Reviewed by Greg Santos
The box of matches on the cover of Matt Rader’s first collection of poems, Miraculous Hours, evokes the fierce, combustible nature of his work. “Prologue” sets the tone for the book by having walls tortured in order for them to talk:
Then, I choose a hammer
and drive a six-inch spike
through the gyprock.
The dog digs under the fence.
A bird flies into the window.
A small red blister
at the site of the wound.
A whisker of blood.
My eyelids twitch.
The walls are ready to talk.
This introduction provides a glimpse into an environment loaded with both beauty and cruelty, where the unusual interactions between characters shape their perception of the world they live in.
The poems in this collection describe events varying from the poet’s birth, the loss of a childhood friend, a thwarted wild dog attack, to the accidental killing of a kitten. While Rader’s themes are wide-ranging, it is his focus on violence and wilderness that stands out the most, evoking Ted Hughes and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Like these poets before him, Rader’s unflinching speaker finds splendor in situations that would otherwise be viewed as horrific.
Much of Rader’s narrative verse leaves you anticipating what comes next, much like reading suspense stories. One of my favourite poems, “Friendship,” is about the accidental killing of a kitten by a child. The first line, “Little survives a broken neck” (17) is heart-breaking, but the haunting beginning kept me wanting to know how the narrative unfolds.
And I guess it was the fall of my shadow between the stairs
that froze the only white one where it did – mid-panic
in front of the last step – caught in the drop of my body
promised by that sudden black. I could not stop myself.
If all this talk about violence seems too much, there are also quieter moments within the collection that are equally powerful. Rader handles sound and silence with care, creating moments of elegance in the unexpected like in “Street Crossing” where cars “screech to a stop like a swarm of insects / humming on hold, transfixed by the eye / that hangs above the road, unblinking, electric, controlled.” The silence is followed by an almost audible “breath” coming from “below the asphalt” where “frost-heaves in the roadwork” (64).
In general, Rader’s verse narratives are well executed but I sometimes felt that his poems could benefit from less editorializing. Though successful, “Exodus” and “Wolf Lake” for example, at times feel too wordy and could be pared down. But the best poems in the book are filled with such memorable and powerful images that the small flaws can easily be overlooked.
In less skilled hands, some of the dramatic situations in Miraculous Hours could have veered into the realm of melodrama but Rader’s speaker possesses a cold-eye, able to accept the world as one filled with both beauty and violence. This impressive debut collection has me looking forward to what the future holds for this talented new poet.
Greg Santos is a poet, writer, and artist from Montreal. His work has been featured in print and online publications, such as Matrix, Feathertale, and Black Heart. He has short stories forthcoming in Sage of Consciousness, The Gloaming, and will have a poetry broadside published by ImPress at the end of summer 2006. Read his blog at moondoggy.blogspot.com.