By Andrew Miller
“I think for years now I have been approaching all of my own writing as a kind of improvisation. I am very uninterested in planning out a poem, and am not very interested in reading poems that are obviously written like that. I just don't find it interesting to engage in writing that way (I'm not, after all, a novelist) …”
- Matthew Rohrer [Darling, The Best American Poetry]
This epigraph ironically predicts the future that Rohrer had yet to see within himself, or at least to reveal to his audience. One year after having been quoted as not being “a novelist”, Rohrer published The Others (Waves Books), which he accepts as being a, “novel in verse” [Pancrazi, Poetry Society of America]. The concept is as old as storytelling itself, think Beowulf or The Iliad, although Rohrer and his contemporaries have mostly eschewed the form in favor of more minimalist pieces. For Rohrer, it would seem, The Others began haunting his thoughts nearly a decade before being published – it’s “middle” (as he called it) having been writing in 2008.
Rohrer seems to provide the most banal of reasons behind this perceived change from pure improvisation to planned writing. In answering Pancrazi’s assertion that he was flirting with being a novelist, Rohrer stated simply: “One reason, and maybe the best reason, for 'why a novel in verse' is why not, right?”
His delivery of a complex piece that feels so well structured that it couldn’t have been merely improvisation; The Others unfolds in layers of both complexity of content and technique, beginning in a seemingly simple, straightforward way, developing deeper ideas behind the scenes. Rohrer’s quote above, just like the book’s opening cliché “…I always assumed / the others hated their jobs / too. That’s why they call it work / …”, serve as a way of making his audience comfortable - phrases resembling familiar conversations between friends. That familiar territory does not last long, however, with the reader encountering multiple complexities along the way. Yet ultimately Rohrer does return the reader both to the familiar phrase, “That’s why they call it work”, later in the poem, as well as to the comfort of the protagonist’s domesticity – no longer in conflict with the world at large. Thankfully, Rohrer’s skillful storytelling never leaves the reader behind, no matter how far off course from the morning commute his protagonist travels.
As a poetic day-in-the-life story of Rohrer’s protagonist, The Others works as much as a travel poem or spiritual journey (both literally and metaphorically). The opening scene of the poem is that of the protagonist boarding the subway, heading to his job as an editor in the city. The storyline that Rohrer uses to tie together all of the components is, on the surface at least, a narrative of a man who works for Harper Collins Publishing and is being sexually harassed by his female superior, Pam; causing him understandable dread and a desire to escape his working life.
He feels he is himself one of “the others,” or at least a connection to them – using that phrase to describe his surroundings throughout the poem. Subordinate to the protagonist are his co-workers, friends, and his wife; all of whom enter and exit the narrative without providing a great deal of insight on their own, but each one providing a new device to further the underlying story of how people interact with “the others.”
This goes back to the issue of structure. Each (sub)poem is then also a new device, represented as either the protagonist reading a new manuscript – which is transposed on the page for the reader – or, in one case, it is the transcript of a television show that the characters are watching and then commenting on. Rohrer uses the repetition of everyday banalities to transform their place in his world; this is one example of how he moves the reader from a place of familiarity toward something of greater significance.
Rattling through the tunnels:
These men in well-tailored suits
Obviously on their way
to Wall Street to destroy us;
high school kids in backward
ball caps wearing their backpacks
over one shoulder
guys with beards
and tight jeans wearing sports coats;
running shoes and panty hose
beautiful Russian ladies
dressed like descendants of czars;
Jewish people moving their lips
reading the Torah
all of us waiting down there
for the F train to take us
The irony of the opening epigraph in juxtaposition to the writing of The Others fades, due to the off-course nature of Rohrer’s protagonist, the improvisation of it all. Rohrer does not disdain the form of the novel, his disdain is for how many novelists, and some of his fellow poets, execute their work. Those writers who rigidly remain tied to an end – making the reading of their work merely the means to that end. Rohrer is taking us on a journey in The Others which begins on the F train, but departs for somewhere else:
and soon it came, preceded
by an unnatural gust
An air of the unnatural, supernatural, follows and diverts the story of the train the protagonist is on. Instead of heading uptown, Rohrer takes us to Paris, France, to reveal one of the early theorems of his protagonist using the words of a new translation of a (fictional) Victorian era novel manuscript he’s been assigned to read: Confessions of the Truly High.
