Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun

Today’s review is Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun, available from Black Ocean.


I picked this book up at the book fair at the AWP conference in Boston last April, not really knowing anything about Henriksen, but this morning Flavorwire published this list of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013 and Henriksen is included on it. So, check him out.

Brief tangent:

One reason I wanted to start trying to write reviews of poetry was that I wanted to be able to explain to myself and to others why I like certain poems, or books of poems so much. That may seem completely obvious, but it can actually be a difficult task. Many of my favorite books of poetry don’t make much sense in the straightforward here-is-what-I-am-writing-about kind of way, and are what some people would describe as “inaccessible”(which is a term I dislike), but I know what I like and I like these books and if I’m pretentious or clueless or a snob for liking them, well then that’s what I am. But actually, I’m not. There is good reason to like difficult, strange, seemingly incomprehensible poetry and I’m going to figure out what those reasons are and how to articulate them.

So there. Call that my mission statement.

That being said, you should order Ordinary Sun right now and spend the next three or four months reading it over and over and over again. Because that is what the book asks of you, intense and prolonged attention, and you will be well rewarded for it.

Ordinary Sun possesses a directness of meaning or of experience, an acute attention to the details of living in the universe and also in language. That is why I like it.

The first section of the book is entitled  “Copse”, and it consists of  a single long poem which feels to me like a childhood memory. I say this maybe because it uses first person plural, the way one does when recalling a prior epoch, like “remember when we used to do this?”, or in this instance it’s

Robins contained the hedges.
Trampled grass claimed the lawn.

We lived in a small house
in the quiet North.

For some reason first person plural is just the most nostalgic of verb-persons or whatever you call them.

But also, Henriksen has this way of subtly repeating phrases, not closely together, but spaced pages apart, so that each time you return to a repeated phrase it is familiar but does not register as a refrain. Bees pop up several time in this poem, but not so much or so frequently that it seems to be about bees. I know of a few poets who like to write about bees, and I think its because bees provide us with a multisensory experience (buzzing sounds, stinging sensations, the taste of honey, and then all of the associated meanings about spring, sweetness, communalism, biology, and pain)


Waking to whiteness and unsure
who is there,

the shape in the cloth,
my dove and blisters.

happens at least twice, and also just the words:

 history as war

which is just three words if you read it once, but if you read it over and over you think, that’s odd, what does that mean?  And then all the sudden it means something, something about memory, or about remembrance, or about the difference between the two.

Henriksen weaves his most slippery lines in between straightforward ones. It’s the switching between the two that leaves you feeling like you’ve fallen a short distance unexpectedly:

In a clearing between
a copse of elms and the river
conniving grew a shape.

We found light in a jar under the elms.

We drank at night and ran across the dam.
Nathan climbed down and stood in the river.

We broke into the lock station and threw
cinder blocks down the flood chamber.

(and then)

I only asked for a beginning
in a blade chamber,

a shower of bees
in a cinder’s slam.

That kind of sudden move in to strange word-space makes my stomach flip in a weird nice way.

The next section is comprised of a series of titled poems, three of which are have “Afterlife” in the title: “Afterlife on a long, shallow hill”; “Afterlife with still life”; “Afterlife ending as a question”.

Which I point out to illustrate what I said earlier, which is that one thing we may learn from Henriksen is how to make powerful use of repetition. In the case of the “Afterlife” poems, firstly, they follow naturally from the tone of remembering in “Copse” at least I feel like they do. “Copse” ends:

We got out of the car.
We set our bodies in the grass.
Stones held our breath.

Which feels like the beginning of something but also a kind of death. So the end of childhood is a sort of death; and life is a series of afterlives, lives after lives. I’m not making sense here. Just read the poems and then you’ll get it, ok? This is the last line of “Regulations of the Assassins”, which is the first poem in “Is Holy”:

In all that nonsense I became a gun.
It’s raining now, goddam.

And then the next poem is “Afterlife On a Long Shallow Hill”, which contains one of my favorite lines of poetry in recent memory. Here’s the poem:

The footed rhyme of grave
gained this cobbler’s shrine

benign in grass, this body, alive,
as in a moving cloud, a sun.

And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.
After the night unglues it’s unknown anyway. Then o.

Oblivion’s lens never closes. Diner won’t blink.
Its song demolishes our total losses.

People were terrified, then gone.
The soil opened its skin, hatching poppies.

My favorite line is:

And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.

Why do I love this line so much? Look at what it’s made of. Count the nouns and verbs in that line.

Nouns: 1 “longing”. Verbs: 0.

(adverbs: 1, “not”).

Not that I have anything against nouns and verbs. It just blows my mind that some one can compose a string of conjunctions and prepositions  and have it still mean so much.

It’s vague and ungrammatical and unconcrete yes, but somehow it’s still totally right, because first of all, beginning anything with “and” feels right because as far as we know nothing really begins, in life, but rather continues on from what was previous, and then, yes, the question we face is when, but then you grow to realize that no, it isn’t really about asking when because life, as we experience it, is only now, there is no when, and the question is not when and it’s actually not what either, though that’s part of it but really the question is of as in, the thing that the now is of.

