Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen

Black Aperture
Matt Rasmussen
LSU Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 64 pgs
ISBN: 978-0-8071-5086-3
Purchase link
Reviewed by Arthur McMaster
Matt Rasmussen’s superb volume of poems won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award in 2012. No doubt he had some worthy competition, but this book surely marks the entrance to American Letters by a young poet we will hear a good bit more from. Black Aperture was selected in the 2012 competition by Jane Hirshfield, herself one of the very best poets, writers, and teachers active today.
This is a dark book. The title Black Aperture—the opening to a gun barrel—gives the reader a generous clue as to the tone. It is, however, unmistakably a brilliant work, as well. Layout and imagery work in firm agreement with the mood, the short poems of short lines cascading down the page like a vital sluice gate opened. Just whose death the poems signify will quickly be made known to the reader. What is released cannot be kept back. The energy is palpable.
Consider these lines, from “Phone:”
            At the foot of your grave
            I planted our black phone
            wrapped up in its coiled cord.
            I’d hoped its ring would
            shudder upward and each blade
            of grass become a chime, pealing.
            No one is calling so
            I put it to my ear
            expecting the steady
            dial tone of your voice
            but hear only the dark
            breathing of the dirt.
All the poems but one are offered as couplets. My interpretation is that these lines, these pairings, are indeed the two brothers. Complete, but no longer complete. Matt’s brother’s suicide has become not only the theme but the architect of the volume. Its title and use of white space are well selected. There are three poems all titled “After Suicide,” complemented by “Reverse Suicide” and by “Burial.” There are no missteps in the short book. No room for error. Nothing maudlin. But all connect to the fundamental horror. Here are the two young men again, an essential pair, taken from “Elegy in X Parts.”
            All night, the snow fell
            like ash through a glass of water.
            Everyone’s lawns sleep
            under a large empty page.
            On the way to the funeral home
            I could feel your note
            folded into my shirt pocket,
            cupping my chest like a passport
            from  a country wiped
            off the world. When we stop
            to get gas I look at my hands.
            I’m wearing your gloves.
            Dad, alone in the cold
            outside, waits for the tank
            to fill. Across the street,
            kids build a man out of snow.
I am reminded, of course, of the brilliant poet Greg Orr’s personal loss, of his life-long work dealing, as he must, with his own brother’s death—a hunting accident. Some images, some dreams, nightmares, and moments of déjà vu, have embedded themselves deeply into our creative unconsciousness. They are tenacious. They need not be particularly long. They do the work they must do, like a quick snowfall when the temperatures and precipitation are right. Here it is, again and again. Year in and year out. The recall itself, for the poet, like the recoil from a handgun, has power we will never measure. How could we? We can only attempt to write about it in order, perhaps, to better understand that it is real.
Arthur McMaster‘s poems have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Poetry East, Southwest Review, Rhino, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination.  He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Poetry Initiative. He also has a memoir, Need to Know: Journey of an American Intelligence Officer to College Professor and Poet. Arthur teaches creative writing (poetry and fiction) and American literature, at Converse College, in Spartanburg. Visit his website at