Though his later years were marred with substance abuse, lackluster performances, and obesity, Jerry Garcia developed a seemingly strange favorite pastime: SCUBA diving. Archival footage shows “the fat man” floating serenely amongst Hawaiian corals and turtles; a September 1995 article described Garcia as “a part of [the underwater world]…completely relaxed.” Before his death in August of that year, Garcia remarked something to the tune of “If there was SCUBA in the sixties, we’d never have needed all those drugs!”
Garcia’s tongue-in-cheek comment can be read as a small cry for help, perhaps even past the point of no return. If only he knew in 1965 what lay in store for him thirty years down the road, would he have ever been as daring to test those early psychedelic waters? Or, maybe even more conceivably, the comment is a wistful, longing memory of Day-Glo afternoons and those young, electric audiences. Many chunks of Matthew Burgess’ Slippers for Elsewhere are partly that: kaleidoscopic greatest hits of sounds, people, colors, and feelings. It is half retrospect and half Ouija board, half commemorative plaque and half crystal ball. Burgess uses language familiar and common—choppy, rhythmic phrases from text boxes and bubbles, shorthand stutters, exclamations, and tongue twisters—to convey scenes through keyholes, through Laundromat windows and through movie theaters. He guides a tender and wistful conga line through the brilliant shallows and radiant depths of his experiences, with lines that are ripe with linguistic, syntactical, and metaphorical biodiversity, ultimately reminding us how fantastic it is to simply speak, see, and listen.
Burgess divides Slippers into four distinct realms. “Lift Off,” the first section of poems, is exactly that: a launch pad from which the reader is guided through a gallery of Burgess’ earlier days—childhood and adolescence. Titles of poems in this section prepare this nascent landscape. “Childish Things” is a sort of precocious shopping list of memory, recalling smaller moments whose profundity is at first not realized: “2. // Your preference for Sandra Dee before she goes leather / won’t last forever” and “5. // Silver crayons delight in the box but disappoint on paper” demonstrate Burgess’ ability to make the minute revelatory and grand (and assonant). “Closest Closets,” a sparse, quick-flicking reel recalling the author’s wrestle with sexuality and family, begins snappy and schoolyard-like (think rope-skipping) in its speed and rhyme (“we spun / for fun […] We shucked / our shirts // to run / sun”), yet quickly twists into darker territory and loses bits of its bubblegum couplet rhyme (“Dads clad / in plaid // seemed mad / or dead […] our moms / at home // who knew / the truth // but never / ever // said / a word”). “Lift Off” also reveals Burgess’ literary roots and beginnings, both oblique and blatant, laying out his proverbial cards for the reader. “Literacy Narrative” reveals frankly “A toss up I guess between Jesus / and Clifford the Dog […] What If They Knew, How / To Eat Fried Worms, Blubber. Slim / pink paperbacks about cliques […] plus a growing contempt for Dad’s / Louis L’Amour,” while “After the Matinee” stylistically hip-checks the ear-bending sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“credits expel us into a sun-lashed lot / we feel flushed as squints adjust to garish / flashes off silver fender”) as well as Frank O’Hara’s penchant for all things Hollywood.
As Slippers shuffles on through the succeeding sections, “Sensitive Machine,” “Observable Universe,” and “Yeah You,” the cards laid out in “Lift Off” snake in and around stanzas, like fish flitting in and out of cracks and crannies of a reef. “Sensitive Machine” finds Burgess at his most vulnerable and anxious: here, New York City makes its first empirical appearance, at once mystifying and delightful (“Plumes of shawarma waft from / the Grecian Corner”) as well as panoptic and tense (“We go on living on the G. // Quieter now, be not inhospitable / lest he be some strange angel.”) New York City, though, is where Burgess seems to find some missing puzzle piece. Poems and ideas become clearer, concrete, and more confident. Stated straight, “Don’t hate Brooklyn / if a flung chicken bone lands / at your feet […] Don’t hate sports bar roars or ever / the weather, even sideways rain. […] Make a little joke. Be nice.” New York City acts as a catalyst for Burgess—he grows up, he becomes himself—“Now we’re men / who love men—Amen,” he asserts in “Take Out Your Hymnals,” a poem that sees him return westward to “Santa-Ana-polished / twilight. Our motherland” as a changed human, still slightly riddled with Catholic heartache, yet buoyant, transformed, and poised, “those who point // and we are they.”
“Yeah You,” the final quarter of Slippers For Elsewhere, is as tender a comedown as mellifluous and fantastical a beginning “Lift Off” is. The section’s title is indicative of the poems within—an ending collection of personal proclamations and admissions. “We” and “you” appear most frequently in this ending quarter, often in the context of a lover. “And I You” turns the typical cloying love ballad into a softer, more tangible “portrait of me on a paper plate / With macaroni hair.” There is an air of calmness and finality among these last poems. “Sergeant Marsfield” unabashedly proclaims “We wear / capes sequined and furred // in the post-apocalypse,” and there is a palpable ‘At last!’ feeling to “In Mittens,” whose opening lines spout “I finally have a cracker to toss / into the mix, no longer a chick / atwitter in liquid shoot.” And so finally, “Yeah You” is not only the realized fully-grown tree that had been germinating throughout the book, but also the capstone to a sly little love story—the end of the arcing rainbow. These poems mark a sort of ‘spilling over’—where the previous sections of the book represent the myriad depths and shallows of a mountain lake, here is the spring runoff, the waterfall spilling forth, the realized kinetic energy.
If there is credence to be taken from the belief that one simultaneously creates one’s own current universe and one’s own ghost, where does that really leave one when talking about the poetic realm? It is an incredibly specific, small and tight universe, if you even call it a universe, wide and expansive as it may seem to both initiated and uninitiated onlookers and participants. Matthew Burgess’ Slippers For Elsewhere floats (Garcia, is that you, ghost?) in the pith of a Technicolor Venn diagram—the emblematic Krylon logo where a white center is completely surrounded by color. Is it New York City poetry? Gay poetry? Movie poetry? Language poetry? Is it the language of movies in gay New York City? What does Jerry Garcia have to do with any of this? Is it even important? If you have made it this far, you likely know the answer, and Burgess wants to celebrate it with you. There exist poems in the everyday and everywhere. We create our own verbal universes and interact with others, consciously and subconsciously. It is beautiful enough just to speak and to sit with ears unzipped, to hear the Pacific Ocean dip quietly into the Hudson River: “There’s no telling / what happens next. / ‘Night again.”