Jul 21 2023
Poetry review – NIGHT LOGIC: Charles Rammelkamp reviews Matthew Gellman’s poems exploring personal and family memories
Selected by Denise Duhamel as a Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award Winner, Night Logic is Matthew Gellman’s coming-of-age collection about realizing he is gay and the danger of growing up with that in a small Pennsylvania town. Gellman also focuses on his family, his brother, the sister he wished he’d had, his parents’ ultimate divorce, in a heartbreakingly precise yet lyrical account. In sum, this is a collection based on memory, which is always with us. The past is not past, though in the opening poem, “Replica,” recalling the gray sweater his father used to wear, envisioning him as he walks across the college campus carrying a bouquet of chrysanthemums, the poet realizes memory is not always reliable; he sees ‘each petal / slanted a little, as memory is.’ The poem ends:
I bought this cheap sweater the color of sleep, a little worn in the shoulders. It is not beautiful like the past but like the past I wear it.
The very next poem, “Little Brother,” is inspired by a photograph, the very embodiment of memory. ‘This is the past where nobody flinches.’ It is still nine years before the father will leave.
While the poet is not necessarily the cause of the parents’ divorce, it is clear that his feminine traits are a source of contention, or at least concern. In “Homecoming,” Gellman writes:
I heard my father’s car surrender in the driveway. It took so long for me to understand why, each time, she turned away— shame for having bought the gown for me, for wishing I’d been a daughter. I wore pink tulle. I spun until I could no longer see my father, in the doorway, his head in his hand.
In “Smoke,” the mother and the father both fret about their son’s lack of masculinity, though partly because they may just be aware of how the other schoolchildren torment him – ‘the boys pelted me with orange peels / on the playground.’ The poem ends with the ominous observation that ‘mother and father’s / adult minds discussing / what they might do about me.’
Childhood is a time of vulnerability for all offspring, who have little control over their environment, always under the microscope, always being sized up. In “Trying to Grow” Gellman remembers being in a biology lab. His lab partner, a girl, is the one who slices the pig open with the scalpel (‘I’d been ashamed to not / make the cut through that skin’). He observes: ‘We spend life trying to grow / either harder or softer, and mostly / just wanting reprieve.’ How true!
In several of the poems Gellman describes his mother as a shy person. (‘As a girl my mother / didn’t like to dance’ he writes in “The Wheat Field.”) He shows her in her Catholic school growing up (“Mother, Sleeveless” and “Saint Timothy’s School, 1975”). And crucially, in “Not Music,” he describes the night her father and mother met at a Halloween dance.
I see it so clearly I must have been there— my father turning to look at my mother, fanning the slow conflagrations of their lives that will deliver my own.
The poem ends on a tone of the poet’s sense of responsibility for the way their marriage and lives turn out:
That night cannot unexist. I am proof of it. I am still inside it. So invisible I must be everywhere.
In several poems, Gellman spells out the cruelty of his classmates, and nowhere is this violence more visceral than in the title poem, which involves the memory of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming boy who was
discovered roped to a fence, his body an emblem of caution, the cyclist who found him there mistook him for a scarecrow, so pistol-whipped and transfigured by blood his Wyoming face….
Later in the poem Gellman recalls a man who tried to follow him home, hiding from him, trying to escape. In “Brother with Rupture” he recalls ‘The same boys / who would later spit on my cheek and throw me onto the blacktop.’
The poem, “Travis” is about a similarly tortured friend/lover, picked on by kids who likewise torture an injured bird, poking it with a stick, ‘the bird trying to haul itself back / into the wind with one infuriated wing.’ Travis is traumatized and has trouble connecting with his boyfriends, tortured by his violent past. Gellman observes: ‘What we fill with our sadness / we end up tearing a little, sometimes all the way open.’
Gellman’s poems about his brother are complicated. Both boys are gay, it seems. He appears in “Brother, Age Six,” when both raid their mother’s closet for dress-up; in “Brother with Rupture” his brother fractures his leg, and while his classmates sign his cast, the poet ‘learned to seek refuge in the tough Pennsylvania field,’ tormented by those same schoolmates. But the poem ends in October, the two playing in a pile of leaves, and his brother calls to him, ‘You bury me first and then you let me bury you.’ Gellman writes in “Brother, in August, with Hesitation”:
You and I never could tell each other that in those stammering attic lights we shared the same coveting.
The imaginary sister appears in “Beforelight” (‘I am thinking of the sister I wish I had’) and the final poem, “Sister, Far Ahead” (‘Would you spit like me. Would you wear / your hair in braids.’).
“Watching the Heron with My Mother, I Remember Apertures,” which comes toward the end of the collection, signals the author’s having come to terms with himself, his sexuality, his family.
I’m remembering the better nights now, watching alfalfa fields popping up from my used Honda, the family dissolved, my feminine traits no longer a mockery.
Of course, he is still wearing that sweater, that past, and sometimes it really does feel like a straitjacket. As Denise Duhamel writes in awarding Gellman the Tupelo Press Snowbound award, ‘The poems in Night Logic are both mythic and grounded, formidable in their affection and insight.’