Maze by Matt Bialer.
Finishing Line Press, 2021.
Matt Bialer’s Maze is a wonderfully composed epic in narrative prose to his late wife, to society, and memory, done in rhapsodic meter, intertwining a chorale that echoes throughout from Bosnia, to his wife’s tombstone,
Your monument I designed myself to/ want to see it/If it was/ done right/done right/ I will go later to Ahavath Sholom Cemetery/ Inside larger Elmwood Cemetery/Great Barrington, MA/ When I am/ on my grocery errands/Wear a scarf/Over my nose and mouth/, countered with parallels to COVID, Looking like a bandit/ In this new normal/which seamlessly leads the reader to Tombstone Arizona; I can visit you/You’re on your way/Looking like a bandit/ Of course//I say tombstone/Rather than monument/Tombstone/Bandits and the burial grounds/ In Tombstone, Arizona/Tombstone, Arizona/ Name means many things/To many people.
It would be dismissive to not mention the juxtaposition of COVID with the intensely personal account of disease (cancer) recounted and the impact on him and his wife. From the outset, there is a citation on the cemetery, A & A Cemetery Services/ And memorials. One reads the greeting heard on their machine, Good morning/ I wanted to/Let you know/The granite company/Must have been able/To get this completed/Before the shutdown. Which neatly opens the door, linking her death to the millions who have perished due to COVID. In the following we read, Rich was able/ to get this monument/ Set for you/Set/The granite quarry/In Vermont/Ordered to shutdown/COVID-19/Go into quarantine/Quarry in quarantine/. And so, the prosody of grieving and loss which has enveloped the poet is connected to that universal loss.
The rhapsodic flow, the allusion takes us further with other metaphors such as a bombed-out room in Bosnia, and more presciently the man in the long black frock coat, (Reminiscent of the man in black with his black mustache in Plaths’ Daddy) who is first understood to be part of the Tombstone scene, (he is compared to Wyatt Earp) but which transforms in his moment of crisis, to someone who is a sympathetic character, for though he appears as a bandit, he never gets to his destination, the implication, him metamorphosis becoming the author’s journey or that, that is seemingly robbing him of what he seeks, his quest to make it to the other side; that other side which is not everyday life, but the other side of life. The journey, his journey, to be with her, find his way through the maze that confronts him; that labyrinth of what we call grief, which can so subsume the self, that what appears real, is not, and what is, is not either. Unlike Paths’ man black with his black mustache, Bialer is the man in black, and also the symbol he represents. Plaths’ is her deceased father and husband, and her journey is torturous, and her need mired in conflict. Bialer’s man in black, in his web of internal strife, is not angry or bitter, he is besought with the desire at once to get on the other side, and the other goal, to wrangle his way through the maze that is before him.
In the midst of this, tombstones are marching down a hill, an image that calls to mind the scene in Disney’s Fantasias’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Scene in which the brooms prance around at first ostensibly to help Mickey and then suddenly take over, to the extent that he is unable to gain control, The fantastical nature of this, this feeling, that loss of control is repeated throughout and underscored by the permeating fog. Making the poet’s journey more perilous is the sniper in his nest who appears precipitously and the iterated threat, if you see him, he sees you. And the ominous follow-through, I can’t go there/Too sad/ Too sad/ as I drive back/ More fog. The sniper is everywhere and nowhere. He is in Tombstone, and Bosnia, he is in the bombed-out room, his presence just as threatening as the man in black and all of this reflective of the process of mourning. One is tempted to recount Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, but that would be too cryptic as it is apparent this is not just about the poet’s loss recounted, but the loss to humanity of health, COVID is emphasized over and over, as well as the quarantine and the oft-repeated phrase, ‘new normal’ which one hears daily on the television, and that humanity will rise from the fog, as the poet is trying to seeking and reinvigorating ourselves with that thing called life. How the Bialer finds this, is this inner poetic narrative in which through the process of recapitulation (akin to the percussive beat of a snare drum) of his chorale, he can interpose intaglios subtly altering each refrain as it goes. The how, of how this is done, is a form of accretion building to the crescendo after which we as the reader can finally pause. Yet, the work itself, like this piece, goes on, as the action of grieving comes and goes in fits and spurts in which the individual often finds himself/herself thrust backward and forward between what was, and what is. It is this movement, and how it is expressed which Bialer’s poem exemplifies, and which will leave his reader with the echoes of each refrain distilling and impregnating the mind. This work while for his late wife is also for humanity and to that has an underlying immediacy that bolsters its cause. The impetus, her death, is personal yet spans outward toward the general. This gives the work a purposefulness that it would otherwise lack. Great poetry enables audiences through connections it makes with its readers, that are meaningful not to just the poet, but to his/her world. Bialer’s Maze does just that.
