American Chew by Matthew Lippman
Burnside Review Press, 2013; 86 pp
Reviewed by Billie Duncan


American Chew is unapologetically American. It makes no pretense of being timeless, of playing to the future. In a hundred years, some editor might go blind jamming in footnotes to explain Sears, Saran Wrap, Facebook, Glad bags, Crate & Barrel, Valerie Bertinelli, Mountain Dew, 7 Eleven, Exxon, Play Dough, Fed Ex, Led Zeppelin, McDonalds, YouTube, Al Green—maybe even Twinkies. Lippman peppers his poetry with today, with the immediacy of now’s language. At times nakedly personal and at times purposefully psychedelic, Lippmann cannot be chloroformed and pinned to one acid-free backing with a neat little label underneath.

Lippmann likes to start at a certain point then veer like a boomerang to come back to the reader as an uncaring sea or a boat made out of computer parts into which trout, elephants, kangaroos, and even green grass can jump.

He chews the fat, gnaws on old memories, chomps down hard on his own vacillations. He is at his best when illuminating the effects of loss, both individual and monumental. In “Voyeurism,” he goes on a seeming tirade against Stephen Spielberg’s vivid depictions of the Holocaust only to dissolve into an impossible dream of a family lost to the Nazi ovens coming back to life in a clean kitchen with a friendly white stove—making the loss of so many achingly personal. In “You Got to the Sea,” he begins with the promise of love and happiness for two women who marry as the sea forms into a character that defines their love and the ultimate devastation they face when one of them is dying. Both poems pack a decidedly powerful gut-punch in their poignant ending images.

Some of his poems send me right to Google to find out if there is some secret code that will help me make sense of his magnificent slush of interesting wordcraft. I find that there is such a thing as a rhino window (although the window is undetermined—it’s a JavaScript thing), but that does not get me out the Wonderlandish construction that is “Random Acts of Violence.” Still, I am fascinated by this new world of a rhino crashing through the kitchen window and making the children laugh. It makes me laugh and turns me into the adult who is really a child at the dinner party in “The Carnivores Serve Brisket” because I do not own a home when everyone else at the table does. It is the failure of the American dream. Perhaps most of the book is the failure of the American dream, and America is chewing us all up, then spitting us out into a cosmic cuspidor.

He brings ideas back into disparate poems at unexpected times. In the title poem (the opening poem of the book), Lippmann’s voice says he wants to work in a slaughterhouse but has to face the reality that he has no stomach for actual slaughter. This theme comes back near the end of the book in “The Earth in There” in which the man in the poem finds the placenta from the recent birth of his daughter in the freezer (probably being kept for burial in the fashion of ancient Hasidic traditions) and considers various gourmet options for cooking and eating it, but leaves it there when he realizes, “because when it comes down to it / I don’t understand slaughter / and I’m afraid of the whole sweetheart human race.”

These poems are not empty pictures, not churned-out blogs or TV shows of blogs. Most of these poems create strange little rooms of ideas that are best experienced alone without traffic noise or background music, letting the formulations spin, dissolve, reconnect without trying to force them to make mathematical sense.