“Discomfort / enthralls me,” writes Michael Prior, a poet who has published, seemingly, everywhere, and whose list of accolades is monumental. His first full-length collection, Model Disciple, concerns itself with the cycles of family history – including ways in which family is dangerous to its members – and notions of colonization. The strengths of the collection reside in movement, and Prior’s ability to generate one image and end up somewhere surprising. Consider this, from “Cuttlefish”:
Regret thickened rheumatic in a
chamber of the heart;
Its porthole was a small aquarium. If I
tapped on the glass,
bright denizens below swam in and
out of the dark
like fallen constellations treading
about to flicker out. The impossibility
stirred an eel in my throat.
Prior’s use of metaphor and simile are deftly handled to create a visceral effect. The poem ends with the lines, “A life spent matching / exteriors, while the interior remained unchanged.” Prior habitually distills wisdom into summation without sentimentality or apology. His endings are sudden, stark, and profoundly succinct.
Many of these poems are also found in Prior’s recently published chapbook, Swan Dive. This longer collection leaves me questioning poems such as “Proxy,” which detract from the stronger works. Immediately, I have quarrels with the “you” in the poem, as this pronoun seems unconnected to the other more significant “yous” of the book: the father, the self. Suddenly, we have an unnamed interloper.
Two pages later, Prior recovers with two poems, “Cassette” and “VCR,” which weave technological artifacts from the past into signifiers of emotion – reminders of the alternating closeness and distance in father/son relations and the unspoken understandings that live within them.
The feeling builds to climax in the narrative poem “Tashme,” a tale of a road trip in the company of Elmer Mori, the poet’s grandfather, to the Japanese-Canadian internment camp where Elmer was once imprisoned. This 19-page syllabic adventure traces Elmer’s past and present, including details from the camp. By the close of the poem, the character of Elmer, the situation, and Prior’s family history are spread raw and bare. Elmer asks, “You aren’t going / to put everything in the poem, are you?” Whatever Prior left out is crafted as negative space, which adds to the depth and completeness of Model Disciple.
Matt Rader’s Desecrations features the voice of a man in medias res. Rader writes with the tendrils of time extending both forward and deeply back in consciously held tension that melds the ancient and the contemporary. This can be seen in “Everything About You Reminds Me of You But It’s Not My Name You Say in Your Sleep” and “Homer,” where the syntactical choices illuminate the amalgamation: “The homer and the hawk circled the city / Before Zeus finally tipped the scales on the two psychos.” Rader pulls past and present together with himself as filter.
A strength of the collection is the smattering of tender existential questions and observances throughout: “So what kind of people / Do I really want to be?”; “You lived as though no one knew your name”; “Nothing is too hard when you know how alone you are.” Rader’s world-in-a-grain-of-sand approach intensifies on subsequent readings. Re-reading the collection inspires greater engagement and appreciation of the subtlety of Rader’s craft and expression. Here his reflection and control is evident.
The sonnets prove particularly nourishing. In Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, editor Zachariah Wells comments that “sonneteers know that it takes just as much inventive innovation and rigorous vigor to write a good sonnet as it does to create a new form. More, in fact, since superficial novelty is often a disguise for banality and ineptitude.” No surprise, then, that Rader was one of the contributors to that anthology. Desecrations contains 18 sonnets, including “Talking Trojan War Blues,” which seems to contain all of the poet’s best tricks:
. . . Such tender
Desecration. Even Achilles’ horse wept
In a field of battle days before
They were made to drag through dust
Hector’s body. “Longing, we say,
Because desire is full of endless
Robert Hass said that. You can be in
If I could just remember it. I said that.
Rader’s collection is tender and constructed with moments of real insight.