Mattox. New Issues Press, 2004. 67 pp. $14
reviewed by Alvis Minor
At the approximate center of her second book, Gretchen Mattox writes, “If there is a path, it is a path hewn with difficulty. / How many times have I had to die to get to this moment?” More than an instance of spiritual inquiry, this question marks the most salient endeavor of the collection: to look past experience and find a larger, more resonant sense of being. Mattox describes “that sensation of the world beneath a world — so foreign in a life of surfaces,” — it is precisely the search for this other, better world that drives the book.
Grounded in the simultaneously splendorous and horrific landscape of West Los Angeles, from peaceful coastlines to a condom-littered alley on Indiana Avenue, the poems so skillfully embody the “blare of the present” that one wonders if it is escapable:
Sparrows on the phone wires like abacus beads
over the Venice alley, mangled baby carriage garbage men can’t take
(mysteriously bicycle-locked to chainlink fence)
black can line-up of issued trash and blue recycle bins — order for
Mattox’s solution to the problem of constant worldly sensation is to view her surroundings through a Zen-centered — or, at the very least, Zen-infused — spirituality. Initially, a flaneur’s journey through the streets of LA proves inadequate, until the images begin to evolve into richer moments that approach the sublime. Only through this physical and emotional engagement does the speaker free herself from her perceptions of the world, a symbolic flight that is not so much an escape as a surrender.
The power of Buddha Box emanates from Mattox’s insatiable questioning of the tangible. Her ability to complicate language while sacrificing neither clarity nor her striking musicality is refreshing. Many of her poems drive a decidedly postmodern understanding of subjectivity and perception into a fractured but beautiful lyric, creating a complex traffic jam of sound and image:
Love is moving through this the white space that approaches flatness.
In the whirlpool at the downtown Y.M.C.A. someone’s loose hairs
like a crippled spider.
Relax in the body. You could isolate the voice that said grief and
the same voice
said love as inhabit this day.
Such a powerful voice and vision allow Mattox to take risks that could paralyze a lesser poet. Strategies and techniques that appear at first glance to be self-indulgent — horizontal poems, prose-like chunks broken up by seemingly random white space, cul-de-sacs of syntax dropping off unexpectedly — become instead successful and compelling efforts to see through the surface of a chaotic landscape to the inspiring beauty beneath. Mattox ventures often into dangerous poetic terrain, but nearly always emerges unscathed (“Jubilate Agno,” a sentimental ode to what I assume is the author’s dog, may be the only significant exception).
The smartly ambiguous resolution of Buddha Box, which can be read with equal satisfaction as either transcendence or reconciliation (perhaps both), provides only one certainty: Beneath the nearly impenetrable surface of Los Angeles lies a world full of love, loss, faith, desire, misery, and delight. In the end, we must find our joy within the world, not in spite of it.
Alvis Minor attends the graduate program at University of Southern California.