One time when I was in India, I hiked to the tallest mountain I could find, and camped out under the full moon. In the middle of the night, giant monkeys that wanted my food attacked me, and I had to fend them off with a coconut-machete. Although I doubt most of you have any sort of sympathetic response to my experience, at least some of you might think it’s interesting. Matt Cook’s collection of poetry, in the small of my backyard, is full of poems that tell stories with the same effect.
Cook’s style is very narrative and easy to read. He is not full of artistic pretense, and seems to craft the language of his work specifically to the “market” of generations X and Y (his poem “Picabo Sreet,” which does not appear in this book, was actually used in a Nike commercial). Full of humor, non-sequitors, and irony, it is no wonder that his work has appeared in anthologies and documentaries on Slam poetry, as well as on the stage of Lollapalooza. Although almost all of them are entertaining in and of themselves – even if just for their “randomness” – as a collection they fall a little flat.
The book is broken up into four sections that seem to be organized thematically. The first is about childhood, the second is about American history, the third is about Milwaukee (Cook’s hometown), and the fourth seems to be an assortment of anecdotes from his adult life. It is especially in the third and fourth section, when Cook begins to distance himself from the poems’ subject matter, that the book really loses its momentum. The poems are witty and strange, but because they seem to hold no relevance for either the author or the reader, they become repetitive and uninteresting.
It is in the first section that Cook really shines. Many of these poems are about his family and his experiences as a young boy. Although they are still very funny, a darker, more painful side begins to manifest over the span of their content. One gets the feeling that these are all very autobiographical, and that shows up in how shrewdly Cook dissects the details surrounding events that otherwise get taken for granted in our day to day lives.
All of the poems in in the small of my backyard are witty, and almost compulsively readable, but few of them resonate with me in any personal way. It is only when Cook seems to be revealing things about himself – his personal life, or even just how he thinks – that I am drawn in, and unfortunately, there are about fifty pages of poetry in this book that don’t do that. Although it might not be cover-to-cover reading, I imagine this book would be quite at home on top of a coffee table or toilet, where passersby could pick it up at random and get their fix of ironic humor for the day. –Janaka Stucky (Manic D Press, PO Box 410804, SF, CA94141, http://www.manicdpress.com/