University of Southern Indiana

Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless

First Takes with Matthew Guenette


 Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless

I read Matt Hart’s latest collection, Sermons and Lectures Both    Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012), straight through on a two-stop flight from Madison, WI, to Manchester, NH. The whole time I felt like TSA had messed up: They let me through with an incendiary device.

 Is anyone writing poems like this? Is anyone even close?

This is Hart’s fourth book, maybe his most fervent, and it finds him at the height of his powers, a reading experience that reminded me of seeing The Queers rush the stage back in '95. Some serious noise chaos. But at its punk heart, Sermons and Lectures has none of that philosophy’s cynicism and nihilism. Instead what we find is one long, untamed love letter to the reader, a book that means to shove back at everything and anything that distracts us from ourselves and each other.

In rhetorical and aesthetic terms, here are the facts: Sermons and Lectures,  stripped of punctuation, makes primary use of caesura and sharp mid-course turns to radically shift images and tones from line to line. Lots of voltage. Lists that twist with a novel (in this post-MFA age) sincerity that fiercely and urgently lights the poems up.

I’m interested to see what other reviewers will say about a book of poems that, in its emphasis of intuition over reason, is so unabashedly Romantic. This is Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and in the poem that leads the “Both Blank and Relentless” sequence, the narrator bombastically throws in his Cincinnati address (imagine Phil Levine doing that), daring a reader sensible and senseless enough to come to his doorstep:

And when I pull your strings, you can set me on fire 
And when the Jawbreaker’s finished, you can
put on my shirt       We’ll blow each other’s covers
then we’ll walk he red carpet      into the rapture
we will dance on the escarpment      our arrival
a surge of inter-mangled re-connection

I love the effect of “surge” and “arrival” arriving in those wave-like caesuras (like breaths) in the lines. And the pitch-shift of “red carpet” to “escarpment,” of “mangled” for the obvious “tangled,” that last one a turn that flips the conclusion to unrest, weirding violence into something generous, an aspiration.

Hart has managed to craft an authentic, affirming voice that builds and resists, a voice full of abandon, a voice that drops punk like speed—punk rock gestures, punk rock songs and names (more than I got the first time through, and I got a lot)—without any geeky pretension. And Hart does it with the daring assumption that nowhere would you rather be than here in the startle and feedback of a poem.

This frenzy has been awhile in the making. There are glimpses of the voice inLightheaded, a book I immediately returned to after Sermons and Lectures. The difference is that in Lightheaded, Hart’s formal experiments, built with the generative techniques of parataxis and listing (syncopated listing), sometimes, and surely not often, have the strange effect of closing poems down. ButLightheaded’s existential busyness, its dreamy rhapsodies and repetitions, its affection (no ironic affectation) for absurdities and drifting and the jagged of it all, clearly informs Sermons and Lectures.

An example is “Amplifier to Defender,” a poem that serves as a kind of intermission and dialogue for what, exactly, Sermons and Lectures confronts and calls forth:

There’s always a grand scheme of things even if we can’t articulate it.
I think one can see it in the fact that anything exists at all. Cities
And locusts. Speed metal and snow. But if one doesn’t,
That’s okay, too. I’m not really invested in proving some fleeting thesis.

This is as unpretentious and straight an expression of freedom in poetry that I’ve seen in awhile, yet these lines, served in quatrains, mirror the very thesis our narrator is unwilling to prove. A steady swing between form and voice, “Amplifier and Defender” brings the Sermons and Lectures’ vivid project to light. It quotes Lyn Hejinian, tells us that language not only exists, “in multitudes of contexts, itis multitude of contexts.” It planes and essays to Matthew Rohrer, who confesses, “I must learn to say the things I never intended to say.” Then it swerves Frank O’Hara before heading straight for the reader:

           “…The slightest loss of attention
leads to death,” said Frank O’Hara. I say: Be prepared for the darkness

when it takes you, but stay alive and stay light
for as long as you can.

For all its philosophy and substance, what I love most in Sermons and Lectures is its spirit, its Whitman-like sensibility for the gorgeous and gorgeously savage, the copious, the body and soul thirsting for things in motion. Hart never veers from the pull of emotions so many of his contemporaries coolly avoid. Instead, they motor into it, weary of death, of anything that fails to fill us with wonder.

                                                        …So many neurons
to thank and get jiggy      So many weirdoes in long flowing robes
Snow white accumulation, then six to ten inches      Chinese
Poets and the shriek of Johnny Whitney      Truth value
quite literally a matter of fact, but all I’ve ever wanted
is a way to forget it      Time on speed so plastic/gigantic
Intention doesn’t matter when intention’s contradiction
The lingerie model under water in spring      I love my love
The way it fires

(from the "Seermons and Lectures" sequence)

There’s performance and swagger here, and the practically democratic sentiment that something from every corner of life—even mistakes, even the limitations—should find its way into poems.

Like any manifesto, Sermons and Lectures pursues a purpose. I would not imagine Hart would want any one idea to clearly be the idea, but these poems, like the sermons they mean to be, hold sacred the value of compassion. Even when these poems visit extremes, find themselves drunk and guttered, they embrace the friction and refuse to degrade.

We’ve now known each the length of a poem. When I go
to work this morning, I will think of you fondly,
and when I wake in the clutches, I will thank you.

(from the “Blood Brothers and Weird Sisters” sequence)

This collection is multitudinous in intensities. Primal. Reflective. Crude enough to believe in things—the wide and beautiful influence we should have on each other, for instance. When I finished reading it, I felt provoked. I wanted to jump up, stagger into the day, and kiss the first stranger I met. But the plane was about to land. The flight attendant said stay seated and buckle up. It was hard to follow her advice. 

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