Notes from the Bonfire by Matt Nagin - Poetry Review
Updated: Mar 6
Poems in the Age of Coronavirus
Matt Nagin explains in the prologue the struggles and dire times he went through whilst coming down with the Coronavirus in New York City, surrounded by many held to a similar fate in the city. These poems are indeed dark but peppered with truth, the kind to which all poets should aspire. And poetry needn't be inspirational and full of hope, for sometimes wallowing in darkness is the only way to find strength and come out into the light.
In the first poem, The Virus That Hunted the Sun, it starts, 'Scrap your plans, brother.' This one sentence sums up the thoughts and reality of the world's situation, even as I write this review, and could have easily been the title for this collection. With the last lines of this opening poem, we get a sense of reality morphing into unreality.
and tell myself
this is just a silly dream.'
But then not all of the poems are directly related to the current situation. In, 'Death To Matt Jr.' Nagin speaks directly to the son he never had, 'You could have been an Einstein, a Freud, a Picasso.' A deeply honest and cathartically charged dialogue for what might have been if the circumstances had been different. Followed, perhaps intentionally, by the antithesis of death, 'I'm Alive,' in which the tone of inquiry is maybe mockingly asking the question, it's better to be alive than dead, right?
'Time Left, and 'I Lost,' both carry on the theme of regret and exhaustion for the way things are, but ends in hope 'But I'm here now goddamnit, and I'm ready to turn this big old bus around.' And I'll mention here that the addition of photographs and illustrations throughout the anthology is a beautiful thing and both captures and heightens the mood and tone of the poetry.
Referring directly to the place from which these poems percolated in the mind of its author, we have, New York, which starts with 'The city eats me— turns my brain into a cascade of mutant worms' and this ends with, 'tourists devouring the emeralds of my desire.' Perhaps Nagin rejecting the polluted and populous city he calls home, if only for a minute. Followed by directly addressing the result of such overcrowding, especially in a pandemic, with the poem, A Thousand Deaths Per Day. He writes, 'bodies stacked to the sky, freezer trucks pulling up, cemeteries filled to the brim.' And ends with the sobering reality of, 'the absurdity— the terror, really, of a thousand deaths per day.'
In, Restless, I love the line, 'Restless as a tiger that cannot get back in his cage—' How can you go back to the bliss of ignorance, once the truths of the world and the self have come out? Regret and disappointment make up the last line, 'this restless anguished useless feeling that I can never quite be enough?' Then farther into the book, a plea for hope in, Let the Sun Out. 'let it séance anguish, let it dance with fear;' an excellent line, followed by more asking of hope, 'let it raise the roof to new heights and transform this day into a caravan of laughs.'
With the opening line of, 'Anyone' Nagin writes disparagingly, 'Anyone who writes poetry today has got to be a delusional asshole or a hopeless lunatic.' But really, this is tinged with remorse and sadness. Mockingly he writes, 'Anyone who writes poetry today has got to be a martyr, a buffoon.' But this is purposely seeing the world through a dirty prism, and adding a dollop of cynicism on the side.
In an ode to suffering, Recognised, ponders over the need for the struggling artist to be anonymous. 'When you fly under the radar,' 'The obscurity is best.' 'Doing it every day with all you got for no one. That is what it takes. That is what can fly you to the moon.' Once again, we see the struggle to be successful, the regret for the hardship in its chase, then the suffering which brings out the best work. Then in, Yes, there is the amplification of all current hell through mandatory isolation. 'months of crazed pandemic holed up scribbling madly in quarantine.'
The poetry of Nagin goes in and out. From the macroscopic problems of the world to the microscopic dealings with the inner self. And sometimes a mixture of both as in, 5 am. '5 am / the sky goes crashing / sea turtles unleash a crooked spawn— dolphins commit collective suicide.' To then, inner pain in the same poem, 'Do you see all my suffering? Really know this pain?'
I hope this gives a sense of Nagin's poetry and the sensibilities apparent throughout this particular collection. These poems indeed contain darkness, but within them, there is also hope for the future. And even in the verses that reject hope entirely, there is at least a cathartic release and dare I say comfort in their despair. And nowhere is that better illustrated than in the very last poem in the collection called, When The World Was Ended. 'Do you remember when the world ended? The final rug got pulled?' Here he is looking back when all is lost, visioning a future into which we all might be heading. 'Do you remember when the world ended?' A fitting way to end the anthology, for it permits its reader to wallow in the darkness, as a way of finding the light.
Immediately accessible and paradoxically cryptic, Nagin's poetry goes shallow and then deep, clear and then murky. Sometimes he says it like it is, and other times there are swathes of innuendos and allegories, but never does it falter from truths, whether personal or universal. I enjoyed this collection for its honesty, its unapologetic bleakness and also for its atmospheric illustrations and photography throughout. Its author wrote it in the age of coronavirus, but really, it speaks to the human condition in hard times, irrespective of that which inflicts it.
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