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Review - Matt Thomas's new collection

“What I Thought About While I Watched You Shorten The Handles Of Two Canvas Shopping Bags Thereby Making Them Easier To Carry” by Matt Thomas, pub. Shoals of Starlings Press (Plymouth)   90 pp.

The latest offering from Shoals of Starlings Press is from an American poet and visual artist, now a long-term resident of Plymouth. The cover design, a collaboration between the author and the publisher, Andrew Martin, is a mix of block text incorporating the unusually long title and a processed visual based on an original artwork by the author. It has a neat, minimalist feel and continues a short tradition of innovative cover designs typical of this emerging press. Hopefully there will be many more books to follow.

Matt Thomas has a knack for incorporating detail into often strange narratives which hint at something more mysterious and unexplained. There’s a real sense of space and place within these poems which probably relates to the author’s American background and although there is a mix of  geographical location in both countries we are rarely given specifics despite there being a strong sense of movement. These are wonderful poems to explore and dive into as you never know where you are going to end up. Despite there being occasional ‘conclusions’ to these pieces, a sort of oblique ‘summing up’ if you like they also feel quite open-ended as if there is more to be said and this enables the reader to fill in ‘the gaps’ with his or her own speculations, adding to the collaborative process of reading and writing.


     From ‘DIY’ we get the following:



          might be dust floating in sunbeams,

          might be the sound of a car

          a long way off or a splinter

          of wood in the fat part of

          your finger that you can

          pull out without tweezers

          and isn’t that a good, curious



The short poem ‘Chores’ appears to be an homage to William Carlos Williams while ‘This is a Song’ incorporates a dreamy evocation with something more puzzling and elusive:




          A child lies sideways in the dark

          each end of him hanging just off

          the edge of the bed, headphones

          wrapped around his head,

          music wrapped around his mind,

          a pillow pressed against his lids

          so he can watch tiny pink and green

          and blue stars slide across the oily

          surface of his eyes, volume turned up

          so he can hear the space between

          the instruments, barely breathing,

          imagining he is infinity.


Thomas’ fusing of the auditory with the visual combined with a sort of ‘distanced autobiography’ (one assumes) is wonderfully appealing as is the occasional use of rhyme often concealed within the body of the text. These are poems which are fun to read and to ponder, sometimes to tune into a captivating image or phrase, sometimes to think – yes, I get it completely – and occasionally to let it go and move onto another poem realising that you got something out of it even if you didn’t completely ‘get it.’ This is a feeling I love when reading poems and it’s here in abundance with this collection.


The title poem starts with a reverie which combines a compelling description of mood-enhancing minutia which spirals into one of those alluring endings which is both a completion and an open-ended invitation while also inciting laughter. It’s a real peach of a poem:


                               ……Over here

          to the left of all the action

          a spider ivy’s shocks of punk rock

          tendrils, striped fireworks on tethers,

          cascade out of its terra cotta

          nest in every direction, trying

          to cause a scene, like any

          houseplant with a healthy

          attitude problem would,

          and all the more determined

          the less anyone takes any notice.


There’s space to breathe within these poems and they have that feel of a slightly worked-on inner conversation where the author is talking to himself but also inviting the reader to listen in and contribute to the process. In ‘A Story about beds’ we start with a longish monologue on the various beds the persona has inhabited or otherwise engaged with which then mutates into a meditation on rock stars he has come across. The mix of detail and later research in this ‘episode’ is hilariously funny, at least I thought so and is hopefully worth quoting here at some length:


          That might also be the night I found

          a diagram of the Ramones lighting rig

          drawn on a sheet of 8 & a half x 11 paper somewhere

          backstage, left behind when they’d been there

          about two weeks prior, and I know I still have

          that in a book with other stuff like Debbie Harry’s

          autograph and a ticket stub from the Alice

          Cooper concert I let Steve drag me along to

          because I thought Motorhead was opening,

          but they weren’t, didn’t, but I don’t remember

          who did, all I remember was Kane Roberts

          Alice Cooper’s lead guitarist, played a

          guitar shaped like a machine gun, which

          I thought was stupid, and Arthur Funaro,

          Alice Cooper’s rhythm guitarist,

          played a strat, which I didn’t think was stupid,

          and he was a much better player, I thought, than

          Kane Roberts. What’s really weird is the bass

          player in the band on that tour was Kip Winger.

          I could not name one Winger song without

          using the internet for help, which I also needed to

          find Kane Roberts’ name so I wouldn’t have

          to call him stupid machine gun guitar guy, and

          reading his Wikipedia page I learned he’s

          only six years older than me, which in 1987

          would have seemed like a lot but is hardly

          worth mentioning now.


Brilliant. Which is what I think about the entire collection. This is another debut publication from Shoals of Starlings which seems to be specialising in bringing forth under-published talents from the Plymouth scene and I look forward to the next episode with relish.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2022













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