Matthew J. Spireng’s “What Focus Is”

Years ago, the answering machine message was an art form in itself, an opportunity to be witty, creative, the star of your own little ten second show. My all-time best? “We ain’t got time for no fancy message rhyme. So rap it, attack it, unpack it. We got the beep, ya dig?” Well, maybe not. But these days Matt Spireng is the last person I know worth listening to: “Hi, I’m either writing, walking the dog, cutting wood, working, don’t want to come to the phone, or just plain not in. Please leave a message.”

What more need I add to this pithy autobiography? Oh, perhaps that Matt loves to vacation with his partner Kelly at Chincoteague and Cape Cod, or that he works evenings as a newspaper editor at the Daily Freeman. But, honestly, when I’ve called I’ve been impressed by how much fire wood he splits from the woods behind the farm house where he grew up and still lives at the foot of the Catskills. And I’ve been touched by his devotion to the two whippets that I’ve know him to care for, eager greyhound-like dogs that have been his surrogate sons.

So let me add just one item, which Matt in his modesty would never say on his machine. I consider him the Ted Kooser of Ulster County, a down-to-earth poet with a master’s gift for isolating moments that would easily slip by if he didn’t glimpse the mortality and the eternity contained in them. His poems focus on simple creatures, such as a woolly bear or a killdeer, or plants, such as lichen or corn. He notices the rain, the clouds, the setting sun, the apparent face in cliff rocks that “may be a relative of another I saw farther down the trail.” Local characters and local history appear in his work. He’s still trying to teach me how to properly pronounce “Shwanagunks” as “Shon gums” in keeping with local tradition. I can’t seem to do it. Gums rather than gunks? Not if you still have a bit of punk rock left in your blood.

His affecting chapbook, Young Farmer, tells of his father’s valiant but failed efforts to make a go of it on forty-odd acres of corn flats well into the 1940s. Since then, the fields below Matt’s house have been cultivated by others. But one day as a boy he fired the arrow from his bow high into the sky and out into the corn, where, luckily enough, he was able to find it stuck in the dirt between stalks. There beside it lay a perfectly triangular Indian arrowhead made of chert. His father added that he regularly found Indian artifacts in the fields. From that day until the mid-1990s, Matt was an avid collector, scheduling vacations to be free to walk behind the plows turning up fields. Eventually, he claimed 15,000 artifacts, two thirds of which he later gave to SUNY New Paltz.

Now, aside from obsessiveness, Matt sees no connection between this collecting and his poetry writing, but I do, for I read his poems as being like those perfectly triangular arrowheads, except that they’re moments snatched from the daily passage of life. Whenever an idea strikes, he’ll jot it down on a yellow pad, though any paper will do, once even the sun visor in his car. The good ones get typed up on the computer. The yellow pads stack up in the corner. In the years since April 25th, 1989, when he began writing poems again after an eighteen year hiatus since graduate school, he has written 2,000 poems. Now, in truth, lots of people have written 2,000 poems. The difference is that Matt’s are good. For the past sixty months, he’s had at least one poem a month accepted by journals. Whenever I feel stung by rejections, I think of Matt, who seems impervious. “I’ve gone through two divorces,” he says. “I can go through rejections.”

One more detail. Matt was the one who told me that Annie Dillard’s father appeared in Night of the Living Dead, a priceless bit of trivia, at least for a fan like me. In graduate school at Hollins College in Virginia Matt had for his adviser, R.H.W. Dillard, whose young wife, Annie, Matt taught to play pinochle. Little did he know that she was writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of the most beloved nature books of our time.

For two years in April, Matt and I teamed up for reading tours of Ulster County libraries for National Poetry Month. He’s especially good at engaging listeners who don’t often read poetry. They appreciate how he transforms experiences in common with theirs into poignant revelations. But my favorite way to hear one of Matt’s poems is over the phone soon after he’s finished. It’s like a warm cookie from the oven. Here’s one that I heard days after he’d returned from the Dodge Poetry Festival, a beloved event that he attends for a mini-vacation. It concludes his marvelous new book, What Focus Is.

The White Dove

A white dove—no, call it a pigeon—appeared
on the final afternoon of the poetry festival
above the main tent where thousands were gathered

to hear poets laureate read from their work.
It seemed a visitation as it folded and unfolded
its white wings in what was at first ragged flight

above the tent, like a bird just released
from a magician’s fists and getting
its bearings in the world, and then it settled

atop a tall utility pole used to string
thick cable to brace the huge forest-green tent.
It perched, then flew smoothly up and off a ways

to settle atop a smaller white tent, and I considered
its meaning, a pure white dove, or pigeon,
or call it rock dove, appearing just there,

alone, just then—a message—and then it flew off
and disappeared beyond distant trees—In the direction
I would be going soon? Or just its own?
But I had

no sense, with the sun hidden by cloud, of where
the compass points were. This symbol—the white of doves
released at celebrations—reappeared, though. Or one

identical—but who would think that? It had landed
on the ground near the trunk of a nearby tree
and was pecking at the bark, feeding, it seemed,

on something there. Insects, I presumed. Ants.
It seemed tame, though when I moved closer
I saw no band on its legs. What

did it mean? What metaphor was to be drawn
from its appearance? It was, I realized
as it circled the base of the tree intent on pecking

at the bark, not a symbol, not a metaphor,
nor meaningless either. It was a pigeon—
or call it white dove—that had come to satisfy hunger.

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