By Victoria Pan
A lot of people think of poetry as something loftier and more inaccessible than prose. Despite its relative concision, it’s somehow still intimidating, with its stanzas and line breaks organized in a way that makes some feel like they need a cryptography degree just to figure out what’s going on. Matthew Guenette used to feel the same way before he got into writing, calling all the poetry he read in school “old” and “faraway”.
If that’s the case, then his poetry is modern and immediate, featuring everyday life in all of its questionable glory. Guenette’s first writing inspirations were comics, and it shows in his poetry. His is a humor that a more highbrow reviewer would call “earthy”, which really just means he’s not afraid to get elbows-deep into life’s sh*t, sometimes literally. Case in point: his new chapbook, American Busboy, is based on his experiences busing tables to get through college. It contains moments that personally, as someone currently working at a restaurant to get through college, made me say “Oh, my God” out loud.
But it’s not all thankless toil and cheese stuck on ceilings, and it would be dishonest of me to pass off Guenette’s work as one joke about zombie-like guests after another. Mingled with all of the wryness that points out the surrealities of food service reality, he hits that exact note where teenage irreverence meets adult responsibility and the helpless confusion that follows. For a collection that’s technically a memoir, it never trips into sappy nostalgia. Instead it snaps, tracing that trajectory from hopelessness and pride that, while the culinary details are probably different, is relatable for anyone who has ever found themselves in their twenties without a clue as to what they were doing.
Guenette’s other new book of poetry, Vasectomania, has the American Busboy aged up twenty years. Although he’s grown from his restaurant days, he still struggles with some of the same issues, mainly his own identity as a father, as a son, as a husband, as an American, and as a human being. He continues to embrace, along with the joys of parenthood, what he called the “ugly and graceless”, like stumbling on his son’s Lego sets while just a few inches shy of a hangover. In one of the darker and more poignant poems in the collection, “Fathers”, he briefly entertains the thought of just leaving his screaming infant children behind and turning the car into the lake. That’s exactly what his father did to him, he knows, and that, he thinks, is how “I am able to love him.”
Matthew Guenette’s poetry is full of these kinds of quiet epiphanies, often in the midst of everyday chaos. It’s warm, it’s honest, it’s surprisingly funny, and it’s not for the faint of heart: just like life.
Victoria Pan is a Junior English Major.