And that’s it, the now is of longing. Longing for when and then of. And it makes that noun, there, at the end of the line, not cliché (because normally if I see the word “longing” in a poem I groan a little), not heavy-handed, because

it’s the only thing there, the longing.

You know what this poem makes me think of ? Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse”, where she describes going up on to a grassy hill to watch an eclipse, how the day died and was reborn in front of her.

Let’s just take a moment to admire Henriksen’s mastery of music, because we don’t do that enough when we’re talking about poetry, we get so much in talking about what it does or what it means, that we forget to stop and just mention what it sounds like:

As grace

disturbs our sentiment for violence
so the bush lays its ambush of lilacs

You just have a sense that this is someone who’s done his reading and practiced his scales and it is impressive.

The next section is called “The Talk” possibly because the poet in the section keeps referring to a boy, or what he’s saying or would say to that boy. I’m not sure who this boy is but I like to think that he looks kind of like a younger version of the poet, whoever that is. There are also a lot of angels in this section. One thing I noticed and liked was these moments of coltish allusion, for example, the first few lines from “Angels Give Birth at Sanitized Altars”:

Had I but time enough, boy, and a world to ravage

beyond the thick knots of my own blood,
she’d have me on the hood of a Honda

and conceive a horse.

In which the “had I but time enough” is (I think) an allusion to “had we but world enough, and time” from Marvell’s* “To His Coy Mistress”. Dunno why I remark this, except that it’s, well, a little funny, somehow, especially given the title. Horses pervade the entire book, actually, one of those threads that give the whole book a coherence despite its density.

The next section, “Mine of Losses” contains a woman character. We see the return of a blade chamber (which appeared in Copse), in the poem “Yard Work”:

The whisper lasted several hours in the blade chamber

and the bleeding slowed.

and I have no idea what a blade chamber is but apparently there is more than one of them.

I’m not just rambling here! The reason why I’m noting the blade chamber is because. Well. Because of what I said. I don’t know what a blade chamber is and I don’t think Henriksen does either or wants us to. Blade chamber just describes a direct experience. Sharpness, blood, and enclosure so tight that even a whisper echoes for hours.

God is in this section, and prayer, and

Mother stalking the playground howling scores,
raw umbrage, spare parts, gunstocks,
glitter last.

So somehow this sections deals with origins.

The next section, “Corolla in the Midden” is distinctly more bitter in tone:

I’m happy

we can get our grief from
the supermarket, the pharmacy,

and the toy store, rather
than having to earn

our pain by fucking up
at a motel on the turnpike.

Next to which, in my copy of the book, you will find penciled the words “oh, snap”.

This section also include perhaps my favorite four lines of poetry, ever, up to this point (though I’m still relatively new to this whole shindig):

I am not inclined to the earth
or what ruined us or what

we became. I can only say
we cherish ruins

because is this not so true of so many of us.

I will not write a book report of every single section, though I’ll say the next one moves on to “Gorge” and after that it’s “The New Surrealism.” In “Gorge” we break out of this tidy two-line stanza pattern Henriksen has had going on, and words start to spread around the page a little more. There’s death lurking here:

She felt like flesh. She wasn’t hanging.
“All answers are hells.”

What she heard about their house dripped from the faucet.
In the morning the tapping and water filled with light

A bucket in the garage burned.

In “The New Surrealism” we’re in New York, mostly, and there’s this feeling that something has died. The voice is more personal, it feels like it might actually be the same person as who is writing the book. Is it always that? Is it never?

Which may make this an opportune moment to point out another aspect of this book I like, which is that because it is divided, as it is, into sections (which vary in their composition, some being long single poems, some being collections of individually titled poems, and some being poems of numbered sections) it asks us to grapple with the question of voice in poetry – who is speaking? When does the speaker change? How are the different speakers related? I like to think that all of Ordinary Sun is spoken by the same person at different stages during their life, but maybe that’s not possible, or maybe it doesn’t matter.

The last two sections are “Beulah’s Rest” and  “Ordinary Sun.” “Ordinary Sun” is a trip. It breaks all of the books earlier conventions of neat poetry-looking poetry, and has square sections of prose poems and stacks of long-lines, and lots and lots of figures from real life (Bille Holiday, Salman Rushdie) and bureaucratic diction and after reading it you might need to drink a glass of water and lie down for a bit.

After writing this review, I went and read an interview with Matthew Henriksen on Bookslut. He’s a bit brilliant. It would probably be of more use to you than this review, so go ahead and read it. Definitely read it if you are going to read his book.  I am going to close here with two quotes from that interview that I copied in to my commonplace book:

Most contemporary narrative and rhetorical poems bore me because they limit themselves to statement, but the lyric can tell a narrative of perspective through immersion in an experience and can convey rhetoric by superimposing the poem’s perspective over the reader’s senses.


The less time I spend struggling with how to exist, how to survive, how to be happy, and the more I convince myself to drop my psychological burdens and just look at rocks and trees, the more I understand the potential within beauty.

* Thanks to Henriksen himself for reading this review and correcting me, as I originally attributed that quote to Byron, I am not sure why because the two are more than a century apart. I think I was thinking “Donne” (who is closer to Marvell) and then “Byron” popped into my head because they sort of rhyme, that’s my excuse anyway.

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