Poetry Reading

Stephen Reichert, editor of Smartish Pace, was so kind as to film the poetry reading celebrating the 18th issue of the journal in which my poem was awarded first place in an annual poetry contest.

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Insightful, kind words about my poetry from Geffrey Davis, author of Revising the Storm, awarded BOA’s A. Poulin Jr’s Poetry Prize

“Often turning to natural imagery, as well as surprising relations, DiMatteo uses the poetic space to gently (though boldly) scare out the emotional deceptions and intellectual inconsistencies that we sometimes live by, often seemingly not by choice. He does so, at first, to let what we already ought to know hang in the air—’Things don’t exist this way’—in effect, forcing his poems (and us along with them) to consider what must come next. While what DiMatteo does poetically after such disarming confrontations can differ, both in terms of his technique and his contemplations, his understanding of the stakes remains consistent: to carve out for us “an utter silence of understanding.”

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The Old Sadness

revenant

Finally watched The Revenant and felt the old sorrow again I feel whenever I think “wilderness.”

I’d love to see a movie where the peace of the woods is the story, a reverse cosmic (but not comic) perspective, perhaps impossible to achieve, where the human world so red in blood in this film is the (non-Disney-fied) backdrop against which animal and plant life plays out.

Why must we get a repeat of the same scenario of Cain-like human violence set against the harsh serenity (wild peace?) of nature as in The Revenant? (The otherside of this ideology is nature as pretty and cute, leading to Disney). This at times stunningly beautiful movie reprises a popular pessimistic anthropology about mankind, that we are at each other’s throats in a state of nature, willing to kill each other for greed, lust or revenge – may the strongest win! So we must arm ourselves etc. etc.

One can date this anthropology to the formation of the early-modern state in the 17th c. for many reasons, but it has roots as deep as Aristotle’s Politics which argues that some people are born “natural slaves.” The movie appears trapped inside the very ideology it attempts to break free from.

How to root this ages-old ideology out of our future culture and politics, not get trumped by this belief in masters – not get fooled by it yet again? Artists and philosophers of the world unite.

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Review of In Defense of Puppets

Grace Cavalieri’s Review of my book of poems In Defense of Puppets, Washington Independent Review of Books, February 2016 (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/february-exemplars-poetry-reviews-by-grace-cavalieri2#Defense)

I read the title poem first and it informs the book well. Each poem is a different event but there’s an interconnectedness, a public conversation, throughout. I see it as personal philosophy and personal morality. The writing is without heroism or rhetoric, but there’s a definite ethical slant to the poet’s characters — a muscle memory of trying to be better without being valorized. The Buddhists speak of “nothing tainted nothing pure” and, although this is a simple sounding phrase it carries centuries of thinking we could excavate. The balance within is what DiMatteo seeks. These are poems of realism, without spiritual portraits or lessons, and they are downhome poems, yet I sense a search for forgiveness to and from the past.

The tactics and strategies of DiMatteo’s poems are well tended, infrastructure is good, and poems excel because of the poet’s inner resources. There are some spirited poems here about relationships and a level of good will. The gift the poet gives is in weighing his actions in a poem, because this takes insight and caring— the high bar we set for poetry. Without it we have just an imprint on the page.

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Audio Reading of “Second Nature” from Cortland Review

http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/63/dimatteo.php

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Back from the Breech, Fire Island Wilderness

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fire-island-exquisite

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The Problems of Others: Two Sonnets

The Problem of the Other: A Meditation on Two Sonnets

“Hell is other people” – so Jean-Paul Sartre in his play No Exit posed in extreme terms the problem of human communication, of our difficulty interacting with others. Too often our attempts to speak with and to others turn into speaking for or at them or of being spoken at or for. Paradoxically, this problem, perhaps the key human problem, appears more frequently addressed in lyric poetry than in any other genre of literature. I say paradoxically because lyric poetry is typically the domain of the solitary singer of love usually unable to achieve harmony with his or her beloved. We find this forlorn condition to be the case in the very beginnings of poetry in the West, with the archetypal poet Orpheus on his lyre mourning his twice-lost bride Eurydice. She’s twice lost because Orpheus rescued her from hell and death only to lose her again from his errant backward glance at her when she was in the form of a ghost or shade, an act of seeing forbidden the living by the gods. As usual, a myth gives rise to speculation…If hell is other people, it still should not stop our attempt to rescue our relationships with them. We take on this challenge even though, as perhaps the wandering, forbidden glance of Orpheus warns, we cannot see ourselves as another sees us. This is precisely a main issue that often occurs in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and acutely so in Sonnet 129.

This sonnet is one of the twenty-six so-called dark-lady sonnets, sonnets 127 through 152 of the 154 sequence of sonnets. The poet-speaker in this sonnet laments how, “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / is lust in action.” Not seeing oneself from the outside, as another person does or as one sees others, leads to not seeing oneself as one should. Like the speaker of 129, we repeatedly succumb to our irrationalities, what the speaker calls “lust,” because of our self-blindness which we come to despise too late time and again. Lust in this sonnet forms steps like a downward ladder leading to an abyss of self-hatred:

Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

The poet-speaker here in the context of the dark-lady sonnets condemns his infatuation with a woman that sonnet 131 calls “tyrannous.” But of course, he cannot make up his mind about her or about how he feels about her, a phrasing which amounts to the same thing psychologically but which implies very different realities (one must not mistake one’s feelings for another for the other; we cannot reduce others to how we feel about them). The justly famous sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” goes on right after 129’s condemnation of lust to celebrate the beloved – “I love to hear her speak.”