which was to feature the lost,
the forgotten, the suppressed
young women in suits
with laptops open typing
furiously, and then me
cradling the loose pages
turning them by blowing them
In an interview with Poetry Northwest ahead of the book release, Rohrer rejects his role as an essayist in similar fashion to his rejection as a novelist, only to then go on and describe the basis of a series of lectures he’d agreed to, based on an essay he’d written for his friend and fellow poet, Matthew Zapruder. This second example of Rohrer rejecting labelling, suggests that he fears being bound to any one genre – he has said as much, saying he would prefer to remain loose in his work.
The title of the lecture series, “Poetry is Not a Symbol,” is an interesting companion to The Others. Improvisation, or “looseness” as Rohrer also has referred to as his approach to writing, is based on his interpretation of Wordsworth’s idea of “wise passiveness” [Rohrer, Bagley Wright Lectures].
“I like watching people speak on the page … rather than writing an argument that already existed … you feel a certain way about slavery or tax law or whatever – and you made the poem to match that … the looser way, makes the poem more necessary as a poem because it enacts its coming-into-being,” Rohrer said [Carty, Poetry Northwest].
In The Others, Rohrer uses shifts into these other (fictional) texts, novels and television shows, to allow for shifts in voice and point of view. Using this technique, Rohrer is free to explore different story options untethered to the initial storyline by anything but theme. In this way he exposes additional themes and theorems of the protagonist without relying directly on the protagonist. The feeling is very natural, likened to how a reader situates themselves within a story, as a voyeur, etc. Examples of this show up as early as in the protagonists reading of Confessions of the Truly High, and then occur in each of the four additional “texts,”
I wasn’t scared at all
all my life I saw (right then)
had been a race
betwixt one thing
and the next never slowing down
I thought back sadly
In a later section, another allusion appears invoking the connection between wind, breath, and spirit. Aptly, this section shifts to our protagonist reading from a manuscript titled The Others, which invokes direct references to a “journey to the Land of the Dead, while alive.” Here Rohrer seems to illustrate how life and death can run parallel, not only as a waypoint connection upon a single continuous track.
humming a disconcerting tune
It seemed as if the rain
had stopped, but then a gust
and the boys each felt wind
down his collar
“We were talking last time
about the ghosts in here,
the spirits, either dead
or somehow fictional,
and in particular
the journey to the Land
of the Dead, while alive,”
Rohrer’s use of imagery instead of symbolism seems to take cues from Ezra Pound’s idea of “Imagiste” - or - “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time … It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art … Go in fear of abstractions” [Pound, Poetry Foundation].
Following this track, Pound also wrote that a poet should not, “mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word.” Rohrer explained that his lecture, “Poetry is Not a Symbol,” is similarly an expression of his frustration with the idea that poems are merely a construct of symbols, always pointing to something else, something bigger beyond the poem.
“For a writer, I think this is dangerous because you stop thinking about what you’re actually writing, and the words mean less to you. For the reader, it means you’re not even reading the poem – you’re pushing past it to get to the ‘deeper meaning,’” Rohrer said [Carty, Poetry Northwest]. The concept is not disdain the use of symbolism, but a desire to read within the moment and discover what is in the piece, not what is beyond it. “I like poets who write to discover what they are going to write next,” Rohrer says. [Rohrer, Bagley Wright Lectures].
