Mather Schneider Book Review
by Steve Henn
Mather Schneider, The Small Hearts of Ants. Available on Amazon.
200 pages earlier in Mather Schneider’s tome of poems, The Small Hearts of Ants, I was preparing myself to opine that the book is too long – too many poems, lax editing, the sheer volume of the book watering down the overall effect of all that plainspoken, concise, sometimes cutting, and occasionally redemptive verse. After all, I wrote a recent review in which I suggested just that fix for a good but unwieldy first book from another poet.
Now, having read the last and 233rd page of Schneider’s book, I disagree with my preconception. Although some poems are knockouts and some just jabs, some take one’s breath away while others elicit barely a sigh, the aggregation of so many pieces of the writer work together to form a sum as great as it’s best parts, an excursion into the sweet, the cranky, the vindictive, and the graceful pieces of a life, a poetics, and a philosophy. Schneider’s book is a self-portrait, and would be a lesser self-portrait were we not given the opportunity to recognize the various brushstrokes, themes, and collisions of tone and temper that form, together, a work of art.
Having read Schneider’s two previous books, I had an idea of what I was in for. Direct, concise, plainspoken language. Stories of working as a cab driver. Portraits of cab customers that often reveal much about the narrator, in addition to providing insight into the elderly, the medical patients, the down-and-out, the street thugs, the rich guys, and others who, at one point or another, populate the back seat of the narrator’s cab. All these Schneider delivers with his typical honesty. He doesn’t care if he offends you. The point is to say something real.
What stoked my interest in this collection, however, were the strands and threads of subject matter, theme, and tone that overlap each other in the collection – recursive connections that look back at previous poems and forward to poems further on of the same ilk, arranging the shades of experience the poet communicates until we get to the emotional climax of the book in the very last poem. “Chasing the Green Card” comes after we have received layer upon layer of the narrator’s varying moods and themes – which include praise and love for his wife, denigration of poets who remain sheltered in the ivory tower, and moments of touching connection with and painful derision of the variety of characters that populate the book. Even with poems scattered through the collection containing a what’s-the-point, where-was-God, does-anything-matter philosophy, Schneider finishes with the thing that matters most, the circumstance with the greatest emotional weight, which is whether or not his wife will be allowed to remain in the U.S. It’s an excellent poem to finish on, refocusing our thoughts on a narrator who indicates his vulnerability elsewhere, but never so much as in the end.
One high point that Schneider hits again and again is the use of surprising, apt metaphors to describe the narrator’s experiences. This adds an amount of poetic flourish that seems to fit the poet – he’s flexing his muscles, showing his skill with the language, but for all that the poems remain grounded in lived experience. A doublewide trailer is “plopped down in the desert / like a shipwreck / on the moon.” An allergic cab rider has a nose ‘running like the Nile / and her eyes were red and swollen / like skinned testicles.” The feet of one rider “have been squished into tiny / yellow tennis shoes like / the tied-off ends of two balloons.”
I find myself wanting to refer to the cab driver’s customers as “clients.” There’s a two-way folk therapy going on in the cab. One rider the narrator is seething over taking out into the boonies takes the driver’s hand at the end of the trip, tells him “You are / a good man.” A bum who he only picks up because he flashes a wad of cash, tips him $20 and says “Don’t never give up.” Other riders are dysfunctional assholes, but even their shenanigans allow the narrator to illustrate a thought or two on the human condition.
The other major theme strands are poems about the narrator’s relationship with his wife, philosophical poems that the narrator resists labeling as philosophy, and poems that call out either the comfort of Ivory Tower academic poets or the hypocrisy/bad taste of Facebook users who don’t care for the poet’s pointed criticism of their work. Of these, the first give voice to the tenderness the poet feels for his lady, and balance out the bitterness of other poems. The last, of which there are relatively few, may strike some readers as distasteful. Each of these strands, however, contributes to the poet’s self-portrait. He’s unflinchingly honest about his own qualities, biases, failings, and successes, just as he is with those of others.
Schneider’s poems represent a certain aesthetic, perhaps because he’s been published so often in small press magazines, both online and print, many of which tend toward approval of styles like his. While I’m not sure I agree with the poet’s estimation of his aesthetic – direct speech, concision, sparing but effective use of poetic devices – as the foremost of all approaches to the poem (this is my characterization of Schneider’s viewpoint, culled from both the book and comments I’ve seen him make elsewhere, but perhaps he would describe his aesthetic differently), I do think it is as worthy a position on what poems ought to do and ought to be as any. He seems to me a poet very much in control of his material and his methods in this book. In layering together varying experiences and his varying, humanizing reactions to them, Schneider, it seems to me, has succeeded in writing a book of insight, clarity, and occasional irascibility, a healthy spirit, despite its wounds and its wants, firmly guiding the steering wheel.