Play Out the Match, by Michael Knox
Reviewed by Matthew J. Trafford
Michael Knox is that rare gift of a poet who is able to portray not only his own interior world – reflections, observations, emotions – but also able to turn his poetic vision outwards into the world, to find material in the lives of others, to take on a variety of perspectives and strive for common ground. Play Out the Match is a collection which pushes against its own boundaries, radiates its own light as it tries to illuminate the threads which connect us and the mosaic of experience we share.
While certainly embedded in a certain working-class aesthetic, down to the dirt-stained, work-worn hands photographed on the cover, Knox creates first person narratives that span an incredible range of class and experience, from grad student gay sons pondering fathers to dollar-store cashiers desperate for escape, to the terminally ill attending death. Any curious reader will have no trouble inhabiting the various ‘I’s of the poem – these voices are rendered achingly well, not remotely forced; the reader learns to trust Knox early on and can simply revel in each new fascinating character met throughout the book. His third person poems work like short films: cinematic in their attention to detail and ability to embody character, plot, and artfulness all at the same time. There is never a word to spare.
Some of the most memorable poems are those that deal with violent accidents. “Listen” recounts a horrendous suicide-attempt by self-immolation, “Horror rushing in every crevice/ Every corridor of his body/ Skin eyes screaming silently”. “Heed” looks not only at an accident, but also at the girl who witnesses it. Notice the grace in the line breaks, the attention to sound, alliteration and assonance:
The chainsaw complained loudly
gave an abrupt silencing snap
– blink – a casual blur
lopping off the hand of the city worker.
She stopped smoothing the tanning oil
into her slick chest
but the birds babbled on
and the sun still streamed slanted
through the leafy canopy of the yard
now nearly maliciously cheery
as the worker doubled over
grasping about the soil
one hand after the other
strangely silent and composed
after the first little yelp of alarm.
Knox refrains from glorifying the accident, or ascribing beauty to the sight. The poem goes on to explore the complexity of the act of witnessing, how not only does the day go on, but the girl’s life as well, complex and fraught with other problems. It is an unsentimental reflection on how the world doesn’t stop to mourn our tiny tragedies.
Compare that poem to “The Fall,” in which an old man witnesses an epileptic girl fall from her bike, and can do nothing but touch the glass of the window through which he sees the world. These poems echo each other and cascade to create complex variations on a similar experience – something Knox manages to do throughout the collection without ever letting the poems become repetitive or stale.
At other turns the poems are the opposite of violence, almost caressing in their tenderness. “Notes to a Father” has a captivating air of openness and honesty about it. Likewise beautiful is the stunning “And I Will Pass,” a meditation on love and limitation, “wading the claustrophobia of night,” where “the truth is I am the snow outside your Montreal window,/ swirling and beautiful, but almost empty.” “Luck” is a wrenching portrait of an unlikely friendship between a university student and a homeless man named Simon. It is a place where “all that horror has left is to amuse.”
In a collection which embraces such disparate voices and characters, a certain breadth of poetic style is natural. Indeed, Knox employs subtle changes in syntax and punctuation to great effect in many of the poems – for example, using the ampersand instead of writing out the word “and” in “The Deep” and “Kingston to Halifax,” poems in which there is a certain youthful vitality, a need for urgency and speed. But one technique that comes across as jarring is the occasional capitalization of the first letter of every line. In some cases – “Those Days,” “1920,” “The Day” – there is a certain justification inherent in the poem: a formal adherence to quatrains, or else a sense that the poem is a list of separate elements observed throughout a day, each meriting a new line and a capital letter. But in other cases, the capitalization reads as old-fashioned or unintentional. Reading “Listen,” “Work,” “The Dimming,” “The Collectors,” or “Bill,” the capital letters beg for an explanation which is not forthcoming from the content or mood of the poems.
Some readers are accustomed to the popular confessional poetry of the day and assume the majority of the poetry they read will be autobiographical. These readers may accuse Knox of keeping himself at arm’s length, distancing himself from their searching gaze. These poems inhabit so many lives, so many sets of eyes, that it is difficult to know which, if any, belong to the poet. But there is intimacy here, and there is passion. Often it is in poems addressed to the second person, like “Jenny” and “Coffee with Marina,” that the reader can feel closest to the speaker. Whether or not the stories contained therein derive from Knox’s life is irrelevant: he is asking us to step outside of our lives and outside of his, to ascribe meaning to the moments and the stories that he has found worthy enough to write about. They are all his stories, at least insofar as he is the filter bringing them to us, and writing them with such care and attention to detail, such passion for language, such care for the tension in a line and the focus of an image, that the time and effort each poem took is apparent, and very much a part of his life.
Play Out the Match is an exceptional poetic debut. Let us hope that Michael Knox will continue to inhabit his particular world, armed with his capacity for sympathy, keen observation and stunning poetic force. If he does, the match will end well for all of us.