"My pen sustains me, " writes poet Matthew Nolan in his poem "Muddy Hearts" from his first volume of poetry and prose Crumpled Paper Dolls (2004). Nolan, through his poetry, strives to make meaning in an apparently senseless world. Recently on the radio show The Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keilor has his character say to his mother, "I don't need therapy, mother. I'm a writer." Like the Biblical fiat (let there be) , words bring form out of chaos. To write is to make order in the world.
Matthew Nolan's two volumes of poetry and prose Crumpled Paper Dolls (2004) and Exhuming Juliet (2009) examine and dissect a fallen world in which hope springs eternal despite the fact that disillusionment and devastation is inevitable. Set in part in New York City but primarily in pre and post Katrina New Orleans, the poems of both volumes follow the coffin, like the "second line" in a New Orleans funeral, in a macabre celebration of life.
Throughout both volumes of poetry there is a prevasive sense of loss: loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of dreams. Hand in hand with loss goes loneliness and isolation "I am lonely like a bar of soap" the poet writes. Matthew Nolan's persona, like J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, finds himself living in a fallen world. His idealism is met with disillusionment. He seeks permanence and stabilty in a world that offers only decadence and decay. Most of all, he seek undying love.
The title Crumpled Paper Dolls set the scene for many of the poems in the first volume. Women, in both volumes, are like dolls---paper or porcelain. They crumple or they shatter. They are like little girls, appearing to be innocent and promising eternal love, but are actually Lolitas (as in the poem "Mother Fries Chicken"), at first tempting and then betraying. One of the keynote poems in Crumpled Paper Dolls is "Caterpillar Girls." In this poem the girl/woman is portrayed as a caterpillar who consumes his heart but she never cocoons, never evolves into a butterfly. The promised transfomation never takes place, and the caterpillar leaves only death and destruction in her wake, like Hurricane Katrina, to which the second volume of poetry is dedicated.
The first volume of poetry is dedicated to Katie, Nolan's great-great-grandmother who died in a mental institution in 1941 and lies in an unmarked grave. Red and black, the colors of blood and death, infuse the poems, and animal and insect imagery (as in "Caterpillar Girls") abounds. One poem is entitled "Death Follows Close Everywhere" and in another poem a marriage becomes a coffin and a chair becomes first a stained ring bearer's cushion and then an electric chair.
Much of Nolan's personal history is woven into the poety, but the reader must beware of the "biographical fallacy." There is a fine line between fact and fiction, art and life. The great southern novelist William Faulkner declared that all writers are "congenital liars" and Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar" that "things are they are are changed on the blue guitar." Thus, in poetry we can find the metamorphosis that so often eludes us in reality.
Nolan's second volume Exhuming Juliet continues to develop the theme that we are indeed east of Eden. This analogy is made even more poignant as New Orleans is experiencing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In this volume, the poems seems to mirror the devastation of the city, the smell of corpses and the evidence of decay. The title itself, Exhuming Juliet, is evocative of the Randy Travis song "Diggin' Up Bones" for that is indeed what happens when one delves too deeply into the past.
Nolan says that the flagship poem of this volume is the poem "The Juliets," in which he remembers the polite and perfect young women who flattered his mother, promised to love him forever, and eventually melted away like the wicked witch of the west, leaving nothing but rotting taffeta behind. In one poem ("Daughter") the poet imagines how he would bring up a daughter, carefully teaching her how not to be a Juliet. He declares that she "won't be strung like a puppet."
This second volume, with poems like "Coffin Made for Two," focuses on relationships, once again full of promise but doomed to dissolution. In "Her Schizophrenia" the poet writes "the cadaver of us lies before you unnoticed." Vingettes of New Orleans, Jackson Square, Magazine Street, float in and out of the poems, but this is a post- Katrina New Orleans and the stench of death is everywhere. In "Old Pink Purse" the woman becomes "a frozen piece of meat,/the smell of you is gone."
The animal and insect imagery provide the warp and woof of these poems. "Tiny Grasshopper" is a kind of companion poem to "Caterpillar Girls" from the previous volume. These poems are rich with a type of post-modern synesthesia, a bizaare juxtaposition of imagery that is at the same time enignmatic and highly evocative. Eyebrows are sardines, hair is like coconuts, eyelashes are fences, age is a "pink ribbon in a girl's hair," and in one poem he is abandoned "left as a snail." In another he says "I can cram this whole house into my mouth." In the poem "Organic" one is caught up in what seems to be a catalogue of disparate images concluding with the line "the orangutan is loose."
The word orangutan may evoke the image of a zoo, but there are also circus images throughout the poems. One can always expect, in a mad world, that a circus with all its permutations of nature can never be far away, and someone is always waiting for the clowns. In the poem "Circus" the girl/child/lover seems to be caught up in the make believe world of the circus and is always clapping for the clowns. In one poem "Perfect Human," the poet wonders if he asks too much saying, "If only our love was smaller, /it could live on less."
What is refreshing about these two volumes of poetry, in addition to the startling juxtapositions and the unique and imaginative imagery, is the hope that permeates the work despite the prevasive darkness. One is reminded of the concluding lines of Archibald MacLeish's award winning play J.B. After J.B. (modeled on the character of Job) has lost everything, his money, his health, his children, everything but his faith, his wife Sarah brings him a sprig of forsythia and we know that what lives continues to love. Sarah's concluding words are "The lights have gone out in the sky./Blow on the coal of the heart/ And we'll see by and by ." The poems of Matthew Nolan may appear dark and devoid of hope, but the very fact that the poet continues to write is evidence that there is still light in the darkness.
---Penne J. Laubenthal