Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer
by Letitia Trent
I had a professor during my undergraduate years (one those old-fashioned liberal arts professors who believed that intimately knowing Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s Lear was a prerequisite for being a fully-functioning citizen of earth) that defined a great book as a book that shows you what it means to be human. He meant the great, big (and, unfortunately, primarily European or American) books, like War and Peace or Middlemarch, in which an enormous cast of characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, figuring out what it means to be a citizen, part of a family, a soldier, an artist, a lover, or a parent. I appreciate these kinds of books, too, books that are willing to explicitly wrestle with questions about how a person should be in the world and do not fear the explicitly political or philosophical. I don’t know how anyone writes books like this anymore. As Matthew Rohrer writes in the first poem from his book Destroyer and Preserver:
The oldest songs are
like a puzzle in a basement
What kind of writer has the gall to tell people how to live now, when there are no fixed certainties and no unassailable truths? This is not an original question, but one that I find myself bumping into over and over again as I read contemporary literature and poetry that dares to directly touch on the political as Destroyer and Preserver does. While I’ve read many contemporary poetry books that comment on the paranoia and rise of some fervid, defensive American identity that happened post 9-11 (Christian Hawkey’s Citizen Of comes to mind in particular), I don’t see many poets writing in what comes close to straightforward confessional lyric touching the issue of politics aside from Rohrer. Sometimes, when writing about war from the distance of a relatively safe place, the lyric, personal “I” can seem limited, small, stupid, unable to fully grasp anything important from the perspective comfort. Perhaps this is why many poets who are fairly privileged (I know that I am one of them) and who have never seen battle try not to tackle something as large as “the war”.
Destroyer and Preserver tries to show us something about what it means to be a middle-class, materially comfortable human in this particular time in the United States, one in which foreign wars and news of slaughter in countries in which we are linked by politics and war filter in and out of our consciousness through reports from Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, seeming both incredibly important and completely divorced from our everyday lives. I specify that the book is about middle-class life because it differs from many other overtly political books from the standpoint it takes: the speaker is comfortable, white, male, and a father. This is not a book that howls from the edges or speaks as a witness to political and social turmoil. I don’t mention this to belittle the book, but to make it clear from what perspective the book addresses the political. In Carolyn Forche’s introduction to The Poetry of Witness, she writes about the privilege of being a North American in the 20th and 21st centuries: “Wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” This space is where Destroyer and Preserver comes from.
Part of the book is about the dance between enjoying the privilege we have as North Americans to live our lives relatively unscathed by war and the responsibility to acknowledge that our privileged lives are partly built on the backs of the suffering of other people. Rohrer’s book differs from those big books about morality in that it’s a product of its time, and therefore the poems don’t tell us anything definitive about how to balance joy and responsibility: the subject is not knowing, of feeling guilty for running away to poetry or family life or dreams (the book is full of dreams), and of being politically engaged but not politically engaged enough to leave what is comfortable behind. The speaker in these poems spends his days taking care of small children, recovering from hangovers, and walking around a city as news of what’s happening in the Middle East filters in and out of the central consciousness of the poems. For example, in the poem “Casualties,” the poet’s small son asks “are soldiers good or bad?”, and the speaker meets his son’s confusion with his own:
I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together
in the hold of the ship.
He looks just like me.
The poem leaves us with an image of the plane, having just dropped a bomb on the house and desert, gliding through the sky and being returned to the United States, “to be washed and put away”. Throughout the book, images of war are and desperation are washed and put away and then continually taken out again to be examined, as with the speaker of “Poets With History/Poems Without History”:
… and the melting icebergs crumple
like the prisoners shot in the side
I move through the days remarkably sinuously
and spinning inside
I washed the dishes two or three times a day
with hot water on and on
like a dream behind the yellow gloves
from which I too cannot awaken
though my son is done with school
and holds my hand on the walk home
the feeling of falling backwards
into the bed at night fills me
with sweet content
all the people rounded up in camps
have a look in their eyes
that can’t reach us now
Rohrer is at his best when the speaker of the poems sees this point of tension between a comfortable life and the knowledge that so many other people are not able to have that comfort: the poems are electric when the speaker is both conflicted and ultimately a failure at keeping the high moral ground. They falter, though, when the speaker seems to imply a particular stance is the “good” one: in “For Which I Love You,” the speaker congratulates a lover for a fairly standard, simplistic affirmation against “hate” which reads a little bit like self-congratulation for having the “right” political point of view.
It would be unfair to say that this is only a political book: several short, lyric poems punctuate the book, ranging from records of sad, contradictory moments to poems that seem like sheer celebrations of everyday life, such as “The Smell of Frying Fish.” It’s the context of these poems that makes them political: images of war surface throughout the book in poems that at first seem to be about something completely outside of war, and so these moments of domestic bliss mean something more: is the speaker giving in to forgetfulness or resisting despair by living in the moment (as cliché as that can’t help but sound) by fully embracing the given world around him?
Rohrer’s poems are largely dreamy, personal lyrics that roll from matter-of-fact observation to gentle surrealism, creating poems that seem casually tossed-off yet completely controlled within one lyric event, world, or emotional/narrative moment. You could call it domestic surrealism, but Rohrer’s observations are more about finding the literal strange in the familiar than in creating strangeness. Still yet, reading the book felt too easy: the poems are easy to read and pleasing because Rohrer is good at this kind of poetry and knows what he is doing. I couldn’t help but feel that Rohrer was coasting and that these poems are a slightly toned-down, less boisterous versions of ground he’d already covered in his first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, and his subsequent books. Only in the long poems of the book (“Believe” and “The Terrorists”) does Rohrer seem to stretch beyond his familiar gently joking, gently serious tone.
I can’t say that Destroyer and Preserver left me with anything definitive about how to be a conscientious person in a complex world, but it left me with a useful confusion and the realization of how often I, too, retreat into what’s comfortable in order to forget my own great fortune. I’m not the soldier who crumples, the face behind the cage, or the person whose home has been bulldozed. I have the privilege of forgetfulness, and I exercise it far too often.
Letitia Trent‘s work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, and Folio, among others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, was published by Sundress Press in early 2012. She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.