Matt Merritt was born in Leicester in 1969, and lives in Whitwick. His debut chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light, was published by Happenstance in 2005, and full collections have been Troy Town (Arrowhead, 2008) and hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010). He reviews for Magma, New Walk, Under the Radar and Sphinx. He studied history at Newcastle University, and works as the editor for Bird Watching magazine. He is the editor of Poets on Fire, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.com.
“The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press, 2013), the third collection of poems from Matt Merritt, takes sheer delight in the full possibilities of language in this study of birds and natural history, travel, personal and universal memory, and even of the occasional elephant too. In the process, it captures the quiet wonder of the fleeting moments that amaze, puzzle and trouble us.
Eco-poetry and exploration are met perfectly with myths and epiphanies; the wide, wild world outside is precisely spoken for, just a moment before taking flight or merging into dusk. This is poetry unafraid of new territories; Matt Merritt pushes out the boundaries of each poem without ever once losing the humour, grace and gentle melancholy at their heart.”
“A poet’s talent follows no maps. Insight, rueful humour and a perfectly tuned ear make Matt Merritt’s The Elephant Tests an exceptional collection, whose poems absorb and startle. Here are elephants, benign or brooding, hares, ‘sharp against the last sun’, humans, who ‘lie and wait for the ceiling rose to bloom’, birds, imagined and real: ‘Rain bird (see also yarrow, yappingale, yaffle)’. Each poem reveals its own richness: ‘and the last thing you see / will be the last thing you ever expected’.”
– Alison Brackenbury
“I’ve become a pretty ardent Matt Merritt fan in recent years. A more observant and articulate poet is hard to imagine. The Elephant Tests is at least as strong as its two predecessors, whilst also being thematically and stylistically his most ambitious and varied book to date.”
– Rory Waterman
He’s gazed at the fanlight since the day
I took possession, god of the mantelpiece
and cold open grate. One fixed point
in an ever-changing pantheon
of ballots and bills, letters expecting no reply,
clusters of keepsakes long since shucked
of their carapace of context and meaning.
His trunk snakes left to take a proffered sweetmeat
(we’re united in disdain for the virtues of self-denial).
Unwitting recipient of every prayer for easy living,
I catch him, aloof and golden in the sunrise.
Later, by lamplight, he dances alone
in the shadows of possibility to the tune
of his thousand names, each one an increment
between vighnakartã and vignahartã,
creator and remover of every obstacle.
He greets each suspiciously-familiar tomorrow
with the same open hand,
ready to welcome good fortune
when it finds its way up the garden path
and swings the old door wide on slow hinges.
Long, close August. We sleep with the window open to the street, wait for promised storms to cut the bullying heat back down to size. Cars clatter over sleeping policemen. Ambulances draw up at the nursing home, unhurriedly. Sometimes, we catch the cries of foxes in the cemetery, the ghost-written call and response of owls. And now wake to sounds, distant and rhythmic, I take for a flock of Canada Geese, migrating; a thing unheard of this side of the Atlantic. Only after several minutes does it become apparent, they’re next door in our neighbour’s bedroom. We lie, and wait for the ceiling rose to bloom, a sound widening between us in the cold ocean of the sheets, wondering if maybe it’s the man we’ve seen painting her front door and carrying flat-packs in from the car, listening as a tailwind takes them faster and higher, out over the flow country, Cape Wrath, the firths, calling to maintain contact across the wide North Sea, descending now to Svalbard, the mountains bright with meltwater, the tundra with saxifrage, crowberry, bell-heather, in the 3a.m. sunlight of the Arctic summer.
Patsy Parisi’s Blues
It won’t be cinematic. No camera will linger
over meaningful glances cast in anticipation
of epiphanous plot developments. No tracking shot
will follow your elegantly curved trajectory
through a perfect simulacrum of the old neighbourhood.
The light will always be harsh enough to pick out
your every scar and blemish, or else so low
as to stubbornly refuse a clear view
of your most private face. Music will fail to rise
to the occasion, emotion will be left to sing
itself, low but incessant as the hum of power cables
strung across scrap-sown hinterlands.
Above all, the next lines will refuse to write themselves,
the unrehearsed words of snatched conversations will betray
all of your best intentions, and the last thing you see
will be the last thing you ever expected.
Note: The line “It won’t be cinematic” is spoken by the character Patsy Parisi in the TV series The Sopranos. A rather mild, scholarly-looking ‘foot-soldier’, he uses it while assuring another character, Gloria Trillo, of her fate should she fail to co-operate.
Red Centre Blues
There is no middle of nowhere
here. It’s everywhere, starting no more
than a couple of hundred yards
beyond the last house, mile on mile
of parched bush and an earth-tone
that’s all that allows the brain to take in
the panache of colour, the enormous light.
And you walked, one crackling dusk,
playing the past out behind you,
a frayed line strung with the lights
of the bottle store and car wash, cheap motels
and the last fuel for 300K. You walked
until the town was no more
than the embers of last month’s wildfire,
and the night multiplied to an unbroken smear
of hopelessly distant probabilities.
You’d dreamed of standing on the edge
of tomorrow, watching it appear over the hill
like an army come to lift a long siege
yet it seemed impossible it would ever find you
amid such relentless space, so you walked
yourself past weary and the last
scattered outliers of exhaustion, walked
yourself to dust, until the unblinking sun shone
straight through you and the insistent iamb
of your gait was all that reminded you
you were still here. You walked back
to a bare room, the possibility of sleep, and
woke up this morning.
Memory abhors a vacuum. It seeds a coarse grass
between every bloom, floods the misty fen
around each steepling moment, spools
and loops to fill the gaps corrupted by routine.
Walking high on the forest one frozen dusk
with friends from school, our dazed delight
at the dash of a hare sharp against the last sun, two snipe
exploding from the ground beneath our feet.
And every occasional – no, worse, each single shining
instance like this – clones to a fond, false permanence
even as it disappears beyond us. One friend is dead now,
the other long since drifted from this close orbit,
hare and snipe are entries in a book, but still we’d say
it was always this way. The mind can’t carry
all that’s offered down from the summit, or if it can,
can’t believe it. Maybe this happened again and again,
maybe just that once. We can live by such uncertainty.
Seeing The Elephant
Each night the world ends, weathered and threadbare,
but by morning is replaced by a perfect facsimile.
Far from creeping intimations of mortality, each of us
wakes to undeniable evidence of our own continued existence.
From this heady vantage, the mountains are like the stars:
close enough to reach out and touch, or else
uncountable miles away. A few claim glimpses,
and all suppose him somewhere in the vicinity,
though not a one can supply a convincing likeness,
explain exactly what we’re looking for.
And since forgetting is so much of what we are,
sometimes we can live the way we did before
we wandered into his territory, but remembering
is his second nature. Do not imagine kindness
in those lazy lashed eyes, or see them as too small
to notice your every move. Beneath that dome
of weathered granite is a record of every bullet
you ever left under your own thin hide
and an estimate of how long it will take
to work its way to your heart.
You still don’t know what the elephant looks like,
but today looks a lot like the elephant.
Note: The phrase “seeing the elephant” was used in the USA in the 19th century, particularly by pioneers making the wagon-train journey across the Great Plains (although Civil War soldiers also used it about their first taste of combat). It carries more than a hint of ambiguity – the people concerned wanted to see the elephant, and were convinced that it was a potentially life-changing experience, but generally ended up at least a little disappointed and disillusioned.
from The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press, 2013).