Review by Barbara L. Estrin
With Robert Lowell’s depictions of his parents’ dysfuntion in Life Studies and Philip Larkin’s indictment, “They fuck you up your mom and dad,” mothers get a bad rap in late modern poetry. But Anthony diMatteo’s In Defense of Puppets puts all the confessional blame on himself as he renders his mother’s death the occasion for reflections on the family romance, the framework for musings on nature and the forum for poetic discovery: “the dead and the living work nimbly together / in a department for the lost and found.” In diMatteo’s case, the disclosures are usually of his own inadequacy to rise to the demands of his past in a volume so compellingly original that it astonishes us with the extraordinary of the ordinary it celebrates.
The first poem, for example, uses a phone machine as the launching ground for memory, “voices of the dead / speak a metallic / residue of soul,” his mother’s inquisitiveness “reopening a wound,” one that is felt throughout the book. In “Things I Wouldn’t Say to My Mother,” he recalls “classic mom” asking his sister to fasten her bra on her last day, “You want me to die with my coconuts hanging out?” But then her sadness at leaving the six children she nursed with those coconuts comes back: “I want to know how things turn out for you.” That strain is echoed throughout the book as diMatteo reveals his several families, those in the group home where he worked, those in the parental home where he was raised, that of the Bronx neighborhood which he revisits and where “a different lifetime was walking the streets / in [his] mind,” aware that he, too, like the not-forgotten territory of his childhood “would disappear.”
DiMatteo’s intimations of mortality—“I am still learning nothing lasts”—are fused with allusions to mirrors which reflect too much and too little “Can you see yourself seeing /Yourself without a mirror”? signifying the difference between what is visible and what, like Hamlet’s pain, lies hidden in an interior “which passeth show.” If mirrors fail to reproduce the self to the self, so DiMatteo turns to visual arts, quoting Klee who claims that he paints “so as not to cry” to which DiMatteo responds quizzically: “where do tears / go if not to the same root?” In the title poem, even “rain appears to weep.” Mantegna, da Vinci, Rauschenberg are as much of DiMatteo’s landscape as the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the streets where he grew up, fighting with friends, leaving irretrievably in a family quarrel over the difference between homicide and genocide, and quoting Rauschenberg, “the canvas is never empty.”
DiMatteo fills the canvas of his page, defending and accusing his own craftsmanship, despite the fact that “in the beginning of time, metaphor began,” as he advances inexorably towards his “fear of loving you.” Is DiMatteo the Petrarchan poet frightened of the “no” of the other who inspires his words or, more originally, of himself and how the lover can hurt the beloved? Not hesitant to face the difficult, DiMatteo confronts the art which he both reveres and doubts in a book that bypasses the influences he cherishes in favor of a more complex terrain: “the field is greater than we see.” In Defense of Puppets is a rare collection, establishing a stunningly new poetic and challenging the traditions that DiMatteo (as Renaissance scholar) claims give the poet “the last word” even though that finality is only the first glimpse of a profound and moving depth.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 2.
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