Ordinary Sun, by Matthew Henriksen. Black Ocean. 120 pp., $14.95.
If an underworld were brought up and laid upon this world, like a muslin or a potato sack in the garden, and its caverns and tunnels splayed out flat as far as the eye could see, and grass and trees started to grow up through it, and sparrows flew through it, and bees bumbled in it, and all of this happened kind of extraordinarily but without a lot of hubbub, day after day after day, overlooking it all would be an Ordinary Sun in the sky. If pain and joy crawled out from inside the gut and gelled in a thin veneer over the skin, sticky and picking up lint and detritus day after day after day, an Ordinary Sun would shine upon and warm that skin. If angels existed in a handful of visceral details, if they might be anything else but for their name, and we fell in love with them, the way humans do, an Ordinary Sun would rise and set and rise and set on that love. If what is eternal is all right here before us—no end, no beginning, no after, and no before—just endless and endlessly existing, now, and now, and (changed) now, Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun is a book for this place.
Ordinary Sun at times feels like listening to confession in a parallel universe, a world like the aforementioned, with all the guts displayed on the outside, and the underworld on top. Make no mistake though: there is no otherworld. Henriksen’s world is this world. Who doesn’t recognize her own kind in lines like these, from “Corolla in the Midden”: “I do not dream. I just watch / fields burn, or ride // in cars that won’t get anywhere.” And later:
We are already too far gone to feign
loneliness, too blessed to accept
what surrounds our annihilating impending lack
of doubt, our angel flesh that won’t burn.
What makes this book feel so loaded is Henriksen’s investment in the act of existing in the poems, in imbuing words with symbolic and relational power, in not providing answers. “I didn’t say I see everything / in the dark, and I’m not inclined // to explain that when I say / ‘dark’ as I nod off I get lost,” he writes.
Indeed, this narrator both owns his thoughts and denies the existence of ownership. Much of this has to do with language; its baggage and shapeshifting. Henriksen seems compelled both to accept and deny this fact of language. It is everywhere in the crisp lines that simultaneously reveal and curtain, forcing opposites to meld and make new, or self-destruct. “. . . [T]he state,” he writes in “The Last Angel is Tattooed ‘Buttress’”:
of air is stone. Fabled, fluorescence turns to ash
and the ashes glowed, starry to the dirt.
There it was, through his fingers, the earth
an eternity. It made the fires cold.
He turns this unsparing eye on the self in “The New Surrealism”:
I am not more than light on the brickwork above
the D’Agastino and am the turning across that wall.
I am a blink as blank as the caught fish turning
its eye, or the stones turning always within.
I’m a hive blinding inward, and I’m fire cast through the eyes.
when I look, I see nothing, and when I turn away, I find,
for example, the dumpster behind
the hospital, the asters on the lawn.
This I is multiple, shimmering; it takes various mediums. It’s being. It’s shifting. It’s light, motion, and heat. The combustible cast upside down on the ocular. This I sees symbols in everything, finds a shaky holiness in the desecrated as well as the ordinary. Ordinary Sun is a rich minefield of a world. The reader is rendered unable to make assumptions in the face of mysteries addressed by name (“if you call it an angel, it’s an angel,” said Henriksen in an interview on KUAF radio) and this lack of hierarchy or dichotomy, this lack of a defining of experience allows unfamiliar symbols to effect their radiance.
It is a kind of poetics of divinity in eachness that unsparingly grants, if not divinity, then possibility. There’s a sermonlike quality to lines like these:
There was a Sunday I was blind
drunk and saw the sloshing of myself
in the same tree limb, and hated the breath
of myself, and loved the hatred of self
and all things, and found forgiveness in doing
violence unto my life, and loving my life.
The poem, “An Angel Unlearns the Libel of Exhilaration,” (a title that haunts me) begins with the speaker taking a boy to a movie about bicycles. The boy falls in love; then falls from the object of his love, which one might argue is the experience of love (and certainly maintains a likeness to parable). The poem concludes, “ . . . Forever turning, the // desecrating never ends. Amen”. The process of time enacts the decomposition of time and matter. Or, the experience of living is the act of desecrating, of making things unsacred. In the same breath, this loosening of the sanctity of eachness is regenerative: by making a libel out of calling certain things sacred and other things base, it takes a definition of sacred that no longer holds true and creates a new, more expansive meaning. What is a bicycle but a vehicle. What is a boy but a symbol. Oh: this is love.
And oh, this is humanity: it doesn’t end, but multiplies. We destroy and desecrate, we slander and libel, and all the while we love the world, we love it blindly.
“We’re living in a time made clear by the idea / that muddles all thought and mangles the age,” writes Henriksen, and later: “Out of the ashes we won’t rise.” In the desire for angels to appear, or maybe in the latent knowledge that this is eternity, that this life is afterlife as well as existence, comes a voice that speaks to a collective and willful ignorance:
. . . and let me tell you, it is nice,
the silliness we hope to make real, much better
than the actualities we tried to make unreal.
Immersed in this book, the reader experiences something akin to a concept of afterlife as memory, of existing alongside afterlife, both physically (in the decay of physicality around us) and metaphysically (as in an emotional or spiritual resonance that stays with a person long after the events that spurred the feelings have come to pass). Writes Henriksen, “ . . . and God continues snoring // in the wound round us and will until when to be is as was.”
For all the angels, for all the dead and desecrated in its pages, this book is for the living.
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle. Her first book, The Botanical Garden, was published last fall by Astrophil Press.
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