Reviewed by Susana H. Case
In the recent Italian film, The Great Beauty, the protagonist, Jap, after reaching the age of 65, embarks upon an odyssey to discover what beauty means. Anthony DiMatteo, in his first book, Beautiful Problems: Poems, is on a similar quest to discover how we experience beauty in the quotidian worlds in which we move. Marital coupling and uncoupling, a stillborn child, family connections, hiking in nature, encounters with animals, even the death of a horse in a traffic accident, and the murder of a lesbian couple in Shenandoah National Park—all of these are mined for insight.
“A square inch of wilderness is a beautiful problem.” He begins. (“A Square Inch”) A beautiful problem is one that enlightens, that enhances insight into a mathematical concept, the general theory of relativity, for example. “(I]f the solution is not beautiful,” Buckminster Filler wrote, “I know it is wrong.” Like Fuller, Di Matteo draws upon this idea of beauty from the aesthetics of mathematical thinking to address larger notions of the aesthetics of the world around us, both natural and constructed, rendering these thoughts in a beautiful way.
Using some form (a sestina, for example in “Mind Games,” or a villanelle in “Mixed-up Song,” as well as several sonnets), the collection is composed largely of free verse narrative poems arranged into five sections. Di Matteo suggests that to appreciate beauty, one must “see a thing quid est, as such, at the moment / it reveals its true essence.” (“From the Standpoint of Eternity”) But, there is a playfulness here as well, when considering words, as in “Conflate the Idiom,” for example, where he writes:
They can make us and forsake us
to a crowded house alone. What
is this thing called love, why
is this thing called love or why
is love called a thing and who
would ever love a thing?
DiMatteo does this as well in the conjunction of “love and death” and “life and death” in “Exposure.”
“Beauty Is in the Heart,” he suggests, as the title of his book’s second section, poems of memory and love, though “Once gone, love’s death is complete” (“Homage to the Pemigewasset” and we must see it:
These eyes have peered from trains
into the darkness of apartments where
the one lamp glows down a long hallway.
today, they have witnessed the felling
of a two hundred year old oak, turning
from the lumberjack who thought I had asked
about the age of his chainsaw….
Eyes become a recurrent theme, as in “Animal Eyes”:
My canary goes quiet when I drift by
and looks into my eyes to ask
for something to eat and when I drift
away it sings, trying to charm me
to go into the refrigerator for the cool
lettuce. My dog looks into my eyes
to allow me to see the one light bulb
lit in the back of the hallway
of his deep brown eyes. My other dog
blasts rocket ships into my eyes
when hungry as if he were beaming up.
There is a wry humor in some of these poems. In the third section of the collection,
devoted to poems that contain animals, the poet writes:
Beauty wears no clothes
and no offense meant to the statue
but liberty wears no clothes.
Imagine a large naked woman
welcoming people to New York.
How kind and trusting, how free.
But no ferry tours happiness
or death. If one knew in advance,
who’d buy a round trip ticket?
This mastery of subtle humor that turns serious shows up again, particularly in the fourth section, poems in which the departed are in focus. In “The Favor,” DiMatteo unwillingly agrees to take the dead ashes of a student’s husband with him to Yosemite to scatter them from Mount Vogelsang, and in “Old Before His Time,” a twelve-year-old boy in need of supervision “knew / what it took to look madness in the eye.”
Beauty shows itself woven through this collection, the word disappearing and reappearing, the way the birds disappear and reappear in Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. There is a sadness that disappears and reappears as well, skillfully rendered, as when DiMatteo writes, for he is not a Pollyanna, “the joy of touch gives way / to a stone of grief in the end.” (“Work for a Lifetime”)
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 3.
See all items about Susana H. Case