A Red Voice Urging: Matt Rasmussen's Black Aperture, by Michael McLane

In the opening poem of Matt Rasmussen’s debut collection, Black Aperture, we are given a twenty-two line guide to the topography and idiolect that contour the sixty-odd pages that follow it. Bullets, holes, wildlife, hair, and leaves, as well as carefully rent notions of hunters and hunted, all work their way into “Trajectory.” All are items and images that surface repeatedly in the collection, creating a litany that feels entirely unforced and ruptures mostly mundane objects into surreal and asynchronous moments of fury, confusion, and the blackest of humor.

The book is an elegy for the author’s brother, who committed suicide. His death is at the heart of all the poems, though he and it are not always overt players in them. Instead, they are catalyst for an unravelling of time for those left behind on both large and small scales, and the poems cover over a decade of time, though not with any notion of linearity. “Trajectory” illustrates an aspect of acute loss that is crucial to Black Aperture – its ability to both drastically slow and speed time without warning for the victim or the grieving. In the poem’s opening lines, a rifle shot is slowed nearly to a stop, “the spent day exposing / a flame that propels it” while its closing lines present the corpse of a deer fallen against a tree “like a button” that, when pressed, makes “all the leaves fall.” It is a technique Rasmussen utilizes repeatedly in the poems, and to astounding and varied effect. Grief converges with jet lag and other effects of travel in “Vacation Cage” as 

                …you click and drag 
                yourself across the world  

                there is always the dull
                remainder of the original 

                left behind. Not as bright 
                as what’s moving on. 

The poem ends with what is one of the most straightforward lines in the book: “The concept of time starts over.” Likewise, in one section of “Elegy in X Parts,” the moment a father arrives to tell one son his other son is dead, the father becomes a statue “carved / from pale wood,” his “wooden mouth” silent, while in another section the speaker begins “My foreshadow stretches / out in front of me.” Time, in the traditional sense, becomes irrelevant in these poems. Its passing does not, as the old adage goes, heal anything. Instead, it unfolds and splits as “A boat unzips a river,” providing the poet new perspectives and perceptions, a kind of phenomenological reprieve from more overt grief, as he pursues meaning within the framework of a seemingly meaningless act. 

Though elegiac at times, this is no traditional elegy. Rasmussen does not hold back in detailing the costs of his brother’s act on himself and his family. There is no fine line between mourning and grief here, and the etymological roots of grief (from the German word grever: to burden) are apt. The anger and confusion felt at the time of the suicide have not subsided, they have only complicated, embodied in sinister and devastating moments that take on a humor often all too necessary to navigate such events. In one section of “Elegy in X Parts,” we see how high school students try to process this kind of mortality 
by spreading 

                …The Rumor: 
                you had to shoot yourself 

                twice because the first bullet 
                ricocheted off your jaw 

                and snapped your collarbone 
                like a bough. 

However, the most brutal and beautiful of these take place in two of three poems in the collection titled “After Suicide.” In the first of the three, which basically introduces the brother and his death to the reader, the speaker recalls how 

               My brother stood 
               in the refrigerator light

               drinking milk that poured
               out of his head 

               through thick black curls 
               down his back into a puddle

               growing larger around him

It is an unforgettable moment, the boy drinking milk from the carton as quaintly domestic as the falling leaves around the hunter and deer corpse in the poem that precedes it are pastoral, until it is understood how the milk is puddling around him. The hair, the hole, the darkness interrupted only by the refrigerator light. These haunt the rest of the book in a multitude of ways, their surrealism only emphasized by the third “After Suicide” poem in which the brother shows up long dead and uninvited to the speaker’s birthday party (as he has many times before) and tries to entertain a tired crowd. This only ends when the house catches fire and “everyone runs / out onto the cool lawn / to watch the house burn / relieved you’re still inside.” 

The precipitate of a suicide are countless unanswered questions that, in this case at least, require of the author a perpetual re-embodiment of the deceased partly to forgive but more so to interrogate, to create new forms for a dead brother that can displace the body he left behind. These metonymies are abundant and remind us how acutely ecological human sense and memory can be. Any moment or thing, no matter how trivial can provide immediate access to a point of loss. In “747,” the plane in which the speaker travels is yet another projectile in the book, on the threshold of two worlds, of which he asks 

               …stainless fuselage,
                weave us

                between the veils
                before we darken 

                and dip into 
                the twinkling net. 

                Each small town
                a blemish
                On the night’s skin 

Likewise, in “X,” a glass jar rolls down a set of steps, its “dangerous music” threatening to “pull the instrument apart.” In the most visceral example, the speaker in several poems steps not into his brother’s shoes, but his hands, literally wearing the seemingly sentient appendages as gloves in order to explore the world through these most intimate of body parts. He believes at one point that the hands have tried to kill him as well, only to admit “But they’re just hands. They’re innocent. / I put them away again. Years fell away.” Less innocent are items planted at the brother’s grave such as a light bulb that takes root, grows downward toward his new home, or a telephone buried for his convenience that 
sprouts up out of the ground in a final, impossible attempt at communication. 

Perhaps the most ubiquitous item in the poems of Black Aperture is actually an absence. Holes are everywhere. The figurative holes, in family and in brotherhood, are obvious enough. As are the graves. But what begins as a hole in the back of the head expands outward, confronts and encompasses the speaker of the poems at every turn despite his assertion that “a hole is nothing / but what remains around it.” Clouds, soil, and rivers are split, mined, and unzipped. Open doors. Open, silent mouths. And of course, the apostrophic “O,” which draws no undue attention to itself despite it multiple appearances. At least twice in the book, the speaker is devoured by darkness – once when a bully shoves him into a locker shortly after his brother’s death and another in “Chekhov’s Gun,” when a break in a tragic play turns on its head and the speaker, who was previously in the audience, is placed at the mouth of the darkened stage, substituted for its star, just before the lights go up. 

I’ll admit to having been a bit skeptical of Rasmussen’s book when it was released. As the buzz around it increased, my reluctance remained, due largely to a fear that romanticizing or aestheticizing suicide and loss would simply be too tempting in a book-length manuscript on the topic. However, the awards and praise it has garnered are well deserved. These poems are works of enormous centripetal force. A single moment provides the constraints under which they function, but does not dictate what is then pulled into that gravity. The breadth of image and metaphor that enter this collection is remarkable and I hope we continue to see such agility from Rasmussen in future work. Few collections anchored by such heaviness chart their territory with such unrelenting honesty and what can only be described as a graceful fury. Despite its darkness, something new and different arises from each shadow, each hole it encounters. As Rasmussen says in “In Whoever’s Hotel Room This Is,”

                On the back of my photo 

                you wrote, This isn’t you, 
                and you were right,  

                it no longer was. 

Michael McLane

Michael McLane is an editor for saltfront: studies in human habit(at) and Sugar House Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Dark MountainDenver Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, Laurel Review, and Interim, among other journals. He lives in Salt Lake City where he runs literary programming for the Utah Humanities Council.