Fact is the poet-speaker cannot know for sure what’s on the mind of the beloved – and even if he could, would he read her aright? In some ways, “A Lover’s Complaint,” a narrative poem concluding The Sonnets as first published in 1609, appears to acknowledge and tries to compensate for this forever uncertain condition we have when it comes to others. The complaint has the poet-speaker eavesdrop on the sad tale of someone else’s scorned, once-upon-a-time beloved. But what if the dark lady herself came forward directly, without the aid or trickery of what the poet-narrator of “A Lover’s Complaint” calls a “double voice accorded”?

The contemporary poet Jennifer Reeser has done just that, creating a voice for the dark lady in 27 sonnets of her own excellent wit that plays off Shakespeare’s dark-lady sonnets (plus one). The dark lady’s imagined riposte or rejoinder to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 is particularly instructive for the problem of how others see us. The poet-speaker in Reeser’s sonnet speaks not of lust’s “waste of shame” but of love’s madness:

Say Love is useless, shameful, overwrought,
In shape and bent. Call Love the expertise
Of idiots, a flagellant of thought
Making a victim of itself to please;
Unprofitable, disrespected, trampled,
A rose bench in a peach conservatory
where sugar canes ad nauseam are sampled –
a subjugated shade of lust’s red glory;
call Love a forger’s counterfeit of peace,
naïve, complacent, loose, unkempt, forthcoming,
archaic, quaint, a traitor true, a grease.
Regardless, women will continue humming
As if it meant dementia to despise
This Neat Suite sham, this No-Man’s Paradise
(Reeser 106)

At first glance, one invited by Reeser’s epigram for her poem which is the first line of Sonnet 129, we might be tempted to look back at this poem as a line by line equivalent of Shakespeare’s 129, with a twist suited to the different genders at issue. The woman-speaker of Reeser’s poem speaks of love whereas Shakespeare’s male speaker speaks of lust, an ages-old stereotype met with and exploited in Shakespeare’s first published poem Venus and Adonis. But there’s more than yang playing to yin here. Reeser’s poem mentions both love and lust while Shakespeare’s 129 does not mention love at all. Love is, “a subjugated shade of lust’s red glory.” This implies Reeser’s speaker for a moment at least would much prefer the sovereign pleasures of lust rather than the servile mess of love, better the “red glory” (a strikingly erotic image) of lust than the cloying, sugar sweetness of love. Reeser’s closing couplet too indicates a more inclusive view of the love-lust phenomenon as an ideology entrapping both men and women. Compare Reeser’s “No-Man’s Paradise” to Shakespeare’s “hell” in Sonnet 129’s closing couplet:

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

True, Reeser’s persona says “women will continue humming” the praises of love despite the suffering it involves, but her “No-Man’s Paradise” implies love is a forgery for men too not just for women (it’s not a No-Men’s Paradise), while also contrarily indicating that not a man shares this particular form of madness with women. The closing couplet has it both ways, with both genders impugned for their willingness to trust “a grease.” Perhaps I am slicing hairs here but when we go on to read her ninth dark-lady sonnet that ends speaking of “our mutual fantasy” (italics belonging to Reeser), we can see Reeser’s poems benefit from knowing who and what they are responding to as opposed to Shakespeare’s sonnets that whistle in the dark, not knowing what either the dark lady or the young man or men of the first 126 sonnets think within their mind.  And the poet-speaker acknowledges his  ignorance in this crucial matter:   “Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter” (Sonnet 87).   “So shall I live, supposing thou art true” (Sonnet 93).

The fuller the knowledge we have of each other, the less likely are we to end up with a one-sided view of hell as Orpheus found out the hard way.

Work Cited

Reeser, Jennifer. Sonnets from the Dark Lady and Other Poems. Louisiana: Saint James Infirmary Books, 2012.

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How I Came To Do Theory

Professors often have their feet in two worlds, the academic and the corporate, governmental or other realm beyond the proverbial ivory tower. My own story is a twist on this double existence professors typically live. It will help explain why doing theory has become important in my professional and personal life, why for me it is not the stereotype people have in mind when they think of theory as pie-in-the-sky abstractions and incomprehensible jargon.

For me, the need for theory began when I wrote my dissertation on Renaissance mythography while I was residing as a supervisor of a group home. The ten boys I lived with were often court-placed children coming from families seeking assistance by taking out a “PINS” petition (person in need of supervision) for their child. I was translating Latin commentaries on Ovid and Virgil at night and working with the boys round the clock, doing all the things any parent would do facing the challenge of helping teens stay on track. But it felt like a double existence for me – working on how the Saturn or Orpheus myth was understood by Boccaccio, Leonardo and Milton, on the one hand, and overhearing the rap music coming out of the room next to my study, on the other. High and low cultures on either side of the symbolic wall seemed to resist each other as well as spring from the same human source in the imagination.

The feeling of needing to bridge these two regimes of culture, history and meaning grew only greater when I began teaching a college course in world literature at a local medium security prison (that also housed the father of one of my group-home boys). The inmates, as they have come to prove over many years now, turned out to be some of the best students of literature I’ve ever had – motivated to read because of the asylum from their lives literature offered and because of the connections and identifications they made with Oedipus, Odysseus, and Bartleby the Scrivener. At the same time as I was teaching this course, my own duties grew on the group home side of things as I was promoted to supervise seven other homes as well as continued to reside in my own.

When I finally finished my dissertation and began a full time teaching job, I had to say farewell to the ten boys I had helped to raise. But besides the love, much remained. The work I performed in the group home and the teaching I did in the prison have proved some of the best training I could have received as a professor – something my NYIT students laugh at when I tell them! But it is true. How people suffer violence in their lives, how this violence becomes almost immediately a determining factor in their life, the mythologies that people deploy to cope with, understand, deny, perpetuate, or resist this violence – surely these are no ivory tower subjects. From this perspective, people – and their high and low cultures – are indeed linked at a most fundamental level. And it is where the work of theory has a lot of work to do.

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