- Incongruent Optimism
"All poems are about money / speak and incarnate themselves / in the plain language of money," announces Farid Matuk in "Do the Moth," a poem from his first book-length collection, This Isa Nice Neighborhood. "The plain language of money" indeed shapes the concerns of the book, with a "plain" though richly evocative language that registers with the kind of alert and culturally perceptive ear established by Edward Dorn's early lyric writing. No other poet I can think of in recent years so self-consciously adheres to that shock of lyric address, rehearsing subjective states at once self-critical and patiently steadfast amidst the violent upheaval of contemporary global culture.
Subjective positions are performed throughout the poems in brief lyrical narratives that are often beautifully harrowing. Like Dorn, Matuk's moral inquiries are often unsettling and require the stamina of ongoing self-reflection in the process of reading. Along these lines, Matuk's stakes are announced fairly early in the book, where he writes, "there / is no world there is / a world if / you stand at all / you stand against it." Such a stance of incongruence rhetorically orients perspectives by establishing multi-layered relationships of identity and by comparing subjective experience to objective realities. In his evaluations of cultural phenomena (including class, race, gender, and transnational identity), Matuk wryly develops perspectives of incongruity to put forth competing orientations or worldviews that are detonated against a larger construction of "whiteness." The metaphor of "whiteness" supposes a corrupt world based on histories of failed but often individually desirable transactions, and the poems are calibrated to assess relations of global dominance next to more fragile, local experiences. Dallas, Texas is reproduced as a locale of safe, domestic wagers, where "bank account[s] / keep...growing slow" and "the dog is safe, healthy." While this Texas of slow growth provides social stability in a decaying empire, Matuk delicately pursues identity distinctions playfully and seamlessly to transcend the limited determinations of geographic placement.
"Tallying Song," for instance, a serial poem composed of prose and broken-line verse, connects the social meanings of Hurricane Katrina next to racial configurations established in part by Hollywood and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Matuk produces an experience of democracy that is literally, intimately personal: "I take all of us, the entire possibility of a democratic republic, together in my sinuses to the Blockbuster to get a movie. Inside, a little girl corrals her baby sister away from the jawbreaker machine, pulls her by the hand to a framed poster of a white infant wearing headphones and looking surprised, jig-a-boo. A fancied object of terror." From the democratic exchange and commodification of race projected by Blockbuster movie posters, Matuk invokes Cornel West "about the niggerfication of Jim (Youtube [sic] it)," weaving a deceptively simple surface of day-book-like entries. Rumbling below, however, is a yearning to "affirm life" even as the author makes quick translations "into the language of Camrys." An invocation of the Haitian deities—the Loa—further establishes incongruent ways of seeing the disaster of Katrina within a larger frame of racial and geographic identities. Matuk's achievement is to bring the highs and lows together, to understand relations of commodity culture and historical religious orientations as part of the textures of every day.
Remarkably, despite an implicit critique of whiteness (and by whiteness I mean straight, over-determined social reflexes based on a rotting economic calculus), what's at stake is a more far-ranging consideration of subjective desire. Cultural critique begins with an embrace of one's implication in the systems of affect and desire that cohere as a self. Matuk constantly struggles toward a kind of self-objectification in order to look clearly at his participation in the unstable institutions of contemporary culture. He exposes the fraudulent forms of what Lauren Berlant calls "cruel optimism," a discovery "that the world can no longer sustain one's organizing fantasies of the good life." The American organizing fantasies of the good life." The American Dream, one's "job performance," or other types...