Book Reviews

Regurgitated by Flowers

by Collin Callahan | Contributing Writer

The Sky Contains the Plans
Matthew Rohrer
Wave Books, 2020

The Sky Contains the Plans, the latest poetry collection by Matthew Rohrer, is a heavy-eyed meandering through a field of strange blue light. The pages feel quiet, at times domestic. Rohrer’s poems remind me of riding inside a bicycle trailer as a toddler—my father steering us across the town while I ate goldfish with a goofy helmet on—the passing world both stark and ephemeral, fleeting joys glimpsed through a plastic window. The danger didn’t occur to me, how carefully we must have crossed four-lane intersections. Although these poems are less so busy streets, more often narrow trails. But Rohrer, if nothing else, is careful. Each line has been expertly trimmed, each poem has the effect of a monochromatic garden you might peruse with a cold drink to your lips—a place to appreciate the day and breathe in the moment.

In the afterword, Rohrer reveals how the title of each poem was born—in a bedside notepad, the poet not yet quite awake, phrases pieced together in a hypnagogic state. Unsurprisingly, many of them are odd, teetering at the edge of making sense. But they always do, to some extent or another, once the poem is all said and done. And the dislocated-ness of each poem allows the reader to choose their own landscapes to place themselves in. For me it was the suburbs I moved away from when I was six. I never once imagined myself in Brooklyn, where Rohrer lives and where the collection was perhaps written. The poems are untethered to person or place, like balloons like snipped ribbons, like  “a few more polkas disappeared / into the evening air.” They can take the shape of childhood daydreams, or night terrors. “If You Saw Me You’d be Swallowed by a Yellow Bus,” begins, and continues, “and regurgitated by flowers, / but I am hidden in / the sky I am hidden in peace,” and later, “a gaunt figure beckons you / but he is awful you run / you stumble in your coat.” Rohrer admits to being surprised, and also delighted, by how mundane a few of the titles turned out.

Many of the poems are charmingly absurd. In one of my  favorites, “A Toy Spaceship Called Almond Chicken,” Almond Chicken battles two worthy foes, Mega Gun and the Disasteroid. It ends, of course, explosively, “from each little piece / of the Earth a toy spaceship lifts off. / Revenge in its little heart.” How can a poem like this not remind you of the toys that you have lost or broken, sent cartwheeling down the basement stairs? What I guess I’m trying to say, is that Rohrer manages to be as playful as he is sentimental—yet all the while unsettling, “I was thinking of mustard gas / eating at the lungs of people / trapped on a ship floating / adrift on the sea.” The movement is dream, or trancelike. A sort of fugue state. We float and rise and swim and come down. It’s fitting that the narrator is jealous of birds: “How they get to fly. Motherfuckers of luck.” 

Yes, Rohrer’s poems are quirky and strange. In “It’s Not Like I Have His Death on My Foot”, the narrator sees a pile of dog shit and then vomit, and thinks, “what if I ate that? / I briefly imagine it. / I have no idea why. / I don’t want to.” The collection includes tangents, sometimes into fantastical places, with troll wives, armies of giants, and bewitched blocks of cheeses. But the landscapes can also feel commonplace. “Then He Was Thrown Out of Espresso Royale” concludes with the highly-relatable, “people continued / going to and fro / across the earth / posting their comments online.” The book itself is a sort of ode to collaboration—a tribute to his homemade chapbook, Birds Follow Mommy, written on two typewriters with fellow poet Joshua Beckman, and also a nod to collage and ekphrasis. So of course the poems are all over the place—have you tried to trace the plotline of a dream? Tried to verbalize its final scene? The Sky Contains the Plans captures the pleasure of bedtimes, all the while conducting, and being conducive to, its own experiment of introspection: “I saw myself reflected in the window / holding my book / too close to my face / like everyone else / pretending to read.”

Matthew Rohrer is the author of The Sky Contains the Plans (Wave Books, 2020), The Others (Wave Books, 2017), which was the winner of the 2017 Believer Book Award, Surrounded by Friends (Wave Books, 2015), Destroyer and Preserver (Wave Books, 2011), A Plate of Chicken (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), Rise Up (Wave Books, 2007) and A Green Light (Verse Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize. He is also the author of Satellite (Verse Press, 2001), and co-author, with Joshua Beckman, of Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press, 2002), and the audio CD Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty. He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Next Big Thing. His first book, A Hummock in the Malookas was selected for the National Poetry Series by Mary Oliver in 1994. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at NYU.

Collin Callahan was born in Illinois. His poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Slice Magazine, Cream City Review, Hobart, Carve Magazine, Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Collin holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and is currently a PhD student in Creative Writing at Florida State University.