Matt Hohner, Thresholds and Other Poems, Apprentice House, 2018, 96 pages, $11.99, ISBN: 9781627201810. Reviewed by Harvey Lillywhite.
The moon’s reflected on the river a few feet away,
A lantern shines in the night near the third watch.
On the sand, egrets sleep, peacefully curled together,
Behind the boat I hear the splash of jumping fish.
…….Du Fu, “Overflowing,” translated by Burton Watson
But because the Heaven River will sink,
We had better empty the wine-cups.
To-morrow, at bright dawn, the world’s business will entangle us.
We brush away our tears,
We go—East and West.
…….Du Fu, “A Toast for Men Yun-Ch’ing ,” translated by Florence Ayscough
In the 73 pages (56 poems, with 17 end notes) of Thresholds and Other Poems by Matt Hohner (2018, Apprentice House Press), there is so much to love, so much these poems allow us to appreciate about the public world—even the cosmos itself—and the broken-but-mending inner world of the poet, sutured with lasting threads of sorrow and love.
In the third poem, “To a Poet of the Three Gorges,” the speaker thinks of Du Fu, an 8th-century Chinese poet often called “poet historian” because his poems reflect the emotional impact of political/social issues of his day against his own private concerns, trials, and dramas.
In this poem, the speaker identifies with Du Fu. He imagines
……………………….…Du Fu, turning his ear
to the gibbons’ howls reverberating
deep in the three gorges, his skiff
moored along the shore, verses coming
like lanterns at night, borne by the dark currents,
lifeblood of heritage, surging past his bow.
In a jump-cut of 1,250 years, this imagined scene becomes, in the very next stanza, the poet himself witnessing the 21st century:
Downstream, a new power flows from the river,
its megawatt hum echoing off concrete ramparts.
The old voices, now whispers, drown in waters
rising to light cities of millions where, once,
men in simple wooden boats and carts
delivered the news one verse at a time.
There is nostalgia for a time, somewhere in the distant past, when living was centered on the poetic reality of a person’s circumscribed life—without moveable type, electricity, telephones, cars, trains, planes, the digital world—a time when pens and buckets, swords and shoes were important technologies in partnership with the natural world where one could find real meaning. Unlike today with its massive tragedies.
The “poet-historian” has the audacity to find poetry in a list of contemporary catastrophes throughout Thresholds, including The Gulf War, 9/11, The Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Mexican Revolution, the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown, the Baltimore Forest Phantom Killer, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the potato famine in Ireland, the Baltimore riots of 2015, the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, an Islamic jihad murder, the DDT crisis that nearly eradicated the American bald eagle, and the tragedies in Aleppo.
Just as Du Fu made poetry amidst the schisms and cataclysms of his day, these poems do admit the modern backdrop of horror afforded by the unsettling, instantaneous local and global awareness we are electronically party to. Just as Carolyn Kizer, in her poem “Thwarted” (dedicated to Du Fu) could write, “Life is one long, fragmented, murky episode,” this poet confronts the bigger world tragedies of his day, as well as those that haunt his private history. Several poems confront his birth-mother’s abandoning him at birth (unknown birth-father), his adoptive mother’s abandoning him and his family when he was 10, the loss, by suicide, of a childhood best friend, and many significant, smaller losses that leave the poet isolated, lonely, at odds with the huge everyday forces bent on our emotional and physical destruction.
The poems about this sorrow are meticulous in capturing details most full of emotion. In fact, it is attention to detail that no doubt makes surviving this massive sadness possible—details that make this book of poems such a compelling read.
In “Kevin,” a student once animated and full of life is eclipsed after a Baltimore street shooting:
Two cousins shot on their stoop last night,
one dead, he and his brother having just
gotten up to leave, having just turned the corner
to walk the two blocks home.
In “Gulf War Veteran,” the detail provided is harrowing: “When he returned/from the desert,/a former high school/classmate brought home/an extra pair of ears, each taken from/confirmed kills.”
“Terror in the Dust,” the best poem about 9/11 I’ve ever read, reveals the following, in just one of its many haunting stanzas:
On a cloudless, warm day, burning people
drop from windows spewing smoke,
each tiny face reconciled with death,
falling one hundred stories through the air.
An upside-down business man, arms at his sides
and legs straight, tie flapping in the wind;
a man and woman holding hands. Americans.
Americans—pelting the concrete like hail.
In “Dundalk,” we see
Slow burn of rust across the eyelids of old men
decades out of the plant, rooted on torn leather stools
in the darkness at Minnick’s underneath the shadows
of the Seagram’s plant’s hulking brickwall desolation
and splintered floors echoing junkies and johns having sex.
Thinking of the building where he was held for adoption after his mother gave birth and he was immediately abandoned, the poet, in “The Investment Building,” describes
Relay sensors shaped like giant powwow
drums…hung on the rooftop signal tower
of the building, facing the four directions.
Growing up, I imagined them beating a signal
to the world that I was there, alive. I pictured
a tribe of orphans far away stomping a dusty circle
to the drums every time a new baby went home.
There is great beauty in the precision and imagination of the details rendered in all the poems of grieving, beauty and salvation and even grace. Yet, these poems are not really lost in infamous and private calamity. There is much, much more. In fact, this is a book about survival, actually about love and grace.
Set in the Chesapeake Bay backwaters, an upside-down sonnet (closing sestet comes first), “Dundee Creek” relates the perilous situation of the poet:
Motionless over a meadow of bay grass,
the kayak’s hull is tickled by mossy
leaves waving in tidal currents. Fish
jumps, circles fan out. Poplar trunks,
cattails; two power plan smokestacks
striped red and white tower over the marsh.
