Justin Marks
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Review of Is Holy, by Matthew Henriksen
(horse less press, 2006 )


There is a kind of poetry one occasionally comes across that is difficult to really say anything about, and seems to resist being analyzed in a way that leads to thoughtful insights and conclusions. Hart Crane’s poetry, for me, is like that, and much of Frank Stanford’s, too. Questions of good or bad, of what the work “means,” seem irrelevant. What the reader feels, then, is something more elemental, something that doesn’t really lend itself to review and/or criticism.

Matthew Henriksen's Is Holy achieves a similar effect. “I came up with this tangent casting a gentle / ripple that did not disturb the ducks, / their familial syntax, their taxonomies, sentences / whispered to the boy in such a way that he could not hear, / though he sat in the boat with me,” Henriksen says in section I of “‘The Talk.’” These lines are a good representation of Henriksen's poetics. Though they are tightly written and very well crafted, they also are a bit tangential. And where exactly these tangents leave the reader is not always clear. At the same time, the reader does feel that something important has happened, that some stone has been cast that creates a ripple that maybe does not disrupt things in nature but certainly merits the reader's full attention. We are like the boy in the boat. Sentences are being whispered to us that we cannot always hear. Disruption is and is not taking place. We may or may not benefit from it.

In that it is made up of ten sections and each section begins with a line about angels, “‘The Talk’” hearkens back to Rilke's Duino Elegies. It is the centerpiece of Is Holy . Unlike Rilke, though, Henriksen is not lamenting the death of God. What “‘The Talk'” appears to be occupied with is the certainty of having a sense of holiness and the impossibility of communicating that feeling in any rationally understandable way. The boy the speaker tells us about at once benefits and suffers from this “talk,” as in section III, which I present in full:

An angel unlearns the libel of exhilaration.
I once took the boy to a movie about bicycles.
He fell in love with bicycles.
He fell upon his bicycle, and from. Upon
the thorns, he bled. He learned
his lesson not to learn. The elocution
of the vine evinced the fastened module
of esoteric remonstrations. So he blew
his nose and made roses of his cheeks.
So the coward died. Lost his
bicycle, he. Forever turning, the
desecrating never ends. Amen.

This is Rilke filtered through Stanford down to Henriksen. The construction of this poem is worth noting. The opening line is not, it seems, a thought the speaker shares with the boy. It is the speaker’s own realization, and ours by way of a kind of eavesdropping. At the same time, the speaker’s realization seems tied to his reasons for taking the boy to the “movie about bicycles.” From here the boy experiences love, loss of that love, violence, physical pain and suffering. But through all this, and chiefly because of his experience of the loss of love, he is seen (by the speaker at least) as having achieved a kind of redemption. The coward within the boy has died. The boy has become one of the desecrated. This is cause to rejoice—“Amen.”

It’s these sorts of dualities that make Is Holy such an engaging and rewarding collection. While the poems are enjoyable to read, especially aloud (the sounds are remarkable), this is also one of the more difficult works of contemporary poetry I’ve read in a while. That difficulty, though, is much of the pleasure. After all, this chapbook is called Is Holy, and like most poetry that deals seriously and competently with spirituality, rightfully does not lend itself to easy answers.

What all this speaks to is Henriksen’s unflinching commitment to his vision. “Farcers told me when I went to extremes,” Henriksen says in “Regulations of the Assassins,” “So I went to live in the extreme.” In a contemporary poetry landscape that often seems filled with little more than shtick and gimmick, Is Holy is a refreshing dose of seriousness and substance.