I don't recall reading Mather Schneider's work before this year, but that's apparently because I don't read widely enough, as he's published something like five hundred poems. I took him first for yet another Bukowski imitator (I suppose I could ask him straight out if he thinks he's influenced by the dirty old man but I don't really care all that much, and I suspect, neither does he)but found when I read a bit more discovered he had more going for him than the Buk, namely, some humility and compassion that leavens the (often tired) attitudes toward licker and wimmen and durgs, as well as a way with phrasing that renders his work a pleasure to read. More than mere narrative, these poems at their best evince a practiced and polished lyric and an attitude toward life that looks forward to better times instead of wallowing in the past. You can find plenty of evidence of his gifts on the 'nets, but my examples come from his most recent book, Drought Resistant Strain (Interior Noise Press, 2010).
Of all the poems about bars—there must be a gajillion—I think most of them end up being about pickups or hookups or oddball-character poems. It's refreshing to read something like the following: short, short-lined, observation-based and solidly in the moment, without being smarmy or sentimental. The final metaphor, for me, exhibits the rueful, nearly jaundiced eye of the lifetime observer, the often forced-into-humility watcher who exists in every bar I've ever spent more than a night in. "A long line of buckets/leading to a fire," indeed.
Julie at the Bashful Bandit
Your cigarette smoke curls up
like a telephone cord
to the hereafter.
Over the oval maw of a highball
a wan smile rims
a red straw.
are like crazy
and your drinks
are a long line of buckets
leading to a fire.
Compassion is not automatically native to poetry, as some poets believe, their dead dogs and busted-up relationships and kind wisdoms from the old man's splintered teeth notwithstanding. The true gen is in a poem like "Bad Summer."
We killed fourteen copperhead snakes
My dad helped me skin one
and make a hat band
for my black cowboy hat.
I remember a fat one
I slit at the belly
(as my mother looked on)
and out squirmed a spaghetti mess
of baby snakes
slimy and bloody
We didn't know what else to do
but feed them
to the fire.
Though it's not a tour de force in its language or metaphor, the direct tone and straightforward recounting of events is powerful in its simplicity. I'd point to the parenthesized line as the high point of compassion in this poem. The decision to burn the snakes in front of the mother becomes the force whereon the family turns and the persona gets a life lesson by performing the unexpected cesarean-section. Little dangers grow up to be bigger dangers,the father seems to say. So burn them. In the last stanza, the first line "we didn't know what else to do" is what may be a first failing—one of many, we know—in the narrator's relationship with his parents.
In the poem "Ten Years Away," the narrative takes the forefront again. In plain language,the narrator describes home in terms of how everything has changed but nothing changes.
Ten Years Away
I come home to find my cousin Todd
won't take his Lithium,
my mother has a tissue box
in every corner of her house
and nothing but a police scanner for company,
my sister's married to a man
who wears a hunting cap at dinner, and who drinks
a gallon of whole milk a day,
Kim Hecht has taken too many vacations
with the Rainbow People
and is now able to communicate with cats and marigolds,
Shelley Macintire is now a mad
drunken nurse who hates people and breaks
dinnerware at parties,
our old house is all grown up
with vines and mean-looking grasses
and there are cages of angry dogs behind the shed
where I opened my first nudie mag,
most of the good looking girls from high school
are a mess
and a couple of the homely ones
have found their own
and most of them have been divorced at least once,
the bridge is out down
by Johnson's Hollow
and the lake where I used to skinny dip
with Theresa Ozuna
has been drained,
there's a new road to my grandpa's old house
out in the woods,
but it still looks rough,
it still looks plenty rough back there.
Though "it still looks plenty rough back there," it seems the narrator's celebrating that he managed to get away at all and recognizes how far he's come from the rough, that catalog of characters from his past who have all gone their own way and ended up in situations none of them would probably choose if they had it to do over. I don't want to say too much about the poems, so I'm going to stop now. It's not as if they require explication anyway. They're rigorously assembled and compassionate, hard and fast in some poems while smooth in others, and in general a pleasure to read. I think of these poems in much the same way as I do Jim Harrison's verse: I read Harrison,and now Schneider, to feel connected to reality when the umbilicus that ties me to this plane seems near-cut. The best thing I can say about Schneider's poems is that I want to live in the world they present, and that's no small accomplishment.