Matt Merritt's poetry has always stood out for the texturing of its nuances. However, in The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press, 2013), his third full collection, Merritt has taken that process a step further.
Throughout the book, he is undermining any sense of absolutes or permanence, his endings playing a key role. They tend to qualify and cast doubt on what comes before, as in the following example from "Always". The first stanza seems affirmative as it sets off, clear in its statements:
"Memory abhors a vacuum. It seeds a coarse grass
between every bloom..."
The above beginning contrasts with the poem's closing lines:
"...Maybe this happened again and again,
maybe just that once. We can live by such uncertainty."
The repetition of "maybe" is topped off by "uncertainty". Nothing is as it appears.
In the same way, flux and movement pervade "The Elephant Tests", forever unsettling and challenging the reader, yet not via crude shocks. Instead, scenes and narratives shift in their portrayal, as in "The Capercaillie". At first, it...
"hasn't moved for the fifteen minutes
we've been watching..."
Nevertheless, a few lines later...
"And already, she's a shadow of herself, a last held breath
away from slipping out of sight. It's easily done."
The poem provides us with two implicit comparisons here: between stasis and transience, between the natural and the human world.
Matt Merritt builds layer upon layer of such subtleties. He is a specialist in trusting his reader. However, he's also capable of gorgeous unveilings of freshly cast images. Never flashy, never needing to show off, he yokes them to the purpose of his verse and they are richer for that. He's always been terrific at endings (as illustrated above), but this one, from "Long Story Short", ranks among his best:
"...the bubblewrap sound
of a car receding over cobbles."
What's more, Merritt is acutely aware that restraint and control are often insufficient. An overreaching is crucial to an understanding of what defies expression. One such example comes at the start of "Chirimoya":
"Custard apple. Sweetsop. Guanabana.
Mostly, it's the human heart..."
In this case, the poet starts by seeking a definition via a list. The pauses are deliberate. And then, all of a sudden, there's a delicious tingle of impatience as he accelerates and brings the reader to the core thrust of his inspiration.
The Elephant Tests shows a fully mature poet who continues to explore the relationship between verse and his life. Merritt accompanies us on a poetic journey that forces us to reflect on ever-growing uncertainties. In that vein, I'd like to end this review with the lines that bring this exceptional collection to a close:
"You still don't know what the elephant looks like,
but today looks a lot like the elephant."