reviewed by George Venn
redbat books, 2022, 73 pages, $16
Available at www.redbatbooks.com, Ingram, Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, Powells.com
To appreciate David Memmott’s achievement in Small Matters Mean the World (2022), readers might start with the front cover. Memmott’s colorful digital collage suggests a kaleidoscope preparing the reader to celebrate and explore the magic of natural, organic, and psychic forms. Superimposed on that collage, the bold title rises in white cursive script variegated with organic fragments. That combination of title, design, font, statement, and wallpaper assert not only Memmott’s practice as a talented multimedia artist, but also alludes to his lifetime of eclectic practice as poet, editor, publisher, community activist, advocate, and novelist.
Opening and turning the five pages of front matter, readers may be challenged or intrigued by an extended frame: a black-white dazzle of Memmott’s original organic endpaper; interpretive blurbs by editors John Morrison, Peter Grandbois, and David Mehler; a two-page “Contents”; a thematic epigraph from Theodore Roethke; and Memmott’s poem, “Where the Bow Breaks the Wave,” his declaration of resistance to mere realist poetics. These five pages of front matter prepare and frame the twenty-two poems/paintings to follow. Arranged in four distinctive galleries, the poet foreshadows his intention to negotiate relations between realistic and fantastic, microcosms and macrocosm, word and image.
Part I. Titled “Small Matters Mean the World,” Memmott arranges fifteen poems on twenty-three pages, concluding with his thematic title. This is the grandest gallery in the book. There’s variety in form and theme, and unity in length––five of these poems take two pages. In them the poet invites the reader to witness the dramas, the neighborhood nightmares, the waking dreams of urban life in Blue Mountain towns where he has lived for years. He asserts the truth of his title. Microcosm becomes macrocosm, particularities are charged with universals. In both text and sub-text, statement and nuance, the poems engage mortality as they press against the predictable framing of any superficial literalistic narrative.
Part II. Titled “Some Nights My Nothing Rises,” this second gallery is more haunted, the mood more surreal and interior: silence/ moves into my basement (“Some Nights My Nothing Rises”); a last howl clearing the street (“Floodstage”); a mythic bridge fails (“On the Bridge with Gray Owl”); a child’s dreamboat is swamped by writhing unwanted things (“Spilling the Monsters”). A medical nightmare holds the poet down, released only by some far away voice: you were never meant/ to stay here (“Caught in the Updraft”).
In these eight poems, Memmott offers the reader fragments of painful autobiographical memories, then counterpoints them by recalling his own relationship with a wild bird in a fine apostrophe in “To A Flicker in the Attic.”
Part III. Titled “Life Is a Beach,” Memmott takes the reader west to another personal and imaginative macrocosm––the Pacific coast ecosystem––where he lived for years. To introduce each microcosm and memory implicit in these five coastal poems, Memmott uses titles and place name signposts as epigraphs or text notes to alert readers to the abundance of characters caught in his macrocosmic saltwater net: fish and crabs, sailors and shipwrecks, molt and messiahs, beaches and tides. To bring the fantastic alive in these oceanic poems, Memmott lands a pair of haunted ghost ship sailors––“The Phantom Sailor Steers for the Stars” and “The Phantom Sailor Washes Up”––deep visions of mythic spacemen and seamen and their washed -up corpses. Part IV. Titled “A Feast Will Follow,” this is the most complex gallery of thirteen poems. The section title is taken from an invitation to a solstice celebration hosted by his fellow poet and friend “[S]agaalgan” whose rural orchard and farm are the site of the gathering. To engage the reader, Memmott provides context, text, chant, and ambience for the longest poem in the collection and one of several in the collection dedicated to women.
Part V. To conclude, Memmott offers a tacit recapitulation: an ending frame of back matter that mirrors the front: a blank page, Wallace Stevens’ epigraph, and a new final poem, “View from the Summit” To complete the circle, the poet once more repeats his organic endpaper and adds limited biographical and bibliographical details. This recursive frame enriches the overall unity and coherence of the book by giving both reader and writer a chance to reiterate and emphasize and contemplate the development of Memmott’s themes. These pages of back matter complete the macrocosm of the book by connecting, as Eliot said, In my end is my beginning. Welcome to David Memmott’s achievement––this magical, lyrical, metaphysical journey.
Poet, editor, regionalist, and literary historian, George Venn has lived, gardened, written, built, and taught in the Grande Ronde Valley since 1970. Lichen Songs: New and Selected Poems (Kelsay 2017) is his most recent collection. (www.georgevenn.com)