Wastoid by Mathias Svalina
Big Lucks Books, 2014; 166 pp.
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
In his latest collection of poems, Wastoid, Mathias Svalina nukes the sonnet—nuke like microwave. Svalina’s sonnets warp in a way not too dissimilar from a Peep, expanding, second by second, until the marshmallow gets gooier and the little black eye distorts and somehow the colored sugar stays kind of intact until it’s time to see if the taste has changed (it hasn’t) and you knife-and-fork into the little chick and discover—oh—it’s still a Peep, and oh: now it deflates.
Let’s cast this metaphor aside. Unlike a Peep, a sonnet is never still a sonnet, and poets have worked their dungarees/pantaloons/petticoats/pelts off reminding readers of that. A sonnet is malleable, plastic, welcoming, accessible, open.
If you didn’t read the title page, though, you might not even know Wastoid is a book of sonnets (154 of them, all titled “Wastoid”). Prose poems, you might think, a book of love notes or warped parables. But then, if you were feeling bright, post-trivia-nightish, maybe you’d think: 154 of these prose blocks … lots begin with lover … love … Shakespeare, hm, bingo!
Svalina begs his readers to think of the Bard; what sonneteer doesn’t? In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare writes: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” What, pray, can exist that holds a candle to the lover’s beauty, grace, perfection? Svalina, whose speaker addresses a lover in most all of Wastoid’s sonnets, skinnydips in the waters of metaphor, again and again. His lover is “the American version of himself,” “a wink,” “a bronze statue of a deer,” “a praying mantis,” “a laugh track,” “the glow surrounding a glowing firefly,” “a real rain asking abstract rain for renewal,” “toil,” “a whole heap of little horses.”
In fact, Svalina’s collection harnesses considerable energy on account of this sort of repetition. What will the lover transform into? How will the speaker next reveal his own predilections and perversions?
Sometimes these poems are beautiful. They make me feel things in a serious, sweaty-palm way. Here’s one:
My lover is an echo. I must continue speaking to keep him alive. I follow my lover
into the mountains & seek him out among the crags. I yell his name & he repeats his
name & then he disappears. I worry that others may travel through the canyon, lost
& thirsty & afraid, yelling out for help & their help returning to them through my
lover. I worry that my lover will always be beyond my sight, regardless of my beauty,
birth, wealth, & spite.
In this sonnet, Svalina locates his speaker in a place—“the mountains,” “among the crags,” “through the canyon.” The speaker expresses a desperate fear, an idea that might propel not only this poem but the entire collection: “I must continue speaking to keep him alive.” Call me a sentimentalist, but there is a sincerity in this poem; even the vague “others” are in potentially dire straits (“lost & thirsty & afraid”). Vulnerability, the ephemeral, sound receding into void: yes.
However, amongst the 154 sonnets in Wastoid, these sweaty-palm moments are far between. Another type of poem, more interested in diction and allusion, targeted at a different reader, predominate the book. This different reader, one who can cackle at existentialist motifs while at the same time be tickled by “crinkle fries” or “ ‘dumb & dumber fan fiction erotica,’” is the reader who will be most at home in the book as a whole.
This reader (let’s call her Gilles Deleuze), will likely cite the following poem as one of the book’s finest:
When my lover wears tight jeans you can see his man-penis pushed down the right
side of his leg. It’s not weird, now that everyone knows Buchenwald was built on a
hill where Goethe once walked with Eckermann. I am the wind making a resonant
hum through the power lines, which the most pretentious grad student makes his
friends stop & appreciate when his friends only want to talk about who did what in
what to what. I am what-has-already-been-done-once. I apply for jobs though there
are no more jobs, no trees, no places for trees, only lonely droning laptops. Modern
man walks through his day like an inside-out mirror, but everyone looks better in
tight jeans, sometimes.
For me, however, soul-searching ensued when I encountered the compound “man-penis.” Was I supposed to laugh at this word? Feel uncomfortable? Cringe? Smile? Nod? Swoon? And then, hot off the heels of whatever-reaction, how was I to think about the concentration camp where writer Elie Wiesel and critic Bruno Bettelheim and essayist Jean Améry suffered during World War II? Does “what-has-already-been-done-once,” an idea that resonates with both the Shakespeare-154 and any/all adherence to poetic form, require this degree of mash-up to arrive at innovation?
This is a question I’ll continue to think about, and Svalina’s book has certainly arrived at many shocking new tableaus. Think of these poems as Cornell-boxes-on-Mountain-Dew. Two-liter-bottles-and-glitter-hurricanes-of-love. Or Peeps, quacking their same sweetness after a stint in the microwave.