Superfecta, Clay Matthews, Ghost Road Press, www.ghostroadpress.com/
When Clay Matthews says he has “been forged in the belly/of a weeping old man” (43), he means it. His first book, Superfecta, is filled with the proof—creating a gut-ache for the reader whose only appropriate response is either to cry or make out with someone really, really hard…or both. Regardless, Matthews has a way of making us want that ache, of defining himself/ourselves by that ache, forcing us to hold on to it like we did when we were teenagers (even though for the majority of Matthews’ audience that wasn’t too long ago).
Because a superfecta (picking the first four horses in a race correctly) occurs even less frequently than a trifecta (picking the first three), one wonders whether titling a book Superfecta is a gesture of braggadocio or lament. Is Matthews proclaiming a slam-dunk, the pinnacle of skill and luck, or is he setting the tone for a lifetime strung together with failures, one long blues song? Thing is, Matthews does both. Throughout, Superfecta is infused with a particularly American melancholy that is impossible to resist. In Eternia, Matthews says:
What a strange film
there is covering the window. It looks like everything
outside is blanketed with the saddest glass in the world. (40)
In Matthews’ world and in our postmodern one, it is tempting to argue that yes, everything is covered with this strange film, this “saddest glass.” However, just when all seems lost and nostalgia threatens to overtake us, he pointedly throws out an element of love, hope, or faith with a desperate, visceral jolt: “Go ahead and wish for something terribly shiny,” (33) he says, or, “Vinegar/you salty cur I love you” (43).
The poems in Superfecta rise out of both past and current lives in Oklahoma, where Matthews resides. While not afraid to report on inanities that, somewhat expectedly, can escalate to the boiling point in a semi-rural life or any life for that matter (“Oh, the madness of a kitchen counter” ), the work in Superfecta approaches all of its subjects with the same openness, the same willingness to accept both depravity and duende as necessary parts of the whole. For Matthews, whether the whole is ultimately negative or positive doesn’t matter—it simply is and therefore worth greeting with open arms. He is secure enough to have extremes commingle happily under one roof.
Tucked under this roof, Superfecta exists in four parts as apropos, with the third section comprising several self-portraits (Self-Portrait in a Chewing Gum Wrapper, Self-Portrait as an Aging Human Type) and the fourth, most compelling section consisting entirely of elegies (Elegy for the Bet That Couldn’t Lose, Elegy for the Waffle Iron). In one such elegy, Elegy for the Organ Dying Slowly Inside, in which a high school rat dissection is compared with searching for what triggers the inevitability of death within us all, while illustrating certain human tendencies toward todeswunsch—those individuals that seem bent on dying one way or another—Matthews writes “I’m telling you I have a fear that what is going to kill me/is already housed somewhere within” and “Ready your scalpels. We’re going after it” (77).
It is impossible to ignore two of Superfecta’s main themes: sentimentality and the middle class. What is refreshing about Matthews is that he embraces both and calls himself on it, even titling one poem Regarding my Sentimentality and Love of Holes-in-the-Walls. A sucker for sentimentality myself, what saves this work are the aforementioned moments of forceful emotion, plus a subtle sense humor murmuring throughout—especially in poems like Late Eighties Elegy where Matthews proclaims (incorrectly?) that “excessive zippers are not coming back” (78). Also, this sentimentality is balanced with a sense of good old-fashioned traditional masculinity, as evidenced among other places by a gesture in Self-Portrait in a Hollywood Car:
I’ll tell you what I do believe in, though:
free cocktails, losing money, and fine
The locations and situations described in Superfecta are admirable in that they represent the middle class and lower middle class without either irony or pity. Matthews regards the super-center, liquor store, roadside diner, casino, and Best Western with the same sensibilities as he does the front yard on Maple Street and respects the people that inhabit these places in the same way.
Yet despite all this praise like any first book or any book for that matter, there are weaknesses. A few poems (Elegy for What It Was You Thought You Saw, for instance, or Self-Portrait of the Author in Rain) don’t quite reach the bar that Matthews has set. But like the majority of first books, there’s an explicit earnestness and intensity that makes reading—and rereading—Superfecta so very rewarding. In Broadcast of Another Speech About Forever, Matthews states: “I’m tender / about the beginnings and the ends.” (25) Fine. After reading Superfecta, I’m tender about the whole damn thing.
Brandi Homan is the author of Hard Reds (Shearsman Books) and is Editor-in-Chief of Switchback Books.