In celebration of National Poetry Month I’ll be interspersing my normal fiction reviews and other blather with poetry reviews and maybe a guest article or two. I’ve read a ton of new and some old poetry in preparation for this month and I’m excited to tell you about all of it. I’ve discovered recently that there are some brightly shining stars writing dark poetry today, and one of those shining stars, the one I’m talking about today, is Matt Betts. I read somewhere that poetry is a dying art form, lost in obscurity and lacking in practitioners, but I have to fervently disagree with that assessment. We are living in a generation of great poets writing poems that are bound to become the new classics, poets like Matt Betts whose work stands up and exuberantly declares itself alive and well.
Another thing I hear all the time is that everything that can be done in creative literature–or art of any form, for that matter–has already been done. To quote a much overused ecclesiastic verse,
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
It’s said that all a writer–of any form of literature–can do is try to do the same things in a different way. Even some well known and highly successful authors adhere to that opinion. My scholarly interpretation of that line of thought is that it’s a crock of steaming bullshit. This book I want to talk about today, Matt Betts’ UNDERWATER FISTFIGHT, is proof positive that there is always something new under the sun, that creativity is boundless.
The poems that make up this delightfully wicked and unique volume are at best difficult to characterize. Matt Betts has an uncanny ability to evoke emotion and imagery, combining a pirate’s love of the sea with a poet’s sensibility in a mishmash of sci-fi, horror, and raucous humor. In UNDERWATER FISTFIGHTS you’ll find humor aplenty and darkness too, and also humorous darkness. You’ll find poems of diving and poems of dreams, you’ll even find some deathbots. Betts likes his deathbots:
“Everyone has a Deathbot following them
waiting for the perfect moment
to fulfill its mission.
There’s one in the dark alley
between the flower shop
on the way home.
Two-by-two they hide behind
lamp posts along the path
jog down every day.
A shiny gleaming Deathbot
crouches behind a Volvo
right this very moment in the mall
From …as Deathbots and Taxes
The excerpt above is from one of the four poems of deathbots, poems that are simultaneously humorous and creepy.
As with the example above, a lot of the poems in this collection are sublimely funny, often with veins of black running through them, but Betts is not afraid of the dark and a lot of these poems are pure, brooding, spine tingling darkness:
“I hit the water hard— sinking fast. My buoyancy halts my descent and I hang there in the water, neither sinking nor floating upward. A grape in gelatin. The water is dark. I realize that I don’t know which way is up. I release some water from my mouth to see which way the bubbles go, but they cling to my body. I spin myself in circles but I can’t decide which way is up.”
From Just a Legend, I’m Afraid
Another thing you’ll find, the most important thing you’ll find in this book, is the sheer humanity of the thing. Sure, there’s laughter here. But there’s also sadness and joy, fear and redemption. Betts has a deep understanding of the human condition and he doles it out a piece at a time in the poems I’ve mentioned and in works such as this:
“Stones and sticks airborne at my legs?
I’ve felt that.
Words, Words, Words?
My ears are full of them.
The blows of hatred?
I know too well.”
From I Think He’s Looking for Something
He has a voice all his own, engaging and natural, almost conversational, and sometimes with a very noir-ish feel to it. His words flow with an often rhythmic syncopation that feels–as most verse should–like it could quite easily transition from poem to song as with the following work that reads with the rhythm and the flair of a Tom Waits tune:
“There’s a girl behind the bar in the hotel lounge. Dark hair, tattoo of maybe a dragon on her neck, maybe a two-headed snake. The man at the piano is letting The Eagles have it with an ambivalence that belies the hour. This is yesterday, and before that, and before that.
The three other men in the place are huddled around a table with a dying candle, talking low about the white man with the beard. They grin. Their tone assumes I don’t speak their language. This is last week, and before that, and before that.
From The Heart of an Extinct Volcano”
Matt Betts says on his website that UNDERWATER FISTFIGHT is “…inspired by 80s cartoons, old monster movies, and massive amounts of pop culture…” and that influence is readily evident throughout the book. This is speculative poetry at it’s absolute finest, wondrous, weird and full of fun and a bit of mayhem. Betts also says that the book was fun to write and hopefully fun to read, and I can assure him–and you–that he got his wish in spades. I had so much fun with this book and I can’t wait to see more from this guy.
UNDERWATER FISTFIGHT reads like a captivating novel that you can’t put down, but that’s okay because you won’t want to. Matt Betts is a poet of extraordinary talent and he’s also one of my new favorites. If you like poetry–and even if you don’t–there’s something for everyone in here and it’s a safe bet that after you read it, Betts will be one of your favorites too.
UNDERWATER FISTFIGHT Synopsis:
Poet. Pirate. It’s all the same really. They both pillage, plunder, drink rum, look for treasure, and sometimes, after too many drinks, they’re known to throw a right hook or two. But that’s the beauty of poetry and piracy-it’s unhinged, a stream of emotions that make you laugh, cry, bleed, bruise, and eat oranges to prevent scurvy. It’s an adventure. It’s feeling the wind on your face from the sea or the page. It’s tasting the salt in the ocean or in your tears. But most importantly, it’s the experience of getting from one port to another, one page to the next, killing one more siren and murdering just one more darling.
You see, piracy is about rules, and the number one rule is that there are no rules. Pirate-poets live for the journey, they do what has to be done to survive, and hope that karma, or a Kraken, doesn’t come around and bite them in the arse. Poetry is like that, too. It’s a fleeting moment, an image, that the writer is hoping will leave you breathless, bruised, and stranded on an island.
Underwater Fistfight does just that, because Matt Betts is a pirate-poet who takes science fiction and throws it in the brig with horror while he sits outside the cell, laughing as they duke it out. He’s a regular Davy Jones, a sailor’s devil, claiming the lives of these poems and dragging them down to the locker to dissect, inspect, and sift through their stories and characters like plunder.