The Poetry Project

On Heroic Dose by Matt Longabucco

erica kaufman

Heroic Dose (Golias Books, 2022), Matt Longabucco’s long awaited first full-length collection of poetry, is “a treatise on openings” that digs deep into the opening of subjectivity, experience, attention, and the inherent lyricism of everyday apprehension. These poems harken back to both imagism and New York School, while they also reverberate with filmic “moments of being” (to borrow Virginia Woolf’s term), a dailiness that transcends “the panoply of life.” Take, for example, the opening poem, “Waiting to Go Down,” which collapses the metapoetic gaze into phantasmagoria:

It really does matter how long the lines are.

Especially when you turn the page—what drama.

There’s a monster at the end of this book.

Raw identity at the start.

The poem moves from the observational—“book / that crosses the picnic table”—to comment on the book the reader is entering, then swerves to bring into focus the anxiety of a speaker speaking. It attempts to depict some semblance of “real” while also calling into question the hierarchies that define what qualifies as real or realistic. Literally, what is dubbed “real” depends on the thing’s legibility, existence as a recognizable object. However, this definition of “real” hinges on the viewer, a looker who deems that something exists because it is seen. Instead of simply describing “this book,” for example, Longabucco imbues the description with details that push the reader to reconsider their own sense-making process. What does it mean for “this book” to have “raw identity at the start”? What does one ordinarily expect from a book’s beginning?

In Attention Equals Life, Andrew Epstein examines “everyday-life poetry” because “such poetry has the potential to change the way we understand—and even how we live—our own everyday lives.” What Epstein draws attention to is the impact of attentiveness itself, how a lens cast on the tiniest details of a day raises the stakes of what it means to document the world as one wanders/wonders through it. “Waiting to Go Down” continues, “Over there a group of Orthodox girls / jump rope and it’s tricky with the long skirts / but they seem to do okay.” Here the speaker immerses the reader in a picture of their surrounds, a picture in motion and imbued with the pragmatic musings of the narrator. The line breaks invite the eye to dwell on the “girls” first and then the activity they engage in, with the final break offering an observational judgment detached by space from the activity itself. These girls jumping rope, “they seem to do okay,” and they are “do[ing] okay” at much more than just recreational sport, at least through the eyes of the speaker. In this moment the reader sees an everyday occurrence as both what it is in the moment of the poem, and what that small moment might signify on a much larger scale. What does it mean to “do okay” amidst the contemporary moment?

Heroic Dose is largely comprised of long poems and serial poems that showcase Longabucco’s gift for making transformative use of extended verse forms. “The Oubliette,” the second poem in the book, oscillates between chronicling dailiness and dipping into a spectrum of references (film and text), and grounds the book’s poetic noticings in the deeply private and public spheres. Longabucco writes,

my mother used to shush me in theaters

as if I could like anything better

than all sitting quietly together

each misinterpreting an image

because of the force of incidence

This scene begins inside a familial (and familiar) moment, a child being asked to be quiet, and then expands outwards to question a collective of film viewers. “Each misinterpreting an image / because of the force of incidence” is a particularly telling pair of lines—individual perspective is emphasized, and the word “incidence” grounds the moment. One hears “incidence” and “incidents” at once, an aural move that evokes a sense of “misinterpretation” as both an event and a repeated occurrence.

Several sections later, Longabucco writes,

…people are careful these days they know the future is dire

but they want to be in it

healthy and accomplished

you can’t love someone in the future

you can only love them now

Here the poem addresses and depicts a moment in time, the current moment which is certainly one in which “the future is dire,” but this depiction is unusual in the way it is at once understated and urgent. The narrator continues to read as truth-teller, in the mythic sense of the term, one who can synthesize hopes for a world which has not yet arrived, while also pragmatically remaining grounded in the present. I can’t help but think of James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem”: “What can one write between the lines? Not one damn thing. Look over / Your shoulder, into the future: one thing I want to see is heavy snow falling in Chelsea, to walk in it, snow / Blowing in my face, from where I live to where you live…” Longabucco extends Schuyler’s excavation of the “ordinary” into aesthetic territory; the poem is omniscient in its gaze, one that brims with a cataloging and chronicling of objects and objectifications. The tools of another generation always need to be extended in order to greet the contemporary moment, and so Longabucco importantly extends the descriptive acts of cataloging and chronicling so that they also involve critical interrogation. The poem both depicts and questions the “ordinary,” extending the “I do this/I do that” gesture of the first generation New York School into a present where modes of representation are much more fraught.

As evidenced in its title alone, Heroic Dose raises the stakes of the poetic quest—as per Terence McKenna, “heroic doses” are incredibly and intentionally strong; they take one outside of the present, outside of reality, and pave the way for unexpected, meaningful experiences to occur. Rather than simply subvert “the heroic” or reorient the way the reader interacts with daily experience, Longabucco offers,

I know the madness of obsession

seems like it’s going to rob us of our discourse

but don’t you see that only after we accept it

can our real encounter begin?

“Real” is key here, the speaker is in search of “our real encounter” which can only take place once “the madness of obsession” is accepted, once “discourse” is subsumed. This is a cinematographically scored book filled with critiques of everyday parataxis; life in the city. Take, for example, “where in Brooklyn do you walk? / the grayest part or the greenest part”; “the maitre d’ on a barstool / texts into his lap”; “Home Depot’s always open / and the big public pool still empty.” These are moments where the city is palpable, yet not idealized.

“Lucky 7s” is a tour de force romp through neoliberal New York:

the future’s here

we had the clues if not the concentration to foresee it

the pen in my hand pulls toward the Muji store

like a compass needle tugging true north

The poet/hero/anti-hero heeds the call to adventure and descends into the street self-consciously battling late capitalism: the pull of the commercial also pulls “these cheap boot-soles” as they “slip on smeared ice.” The vulnerability present in these descriptive, interrogative swerves pushes the reader to pause at the threshold of what’s known and unknown, both carrying weighty implications. In the collection’s title poem, Longabucco contemplates:

why, if I’m in an Airbnb

and on the table there’s a magnifying glass

and a crystal quartz

do I stare at the tableau they make

rather than use one to understand the other

and then the other to smash the one

The speaker is in a borrowed home, questioning what to do with two charged objects that form a still life in front of him. Yet, rather than aim for understanding or destruction, he reflects on both, placing the weight of action on the act of reflection, of thinking about the way one interacts with that which surrounds us, and what that intentionality might teach.

“But I Have Always Been the Same,” the book’s last poem, reads as a retrospective, a harkening back to the evolution of the poet, “so I went to poetry readings / far from where I normally went.” The poem continues to wind forward, in and out of texts and readings, and anxious musings on the self who attends them/to them. This poem is a particular triumph in the way it operates as a sort of mise-en-scène but full of mirrors, imagistic fragments that narrate and mutate:

…that was my last reading

afterwards I decided to erase my trail

retracted all the phrases and images I’d uttered

back into me with a shiver

like holding down delete

while the cursor swallows letters…

Just as it began “…afraid, and everybody’s nice / about it,” Heroic Dose comes to an elegant close fueled by a similar anxiety related to the self in relation to other(s). The return that happens is not one of atonement, but a continued grappling with the daily and the real, the powers that power us, as humans.

Heroic Dose is honest and piercing, vital in its formal bravery and aesthetic finesse. Longabucco writes, “I want my language / to adorn, transmit, and germinate / not spend more words than necessary,” and the result is this astonishing collection that interrogates objects of memory in an attempt to locate oneself in a version of home. These are poems that revel in too muchness, gestures of self-conscious self-understanding in a world where the self is a lyric that demands singing.

#271 – Winter 2023