Conversation with Matt Bialer
Green Mountains Review: How do you begin a new piece of writing? What conditions help your writing process?
Matt Bialer: Starting a new poem is always the hardest for me. I have to psych myself up. But I write differently than a few years ago. I used to write paranormal epic poems. They would be about Bigfoot or UFOS or voices of the dead or the Fox Sisters. I would pick my subject and research until I felt saturated with information. And then I would be ready to write. But finding that beginning and the tone of the poem is what always daunts me. Once I started, I was okay. And I was never interested in the “truth.” These subjects were just ways of writing about the human condition. I wanted to write about what you see on the Discovery Channel at 2 am.
I write differently now. My wife passed away from breast cancer over two years ago. I write about grief and the various milestones (her birthday, my birthday, my daughter’s birthday, holidays, etc.) Those are my entrances to the poems. Now I have new love and I write about both the journey of grieving and the excitement of finding new love. I don’t seem at a loss for subject matter!
GMR: What was an early experience that taught you language has power?
MB: When I was in first grade we had to write a poem about peace. Nixon was President and the Vietnam War was still going on. I wrote a poem and it was submitted and I got a button back with a peace sign that stated: “I WROTE A POEM FOR PEACE.” It was probably my first poem and I wrote it and got something back.
GMR: What poets or writers do you continually go back to?
MB: There are so many. But I would say Robert Penn Warren, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, May Swenson, Mary Oliver.
GMR: What was the best investment you made in becoming a writer?
MB: Becoming a literary agent as a profession. It keeps me around creative people and I am always thinking about why a piece of writing works or doesn’t works and why. I also am a watercolor landscape painter and a street photographer and so the visual often informs my writing.
GMR: Does an ego help or hurt writers? How does ego play into writing?
MB: It is good to have self-confidence but we all need to occasionally get feedback and accept criticism as something helpful. The key is to find readers who you respect and trust. You can’t just look for people to tell you how wonderful your work is.
GMR: Name the work you are proudest of writing and why.
MB: Honestly, when I placed my poems Ghosts and The Thing in the Basement with the Green Mountains Review in 2010. It was my first professional publication as a poet and I was real proud of myself because I was a huge fan of GMR. I would buy issues in Barnes and Noble. It’s when this poetry thing became real for me.
I am also proud of my poetry volume ALWAYS SAY GOODNIGHT. It was my first book of poems about my late wife Lenora Lapidus and the experience of love and loss. She used to tease me that I never wrote about her and that she should be my muse. Well, she has been my muse for two years! Writing poetry has helped me process her death. In a sense, poetry has saved me.
GMR: What is your favorite childhood book?
MB: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It was the first time that I realized that a book could create a whole other world. I never looked at pigs and spiders the same way again. And I cried when Charlotte died at the end. A book had never made me cry before. It was a seminal moment for me.
GMR: Where can we find you? Link to your blog or website:MB: Matt Bialer on Instagram. Matthew Bialer on Facebook and www.mattbialer.com My 19 year old daughter and I are working on a website specifically for my poetry.