|Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.
Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:
A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.
She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story
But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”
“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:
The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.
Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:
He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.
So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.
He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.
Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.
“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:
You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.
You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.
Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?
Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”
Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.
Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”
Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.
Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.
Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.