The Others is a complete and relatively unambiguous singular story when read beginning to end. The 229 pages flow together as one single piece, subdivided only in how Rohrer uses the field on the page. Seventeen separations occur based on formatting, and conceptually delineate the individual poems - although this is never stated explicitly. Within the collection there are five (fictional) texts directly referenced. In order as they appear: Confessions of the Truly High, The Others, l’enchanteur, Bashful [a television show]; and, They all Seemed Asleep. Initially, a reader might not even note that these delineations represent individual poems. It isn’t until the book’s end, in the “Acknowledgements,” where Rohrer states that the poem, “They All Seemed Asleep,” had previously appeared in a chapbook published by Octopus Books (2008).
“I started it [The Others] with what is now a scene in the middle—oddly perhaps for a book whose structure is a day-in-the-life. I started with a real-life experience I had in the workplace, which I think at the time I thought was so boring and un-imaginative that it would definitely demand my full attention to get it going,” Rohrer said [Pancrazi, Poetry Society of America].
“It was going to be a much shorter thing; I really only had about 3 ideas at first—I wanted to start with this scene in the workplace and then have the character sort of disappear into another story as a way to escape. But then I realized how porous the whole thing could be, and how many different stories there'd be room for if I backed up and started at the—duh—beginning.”
For the graduate students Rohrer teaches at NYU, this is the key tool he hopes they take from him – remaining open to the multitude of stories and directions a piece can take when you let it. “I’ll say to my students, ‘Maybe that’s where it ends.’ Or, ‘Follow that direction and try to get away from your grand plan for the poem,” Rohrer explains [Carty, Poetry Northwest].
Nearly all the phrasing in The Others can be read as sentence structures, even though the field is broken into columns of text general represented by only a few words per line, and almost entirely void of punctuation. As with any strong verse, this lack of punctuation is itself a way of punctuating the meaning behind the phrase, in many cases as a way of eliciting what is the other:
… A large
man with unruly
white hair got out
the driver’s side and two long-haired
young men got out the other.
Everyone knew they were
students, and foreigners,
Rohrer doesn’t rely on explicit use of rhyme or alliteration to create the rhythm in his work, but still it is there; captured in phrases such as “In a pale blue flicker” or “clear piercing emptiness / breathing in the air at night / a drive into the high hills”. The feeling is part stream-of-consciousness and part formal narration. As a reader, the pages flew by without feeling tripped up on awkward phrasing or complicated word choices. Without relying upon titles as a way of separating scenes and storylines, this book sits somewhere between poetry and prose. The language itself is distinct (as you would expect of a good storyteller) between the narrator, the other characters, and more specifically between the main storyline and the individual books that are being presented. I think it is this detail that really helps to fill out the world that the reader is asked to believe in, and shows the versatility of Rohrer’s imagination.
The Others feels so completely familiar because the world the others inhabit, as composed by Rohrer, is a world so many of his readers will recognize as their own, as an other.
Darling, Kristina Marie. “Writing as a Kind of Improvisation: Matthew Rohrer in Conversation with Kristina Marie Darling.” The Best American Poetry, 24 Feb. 2016, blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2016/02/writing-as-a-kind-of-improvisation-matthew-rohrer-in-conversation-with-kristina-marie-darling.html.
Carty, Bill. “Interview // Matthew Rohrer.” Poetry Northwest, 14 May 2017, http://www.poetrynw.org/interview-matthew-rohrer/.
Pancrazi, Elsbeth. “Interviews.” The Others: An Interview with Matthew Rohrer - Poetry Society of America, 2017, www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/interviews/theothers/.
Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste by Ezra Pound.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 30 Oct. 2005, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/58900/a-few-donts-by-an-imagiste.
Rohrer, Matthew. “Instead of Trying so Much Why Don’t You Try Just a Little” Bagley Wright Lectures, 1 May 2017, bagleywrightlectures.org/post/160194144550/matthew-rohrer-instead-of-trying-so-much-why/.
Andrew Miller is author of the addiction and mental health focused essay collection "If Only the Names Were Changed" (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2016) and an MFA candidate at Miami University. His next book on Traumatic Brain Injury and returning Veterans, "Turn the Lights On", will be available spring 2018.