There is a clinical austerity to Matthew Rohrer’s poetry in Destroyer and Preserver that masks and mitigates the chaotic oscillations and fluctuating states of its content. The austerity is in the paucity of decorative language—he often reduces sentences to sketched phrases and complex thoughts to fragmented declarations—and in the formatting itself. Most of these poems run less than a page long, and many of these stand in simple structures, frequently using couplets or single-line stanzas, built of short, unpunctuated lines. The word choice of all of this minimizes syllable length, as well. Before meaning or lyricism even come into consideration, at arms’ length, the isolation of these delicate trellises of text constructs its own emotional tone. These are first cold poems, even before their first words are read, orderly and stripped of ornamentation.
These heightened expectations of clarity and order are necessary to Destroyer and Preserver’s success; in the reading, these poems squirm against the accentuated white space that surrounds them. In a poem like “Believe,” the tension between line break and line completion, unpunctuated, slithers from the grasp and manages to both hide and amplify the poem’s other tensions.
…strange it took
so long to feel
bad he slept all
night I have to
go to work I
have to cut the
right wire or everything
Chasing the enjambment of each short phrase distracts the reader, building that sense of focus and stress, then utilizes that now-shared sense of tension.
In the five-part poem “The Terrorists,” Rohrer emphasizes the effect of this sleight-of-hand by starting with a classic joke set-up, “A terrorist walks into a bar,” and then sends that threat off to wander around the city. As the terrorist walks “into a cloud of grackles / by the harbor” and the first helicopters are seen hovering in the poem, the pastoral delicacy builds friction against the expectation of, and eventually want for, the violent punchline. The tantalizing promise of horrible release rears up and then swallows itself again and again, whether it is when “another ferry comes out / of the sun / and crashes gently / into the old tires” or when an old porch suddenly collapsing releases a “small, explosive / sound.” By all rights, the tension should slip here into energy wasted; instead it builds into the next swell. Eventually, a female figure who may herself be terrorist, victim, or both, pushes her daughter’s swing at a public park, beneath another hovering helicopter, as
the accusation of the fountains
murmurs do it
and her daughter
turns into the rhythm
of her arms
she will do it
she will do it soon
Eventually the release of this ratcheted tension, this great punchline, snaps with a strange turn of phrase couched in a mysterious verb tense. Why shift into past tense to say “her eyes were unfocused / she was scattered / …she was going to get a Fuji apple?” The incompletion of the final moments flares larger than any definitive description of mayhem.
This melding of formal asceticism and implicit violence creates a specific energy that builds and releases differently in these poems. In some, it does it more than once. In “Poem for Mideast Peace,” Rohrer begins by synchronizing the worship in a temple, as heard and felt outside, with the moments building to a winter’s nap shared with his baby. This reverie is interrupted by the synecdoche and violence of the line, “All the suits that are pressed to have this meeting are in a pile.” This could refer to the literal fine clothing of a peace conference stacked as laundry, the physical scrum of the peace talks themselves, or the suited corpses of the ironic dead; it works best as all at once, a confusion of causation at the edge of a dream. The poem the rocks back to soothing images and sounds only to suddenly burst into “an explosion [that] tears the hair off a bus driver.” The break-down of punctuation Rohrer used earlier to signal this cacophonous movement comes in the following line that seems to make two statements simultaneously: “The desert is glad to accept this blood it is our mistake.” Whether these two thoughts are meant to compete with, or compliment, each other is unclear.
Image and action bleed into each other in Destroyer and Preserver. In “What Is More Distracting than Clouds?” a moment of daydreaming on a plane flight is interrupted when “everything changes a Diet Coke sprays open,” a moment at once recognizably startling and utterly mundane. Following that instant, an increasingly elaborate sprawl of interconnected lyrical images twist around each other:
while a woman takes her clothes off in front of a man
who smiles shaded by the passing helicopter's rotors
tearing up the stratus clouds and flinging now
her shirt at him
There is a clarity to the implicit image created by the woman to the helicopter; Rohrer does not need to describe her spinning her shirt above her head before “flinging” it but it is hidden within the juxtaposition.
When this assured simplicity is used to disguise glimpses of complexity, when the form of the poem is sculpted so that it is both stark and evocative, the poems inDestroyer and Preserver are cunningly crafted devices full of energy, surprise, and wit. However, they also ride very close to the edge of shapelessness and banality. It is rare in this collection that they tip over but, when they do, the result is borderline pedestrian. In “Poem for German Heritage,” a lighter sense of humor is voiced and the results are twee. “Would you march against me with your army of giants?” the poem asks, “For I have an army of midgets, we belong together.” The immediate risk of creating something humorous is that no other quality it bears matters if it is not actually funny.
Other poems are pared down to the point that they feel incomplete. “My Vote” does some beautiful, delicate work with “the small of her back / broken off” and how “[w]inter moves / her fingers to the sea / her promontories are locked / in ice” to create this suddenly untouchable woman and unapproachable desire. However, these lines are themselves locked in a fragmented theme of lifting one’s voice and a faint sketch of impoverished surroundings. The end result is a poem which has the spare minimalism of one of Emily Dickenson's but without the rigid consistency of voice.
Matthew Rohrer has developed a specific, daring style that has a surprising flexibility, allowing wide variations in tone, style, and concept. He also is still experimenting with tightening and releasing his self-imposed restrictions allowing a wide array of individuality to the poems of Destroyer and Preserver. The end result is a book of poetry that has a greater sense of unity and completion than most and which, despite the lean look of many of the poems, holds a stunning capacity to manipulate the reader's sense of anxiety.