Clay Matthews, Superfecta, Ghost Road Press, 2008

Reviewed by Amanda Maule

[Review Guidelines]

If you were a Superfecta, the title of Clay Matthews' first book, you would be a correct prediction of the first four horses to finish the race. Congratulations on the amazing pick, unless you're wrong.
     So let's evaluate this tricky decision making process:

  1. Decide to make an adventurous bet on something.
  2. Wait in line to buy your ticket to the "big winnings".
  3. Choose the ticket based on your gut—your gut and maybe a birthday? or 
  4. Cling to your ticket consumed by excitement and doubt.
  5. Interpret winning or losing as a direct reflection of yourself.

These poems reside somewhere in #4 of the decision making process. Matthews' expertly commingles excitement and doubt, or if you prefer, hope and lament which are two of Matthews' prominent themes. He's nostalgic without being sappy, hilarious without using gimmick, and philosophical without seeming spacey. Basically he's rinsed the cans and bottles so there's not some sticky ooze in the recycling bin. The intensity in these poems blend well with his chatty meandering and contemplations.
     Matthews knows the greatest excitement comes with risking something. The risk reaps reward in the first section of the book titled Martians (1). Being the first section, (the first horse to finish) it appropriately has the fastest pace. He expertly chooses his line breaks and sculpts his sentences so they move fluidly with little friction from shifting ideas or punctuation. (Hard to imagine a clumsy horse finishing first—how much it trips all over itself and all.) In "Late Night Show with Galileo" we run along-side Matthews:

I bought one of those clapping contraptions
because I like to imitate god as most of us do
and I like to say An then there was light
and clap my hands, and boom, light, except
these devices are finicky and it doesn't always
work, and sometimes even just goes off randomly
so that my free will and control
of the universe are undermined by who knows
what, maybe the wind maybe two crickets
making the music of two crickets.

This compared with the very short sentences in "Late Eighties Elegy":

This decade
shall be no more. I see this everywhere.
Excessive zippers are not coming back.
The Michael Jackson in my soul squeals
at the image of the Michael Jackson
in my present tense. Time has dismantled
history or vice versa.

Movement dominates the first section both literally and figuratively. The poems read fast and Matthews seems gifted in fabricating connective tissue between anything. These poems are least like Matthews' more controlled sentence style. The pace of the poems slows gradually through the book—each section slightly slower than the previous. His subject matter requires it, especially in the last section, consisting entirely of elegies. I hoped for more of the style I saw in the first section.     Throughout the book, the speaker of the poems often meanders through contemplation, as though asking: What did I was just say? What does that mean? The poet works as a bloodhound, sniffing out the significant odors on the forest floor of his language. Matthews repeats the phrase, "I don't know" 12 times throughout the book, which doesn't mean, pity me I'm a bad poet but means something closer to, some things just aren't conclusive. Most successful are those poems that deal out the detailed and concrete images with thoughts while connecting with the reader conversationally as in "The Steeple":

I say you
because I mean not only you but also me because
sometimes I need a little open space to get outside
myself and say Son, look at what you've become.
You have not faith in the church, no faith
in the people, but faith nonetheless in the sharp
points of the steeple—

Here Matthews' complexity, comedy, voice, and his images come together to draw us completely in and inform us about ourselves.
     The most important step of the decision making process for Matthews, the poet, is #3. His choices are clear, intentional, and intelligent: his language, image, and line that contribute to that sense of control. He says in "Elegy for a Bet that Couldn't Lose":

We have all come here for something.
To bet on the three horse every race when they pull the horses
out. To bet on what we believe won't happen, but hope for

That three horse in this book is Matthews' past and present experiences. These poems are personal and we can tell in his tone that Matthews doesn't mind having company or sharing his impressions. We feel as if were sitting with him, maybe at a racetrack or maybe not, listening to his stories. Sometimes these stories are drawn with too clear line as in the section title Mr. Jones, which seems heavily themed with romantic relationships.  Specifically, "Self-Portrait in a Hollywood Car" doesn't have the same, sock-you-in-the-jaw potency as "Feeling Lucky" which appears much earlier in a book. (Both are casino poems.)  The effect is that the later poem is a pleasant aftertaste, not quite up to the standard Matthews sets for himself early on. Matthews controls his passion and energy well, giving readers something to bet on confidently in the future. Matthews holds out a ticket. If you choose to buy it, you'll be investing in a chance to win comedy, insight, expertise with language, and clear impressions on the day-to-day world in which we live—and the odds have never been so good.