Big Bright Sun

By Nate Pritts

BlazeVOX [books]
September 2010, Paperback
100 pages



Wolf Face

By Matt Hart

November 2010, Paperback
100 pages


Reviewed by Jeremy Benson


Matt Hart’s Wolf Face is like watching television while someone else is channel surfing on the remote. At one point, I imagined Hart doing just that, writing down each insoluble phrase after another—Seinfeld after Judge Judy followed by a snippet of Ask the Pastor and then, "it lifts and separates." The poetry is aloof and labyrinthine. Its lines resist capture, while its images morph and twist ajar. From a poem called, "I Feel Better and So Can You":

After the flood, I walked up to a cloud,
then down some stairs into a fire. There
I came face to face with the following:
a mammoth (wooly), a snapper (red),
and a naval commander in the field.

The book is so disjointed that it’s easy to let yourself occasionally dip into lazy reading, the kind where you read the same stanza three or four times and still fail to absorb any of the words.

But then it dawns on you that Hart’s poetry is also extremely personal. Hart writes in two voices: one is camouflaged with variable imagery, and the other is astoundingly straightforward and banal, and incredibly sentimental.

The difference is most stark when Hart "names names." "Blackbox Cockpit Voice Recorder" drops a name or two halfway through the retelling of a day’s events, "I whistle and read / Forklift submissions with Brett: brilliant new work / by Matthew Siegel, Allison Titus and Mathias Svalina. / We take it and go off our rockers." Notice also how these lines read almost like a too-heavy airplane on take-off; grounded, but you still feel some lift.

Matt Hart is listed on Wikipedia as a writer associated with the "New Sincerity" movement. Roughly, New Sincerity eschews the irony that marked postmodernity. As David Foster Wallace wrote, these post-postmodern rebels strive to "treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction." Which is where Hart’s more banal poems come in, risking "accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness." (Wallace again, in "E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," the flagship essay of almost all things Newly Sincere).

The grounded, straightforward poems are a referendum on the more moonish voices found elsewhere in Wolf Face. Hart isn’t employing metaphors to experiment; he is chronicling actual moments in time via their residual sentiments.  It’s as if he wrote one line, added a simile to it, then dropped the original line (seriously—count the similes). So his images feel distant—each is a signifier twice removed, so to speak.

Our job as readers, then, is to climb inside the metaphors, feel how they react to and play with each other. Not so we can say, "When Matt wrote in ‘The Really Really Really Real’—

One friend turns into a bed sheet.

Another to the precinct of bitterness he hates.

I feel sorry, as the party floats away,
and sorrier for the other new horizon zeroed over.

—he was obviously talking about this one time when this one thing happened." Rather, so we can internalize what "the precinct of bitterness he hates" feels like. You don’t need to know who Mr. Jones represents to enjoy, or even understand, "Ballad of a Thin Man."  You can just let it vibrate. The friction of the words creates the genuine article, the conviction.

"Flamingo Effusion," which is tucked in the back pages of Wolf Face, between acknowledgements and the author bio, exemplifies the unabashed reverence and sentimentality of New Sincerity. It ends,

I’m standing on one foot. I’m naming names.
I’m call and response. The list so endless
and amazing, it’s almost tragic. The distances,

the effusiveness. Don’t be embarrassed. I refuse
to be hurt. When you have people you love, it’s enough.

Meanwhile, and in turn, Nate Pritts, Hart’s collaborator on the chapbook, "FEELINGS, Assoc." and his editor at H_NGM_N BKS, takes his own collection, Big Bright Sun, the way of the Sound of Young America contingent. The New Sincerity of TSOYA and its host Jesse Thorn is characterized by an un-ironic appreciation of all things "totally awesome"—it’s a waste of time to ironically like Chuck Norris because he’s a pretend badass, but you’re encouraged to like him if you’re actually impressed and awed by roundhouse kicks and food-processed protein shakes on Saturday morning infomercials. Whereas Wallace’s New Sincerity focuses on all segments of the feelings chart, TSOYA’s leans toward exuberance and ecstasy. "Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: ‘Be More Awesome.’ Our lifestyle: ‘Maximum Fun.’ Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity," proclaims Jesse Thorn’s "Manifesto for the New Sincerity."

The big bright sun is Pritts's double thumbs-up, an emblem of the positivity that TSOYA so enthusiastically promotes. In "The Existing Situation as It Presently Exists," "There is right now a big yellow orb / hanging overhead &, no, it won’t fall &, yes, / it is beautiful; everything around you is beautiful", "the luxury of seeing you in the sunlight of anytime" ("Emergency Postcard to You (1)" ), or from "Bright Day," "Today is the / brightest day today / could possibly be!", and on and on, at an average of every other poem or so.

On the other hand, though? It is awfully difficult to tell exactly how genuine those suns are, one after another, like a lie told over and again to pressure it toward truth. The doubt creeps underneath "Happy Day," "Life is grand! Sensational! Spectacular! Nothing is going / horribly, disastrously, irreparably wrong." And, at least compared to Hart, Pritts’s speakers are much more aware of themselves (Self-consciousness of all forms also eschewed by the hardcore New Sincerity of Wallace):

To make the person I write about more interesting
& also complex, I pretend he is a me
who is crazy-sad about a lot of things really.

But Pritts’s poetry allows the sunshine to be both appreciated and despised. Not so much ironic, but ironically un-ironic, drastically sincere in its duality. See the first lines of "Azalea,"

Someone said azalea
& someone else said lily & I said

don’t make me choose they’re both so

And later in the same poem: "I’m not really hungry / or I’m starving, it’s so hard to tell." Pritts’ flip-flopping duality and variability is meant to stand for and evoke a very genuine emotional response: just like Hart’s aloof similes.

Effectively, each writer has repurposed strategies that, in more cynical hands, would be used to disrupt and confuse the delivery of sentiment. By doing so, Hart and Pritts wield their sentiments with a refreshing and clever individuality found only in the most sincere expressions. It’s an attitude, a style—and a movement—that I gratefully welcome.