demi and Swayze showed us the tender side of ghosts—that some ghosts just want to make sweet, clay hand-love to us. Matthew Rohrer’s Destroyer and Preserveris the first collection of poetry to make sweet, clay hand-love to me in a long time, albeit less sloppy.

For those familiar with Rohrer, this book follows a trend of departure from the playful personification of the inanimate that so characterized his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas (Norton, 1991), toward an often more personal and always more sincere poetics. The poems in Destroyer and Preserver are concerned with domestic life, with fatherhood, with being a small human in a big city full of humans and ghosts. Here are some sightings.

In the poem “Poets with History/Poets without History” the urban collides with Ghost:

in the rumble of big cars moving slowly

on the city streets a ghost removes his heart

and falls through the clouds

In “Believe,” a long poem of staggered three-quatrain sections, which eschew the conventions of punctuation and capitalization—reminiscent of Jon Woodward’s Rain (Wave, 2006)—we find the speaker-poet on the subway,

reading The Sleepers on
the way to Brooklyn
a spooky girl passes
in another train

Jack Spicer writes in “A Textbook for Poetry”: “The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it secondhand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.” Rohrer is a good listener. He’s got his cat ears on. And while the ghosts of his poems are so often human ghosts, and alive—“a ghost floats over the courtyard”—he also knows how to listen to “the ghost light of the cloudy houses / under the stars / and the ghost light of all the laundry” (“Ghost”), and to ghosts masquerading as wind or wind masquerading as ghost: “There’s a ghost that moves against the land” (“Poem for the Wind”). But the real pleasure of this collection is in moving through the poems as they continually open up their speaker’s chest—“Poem for the Wind” continues:

It’s all the same to me if the wires are down, I’m not going anywhere
We stayed sitting up in bed while you ripped the paint off our car
The damage you do to my mind all night, you blow on its embers, it won’t go out

And in the poem “Ghost,” our speaker-poet’s ego becomes indistinguishable from the ghost’s, as—ghost-ified—he navigates his urban environs:

I glide without edges
through the rooms
like the smell of cooking
I do not belong to anything but books
which is very sad

Ghost is a vehicle Rohrer drives to interesting places, often through interior landscapes, liminal picnics, but the poems also look outward toward the social, whether across the subway platform or across space time. “From Mars,” the first poem inDestroyer and Preserver opens: “We have some sad news / this morning / from Mars.” The poem is concerned with entropy, with loss on a grand scale, with disconnection, destruction and the futility of preservation:

the oldest songs are
breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement
every so often
we detect the smell
of marshmallows where
there are none

and ends with a failure of communication, the unspannable distances between people:

the dream has no
location or direction
and friends separated
by thousands of miles
are thinking of each
other simultaneously
but they have no idea
and we have no way
to reach them

Spicer’s ghosts work much like Spicer’s muse: the poet is an antenna, the poem a transmission from outer-space. “[T]he universe / is a long sentence,” writes Rohrer, and “From Mars” is written as such; devoid of punctuation, the sentences run together as if the poem really were dictated by the universe and it was all Rohrer could do, busily slapping away at his keyboard, to keep up.

This collection is probably Rohrer’s most political. Where A Green Light (Verse, 2004) and Rise Up (Wave, 2007) were political, they were so in more historic and allusive ways. Destroyer and Preserver introduces us to a more personal politics that is most effective when it collides with the domestic: “My son says / are soldiers good or bad? / I say it’s very complicated.” This poem, “Casualties” moves from this conversation over teeth-brushing to imagined world of bathtub-as-ship to

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

A bath-toy after all.

Rohrer notably crash-landed into political verse a few years ago with his poem, “Elementary Science for Dick Cheney,” which appeared in State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems (Wave, 2008), and contains the line: “it is a good thing / to watch you die.” Nothing so overt finds its way into this collection, but the poems are always conscious of something larger, outside of themselves. In “Dull Affairs” we again see Rohrer, the father, wrestling with the tension born between politics and his domestic life: “How am I to concentrate / on the heavy and dull / affairs of state / with the sound of a baby having a dream / in the other room.”

This book is Rohrer at his best. The poems feel organic, full of destroyers, preservers, and ghosts: “a small cloud / that looks like an enormous flea / crouches over the city.” And I’m inclined to agree with our speaker-poet: “I think the future / belongs to the ghosts / sweeping the sidewalks / with their wedding dresses.” Though, poets, it might be time to change the ghosts in all those poems you’ve been writing into robots. This puppy just hit the shelves.

Destroyer and Preserver
Wave Books (April 1, 2011)
88 pages, $16.00

rohrer-150x150Matthew Rohrer is the author of A Plate of Chicken (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), Rise Up(Wave Books, 2007) and A Green Light (Verse Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the 2005Griffin Poetry Prize. He is also the author of Satellite (Verse Press, 2001), and co-author, with Joshua Beckman, of Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press, 2002), and the audio CD Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “The Next Big Thing.” His first book, A Hummock in the Malookas was selected for the National Poetry Series by Mary Oliver in 1994. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at NYU.