A review of Matthew Gavin Frank’s Sagittarius Agitprop, Black Lawrence Press, 2009.
by Sarah Vap
This collection is a partaking of the brain of Matthew Gavin Frank, and it’s not a run-of-the-mill brain. It’s a big-joyful-strange brain. It’s a brain that jumps from here to there and I don’t know how. It’s a brain that puts this together with, are you kidding me? That! It’s a brain that thinks it can do anything. When I read Matthew Gavin Frank’s first collection, Sagittarius Agitprop, the question he seems to be asking throughout is: Can I do this? Can I do that? Can I say this? And the answer is, Yes!
Throughout this collection Frank puts together unlikely ideas or objects and explodes meaning into or out of them. Starting with the dedication, he writes “For Louisa Johanna: Clean up your room.” Right away, I’m into Frank’s method and madness.
Next page, he has quotations from Apollinaire and… would you have guessed it?, Mick Jagger. Apollinaire says “Love like a ponderous trained bear/ Danced upright at our slightest will”-- emblematic of the spirit that I found throughout this collection. But the serious-- Yes, I think, serious-- quotation of Mick Jagger that he has paired with the Apollinaire adds the surprising and exploding meaning behind that spirit of these poems. Jagger says: “Oh daddy, be proud of your planet/ Oh mommy, be proud of your son.” It’s the unlikely or wild couplings like this that explode Frank’s poems into a meaning that I delight in, intellectually and bodily.
It’s a meaning that I can’t just tell you about. It’s a meaning that is, itself, the exact process of arriving at the end of each of his poems.
Halfway through the book, to further insist on my point of view, I looked up “Agitprop”: a combination of the words “agitation” and “propaganda,” Wikipedia reports, stemming from Bolshevist communist Russia’s Department for Agitation and Propoganda (later the Ideological Department), a phrase which now has connotations of an extreme leftist propaganda type of art. Well, excellent!
I am a Sagittarius-- and very, very briefly will share that Sagittarius is considered to be a masculine, extroverted, mutable fire-sign of western astrology.
Sagittarius Agitprop: This is the most rigorous pairing of the book. I can’t really pull it together at first. Not in words-- but maybe in words…. like when Wilbur is trying to say his first word in the movie Charlotte’s Web….Wwwww… Wwwwwuuuuh….Wwwwwiiiii….. Wwwwwiiiiiillllllbuuuurrrr: I can kind of pull it together like that. And as I read the collection with these two huge and separate concepts in my mind-- and then, more particularly, as I try to hold them in my mind as a pair-- and then, even more particularly, as I try to hold them together in my mind as the pair that is the title of this particular collection of poems-- I start to move into a kind of an understanding of what this collection plans for itself, and enacts: Frank wants to blow your mind with what happens when he smashes, at high speeds, unlikely things together.
I found myself laughing aloud, not with humor, but with astonishment, at nearly every single title, and every single ending of Frank’s poems. It’s as if his title says: I’m going to add one and one together. Then you read the poem, thinking you might perhaps arrive at two. But you arrive at, say, a word “rubbing salve on its cock,” or a breath, or parents dying…. and it’s astonishing, because he really did add one and one, and the answer, I swear, really is a word rubbing salve on its cock, or him wishing that his parents will never die.
Sharing what I think may have been (some of, at least) the method behind the poems, I want to assure you, I didn’t find these to be exercises. I never found them to be flippant, or clever, or less than earnest. I found these poems to be brilliant inquiries into his own perceptions of the world. I found the poems to be quite joyful, and tender, and sensuous, and rich, and lush, and vibrant, and life-affirming in their endless possibility, and at times deeply dark and disturbing, and always profoundly intelligent.
I’m going to close with the words that Frank uses to close this collection, and then wait for you to read the book yourself, to absolutely delight in, and probably fucking cuss about a little bit-- because he found a way to say this in his poem, and we didn’t. I end, as Frank ends, “in the assholes of the mythical zebra.”
MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK was born and raised in Illinois. He has previously published in The New Republic, Field, The Best Food Writing 2006, The Best Travel Writing 2008, Tampa Review, Epoch, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Creative Nonfiction, Willow Springs, Bellingham Review, Pleiades, The Florida Review, Ninth Letter, Rosebud, 6x6, Bat City Review, Gastronomica, The Madison Review, Cimarron Review, The Literary Review, The Journal and others. His work has been featured online at The Tupelo Press Poetry Project and Verse Daily. He received the 2005 Summer Fellowship from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, a 2006 Artist's Grant from the Vermont Studio Center, and a 2008 Fellowship in Prose from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the author of the chapbook Aardvark(West Town Press), BAROLO (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press) the chapbook Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Sagittarius Agitprop, available from Black Lawrence Press.