Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Book of Emblems – Matthew Ladd

I have found T. S. Eliot’s love-grandchild.  From the first poem in “The Book of Emblems”, Matthew Ladd’s poetry seems imbued with similar themes, memes and style as Eliot’s.  Ladd’s poetry is well crafted and precise, and generally evokes a calm yet melancholy mood:


Out open windows usher in the cold.
The market falls, and gentle tycoons
postpone their vacations.  A billion children flock
to well-protected dunes

where one can watch the ridleys lay their eggs,
then leave before they swim away.
Each night is a boat, unmoored, that spins and drifts
into a waiting day

that disillusions no one.  No stray wind
erases the eye of your cigarette,
and Saturdays once mad with Chardonnay
are pacified an quiet.

The history books have ripened into fables.
Only a few old men, their hair-
less heads drawn down in collars of soft wool,
play hearts in a leaf-strewn square.

Along with Eliot’s tight control of words and general demeanor, other similarities leap out.  The pages of “The Book of Emblems” are filled with references to the Iliad, Dante, Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, Sir James Frazier, Glen Gould and others.  If you are uncomfortable with cultural references, avoid this book.  Then there are the snatches of French and German, the habit of dividing poems into outline format (Ia, Ib, IIa…), a sense of aloofness: while I sometimes imagine Pablo Neruda tugging at my shirtsleeve, Eliot I often feel is avoiding eye contact—so too with Ladd.  His poem “Marcel Proust’s Last Summer Holiday” captures these traits perfectly.

Balbec’s only historical marker
is a 16th century iron starboard anchor
half-buried in Pinot Grigio.

No one goes there.  The fishmongers congregate
in martini bars inland from the old city
to drink pastis and sleep with each others’ daughters.

In April, a toxic luminescent algae
masses like crown fire atop the breakers;
fish wash up and are shoved in wheelbarrows.

And when you visit, three months out of the year,
you rarely need to ask questions.  Everything
is answered for you already, the gate unlatched,

the shutters pushed open.  You confess
things are not always as you remember:
the stalls still prop their skate-wings in beds of ice,

but L’Auberge des Oiseaux, over the off-season,
has renamed itself Le Harlequin Hotel.
Marcel, forgive them.  You, too, will end up a liar.

There you have it: muted dissatisfaction; tradition, culture and the decline of both; finding significance in mundane detail; Europe as seen by an outsider.  Eliot through and through.

In full recognition of Matthew Ladd’s poetic skill, I might make a small observation of personal taste: I like his poetry better when he leaves behind the Iliad and the coffee spoons and lets himself be more immediate and less reserved, and to play with language a bit.  My favorite poem was this:

        II. Poem

Start small: a pip.
Now a plate of pips:
mandarin, lemon, soursop.
Now a cluster
of Queen Anne’s Lace,
a blip
on the radar of an RAF pilot.

Now the pilot getting pipped
in the windpipe by a plug of shrap-
nel, roughly the size and shape
of a scarab beetle.
His fingers fly to his neck.
The biplane tailspins,
dives into the jungle.


  1. Hi Zach!

    I enjoyed your post--spot on. Check out my interview of Ladd, here:


  2. Thanks, Werd--great interview . Now I want to find that first sonnet that Ladd published. I've linked to your page--keep it up.