Signs along the Proving Ground shore warn
trespassers against unexploded ordnance,
as all the wars waged against others
are first waged against ourselves.
Blue heron stalks the grenade shallows;
men cast lines into dangerous depths.
Minnows scatter when paddle blades
slice the brackish calm.
The poet navigates life, like the blue heron and the fishermen, in the midst of “grenade shallows,” finding beauty that still exists in nature, as Du Fu might have.
In another kayaking poem, “Gut,” the poet is with his wife, Jen, the person who provides him an unshakeable foundation of love. They kayak on the Chesapeake Bay “past nests of marsh wrens,/pouches hung from bent reeds, …/eagles and osprey streeling away from treetop roosts/as we approach.” But there are also “…methane stink of tidal mud berms,/rotten fish, runoff from chicken farms a half-mile inland.” As the poem ends, the two kayakers enter the threshold of a small paradise, which is their love: “….A mile into the gut,/the alley of reeds opens to sky, warm sun, cooling breeze.” The poet, in this sunlight, says, “In two days, we will be married three years,/together thirteen, known each other almost twenty./We fan out to either side of the pond, look across/to each other, smiling, having made it thus far.”
The poet also recalls a perhaps difficult but joyous childhood, skateboarding with pals, digging earth forts and snow caves to escape the storms above. In a poem of delightful nostalgia, “Saudade: 1983,” the poet remembers being “powerful” and “self-reliant” kids of 12 or so. The word “saudade” is sometimes defined as “missing-ness.” Certainly for all the kids, something huge is missing. But its absence is filled with the pure friendship of childhood. Near the end of this lengthy poem, they’ve gotten a ride far up the Gunpowder River so they can tube downstream in the August bliss:
Shoulders slung with fat old truck tire tubes, we
descended the weedy banks to the Gunpowder,
low in spots after weeks of drought, and set
ourselves into the clear currents. Summer
leaned over us from the riverbanks, green-dappled
and leafy, silent and still. In the cooler, humid
stream bottom, Converse All-stars reeking
of algae and swelter and soaked through, our
heels trailed vees behind us as we drifted
backwards towards autumn, aimless as leaves.
As the journey ends we find that the boys have
Held the years before us at arms’ length, shut our
eyes, floated across those waning hours like
While the poem could end there, resonating in that wonderful image, it continues with a kind of coda:
…Covered in dreams and lies, we
leaned our ears into the distance for a sound
that would call us away to ourselves from
futures that would choose us, from the
demons we would not outgrow.
But it is Jen, in the present, whose love supports and nurtures the poet. In the long title poem, “Thresholds,” the poet says,
In the blink of your hazel eyes
I live a thousand lifetimes;
in your tears, I die a thousand deaths.
Your sighs are those of an archangel
gazing on a world gone mad.
I am elevated by the words you speak
and humbled by your daily kindnesses.
Your laughter heralds the birth of a million stars;
the cadence of your stride marks the beat of my heart.
In this poem, he sets up a line from Rumi, which he then includes, a line that sums up this poet’s situation:
We fall into love renewed every day
We fall, and falling, are given wings.
Every poem in the collection is strong. Some are mighty. The attention to the craft of poetry throughout is consummate. Line breaks are often evocative. Always there is the patience to find just the right word. The musicality of the sentences inspires. The following from the poem “Under the Leonids” is typical of these features:
I gaze east and up at November’s mute fires,
magnesium streaks quick-etched across the night,
their glowing trails hanging like tiny hosannas of light
before dissolving back to heaven….
The same passage could be used to describe all the lines of poetry in Thresholds.
Later at the poem’s end,
…Minute under the vast and endless
river of stars, I watch with gratitude as sparks shoot
from the Lion’s mane, heavenly travelers hurtling
through the darkness of time to crash hot to earth,
brief glories scratching the hours like static, fading
swift as dreams the moment we wake. Their ions,
like knowledge, linger to tease, then are gone.
It’s telling that a poem written on his 40th birthday about his adoptive mother, who left the family when he was 10, is titled “Psalm 40.” That biblical Psalm 40, for which the poem is named, is a prayer for mercy and grace. In Psalm 40, David tells us “you have given me an open ear…I have told the glad news of deliverance.” The poems in Thresholds witness for us a deliverance, both very real and divine.
This book is about that threshold between anguish and deliverance. It’s solid in its King James, Walt Whitman, Alan Ginsberg rhythms and patterns, its occasionally long noun phrases and quick coruscating verbs, its ability to be totally grounded on earth, in reality, while soaring to the furthest heights of our imagination, much as Du Fu, considered with Li Po to be the greatest poets of China, was able to do.
Threshing is the act of beating the grain from the chaff. A threshold is a point of entry where we can leave the profane and enter the sacred. In this collection of poems, we witness this process.
© Matt Hohner and Harvey Lillywhite
Matt Hohner, a Baltimore native, holds an M.F.A. in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Baltimore Review, September Eleven: Maryland Voices, The Potomac (online), Lily (online), The Mom Egg Review, Truck (online), Rattle: Poets Respond, The Moth, The Irish Times, and Free State Review. His chapbook States was published by Third Ear Books. Hohner has new work forthcoming in an as-yet-untitled anthology of poems about small town America, Rise Up Review, and Sport Literate magazine, for which he won the “2018 Anything but Baseball Poetry Contest.”
Harvey Lillywhite teaches writing in the graduate Professional Writing program at Towson University. His poems have appeared in many magazines. He served as Editor of Columbia University’s literary magazine and was founder and editor of Plum magazine.