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Posted by : cj on Saturday, September 24, 2005 - 03:31 PM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
I Can Only Go As Fast As The Guy In Front Of Me
by Frank Matagrano
Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity

Frank Matagrano is producing some of the most original poetry coming out of Chicago. He has a rich, unique style all his own, a wild, prose-like stream of consciousness that inspires uneasy laughter through detailed descriptions of often somber subjects.

No finer a representation of what Matagrano can do does there exist than his new book, I Can Only Go As Fast As The Guy In Front Of Me. The beauty of the work in this book is the abundance of surprises. Line after line the twists and turns throw the reader for a loop:

and I used the time
we weren't on the road to read about the heart
and understand what I was
getting myself into . . .

(from "Clicking Your Heels Three Times")

The line "and understand what I was" means one thing; then it means something altogether different when reading the next line. There are several instances like this in the book, instances that force us, the readers, to face our own prejudices and examine how and why we interpret things the way we do.

The poetry contained in this book is by no means whimsical. It's actually quite heavy. Matagrano packs so much into each poem that it nearly strains our mental resources, so that we need to take a second to breath before we go onto the next one. The unexpected detours can be exhausting, as they contain such an abundance of imagination that they call upon our full mental capacity to absorb them. It is an enjoyable exhaustion, like having to wait a few minutes after braving the carnival ride, before entering the next one, or like a vigorous mental workout. Take for example the following ten lines, from the poem "Trying To Channel":

campaign, the greatest show on earth
said a magazine I skimmed while waiting
for the doctor to finish feeling
my wife's breasts for a lump. He found
nothing, which didn't stop me that winter
from spreading salt on the drive
trying to shake the fear of my life
changing, singing as if alone

with the radio that played a cover of a song
your father heard when he was your age.

In those ten lines alone Matagrano successfully takes the reader to four different places and times (a campaign, a doctor's office, a driveway, a place of the past with a radio). It doesn't matter if these places are as ordinary as a TGIF's restaurant or a motel; Matagrano twists the screw to give them significance as part of the human experience. These twists are inspiring:

not counting the neighbor's wife, who would be scandalized
if she could read my mind. In another life, I took her hand
and ran from door to door. By life, I mean the one invented
in my favorite chair, the moon three paces east and a quarter less

(from "Self Portrait With Black Umbrella")

Within the excessive pace of Matagrano's writing, there are times when he puts on the brakes to show us a gesture or a specific moment, in order to fully realize his characters:


If you stood close enough to see him throw rocks
in the pond, you would have caught him trying
to bring his dead wife to the surface, and if he pulled
bottles from the muddy backwash, you would have seen
him looking for one with a note in it, and if you left
before he did, you would have missed how he limped
back home, empty-handed, leaning against a tree to catch
his breath, exhausted more than anyone in love could bear.

It is during these moments, when Matagrano snaps his mental photo, that we feel like we are in a museum looking at a piece of fine art on the wall, instead of reading words in a book.

The work contained in this book suggests that there are many versions of the past and endless possibilities for the future:

. . . In New Jersey, there are twists along Route 80 that catch you
completely off guard if your mind is wrapped around the deconstruction
of a kiss. You can park the car in Fort Lee and go the last mile
to the city by boat, struggling to strike a match, shivering a bit . . .

(from the title poem)

I think what Matagrano is saying with his style is that we actually live many lives, certainly as many lives as there are people to interpret our life. He says this by documenting how most reminiscing minds really work--not in logic, not in truths, not in linear patterns of thought, but rather in fragments and swirls of interpretation, opinion and imagination:

January 23rd and I am watching the image of me whisper
sweet things to the image of my first wife, who now lives
in Colorado, where it takes weeks for the sun to go down
and where they are making omelets in the kitchen
with something that looks like an onion though no one is
crying . . .

And it works; it works quite well.

I give I Can Only Go As Fast As The Guy In Front Of Me two big quills up.

For information about ordering this book, check out and click on Books.

--C. J. Laity

back to meshing

**We hope you found the information on this page useful. needs your help. We are holding a fundraising drive in order to stay online. There are two ways that you can help:
Click here to offer a financial gift or click here to order the new book by Press.

Note: Here is a review of Frank Matagrano's I Can Only Go As Fast As The Guy In Front Of Me.

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