A Review of Carlo Matos’s ‘Big Bad Asterisk’

The following review has been published in the Portuguese American Journal:

The asterisk is one of the most neglected symbols in the history of typography.  What is an asterisk?  What does it signify?  What role does it play in our writing?  If there were a Saint Asterisk would she be a faint footnote in the Lives of Saints?  These are among the unsung questions of our lettered lives.

An asterisk is a seven-fingered star that glitters on the ink-blotted page.  It designates an explanatory footnote, an omission, or a correction.  Often the asterisk performs a judicial sidebar of sorts, introducing information that doesn’t quite fit into the flow of discourse.  Occasionally, it can be ironic, cheeky, or paradoxical.

What is this sign that calls attention to itself?  “Look at me!” it seems to say, “Pay attention to me, only me, I’m no parentheses!”  The asterisk is, among other things, a jealous lover, a strumpet, a femme fatale.  We attend to it with our eyes, but really that’s never quite enough, because we’re called upon to follow wherever it leads.  The asterisk impishly tugs at our arm, beseeching us to step inside its mysterious dwelling, unto its seduction, its soft embellishments, redirecting our focus, down a rabbit hole perhaps, from a line of thought.  It whispers, “I shall lead you on a detour.  Relinquish your devotion to linear thought, for waylaid is the path of parataxis.”

In his Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut remarks the asterisk’s resemblance to the look of an asshole.  In that case, the asterisk really could lead us unto dark corridors.

All this makes us speculate, then, about where Carlo Matos’s Big Bad Asterisk might lead us.  Matos, a college English professor by day and a cage fighter by night, has published two previous collections of poetry: A School for Fisherman (BrickHouse Books)and Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (Blaze VOX Books).  With Big Bad Asterisk, he offers us a thinking man’s sardonic view of the world.  Never was Email depicted as fervently the harbinger of Western civilization’s decline, and never have shoes been such a fascinating subject in poetry since the black shoe of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”

Something comes knocking in the Big Bad Asterisk, and if it’s not a bag of bones thudding against the closed door of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personas we meet in this prose poem novella, then it’s an asterisk interrupting a stream of thought with announcements of trivia from a TV game show.  Or it is the disturbing tattle of a goat sodomite, whose opinions hardly matter, and could very well be blotted out.  Of course, that’s the point.

In Matos’s boy meets girl narrative, the trajectory of a couple’s relationship resembles clanging atoms in the ether, merely inconsequential footnotes, asterisked data, or the detritus of uninspired labors, such as receiving Email or overhearing gossip.  In that case, the “rag and bone shop” of the heart, as W.B. Yeats called a lack of imagination, points to the banality of desolate souls.  It’s a short distance to conclude that any of our actions or utterances can be asterisked ad nauseam, such that we can empathize with the paralyzed Hamlet, weeping Ophelia, or the Hollow Man.  However, the neurotic in each of us tends to be impatient for the next bit of trivia: to witness where it leads and whence it came.

Matos’s personas remind us that nameless anonymity characterizes the Everyman nihilism that’s so pervasive in our collective cultural relativism.  Truth is analogous to discarded Kleenex crowding the trash bin consciousness of our phlegmy mucous membranes.  “In every bathroom,” a nameless man observes, “those little plastic canisters that passed for trashcans were overflowing with used Kleenex….the world did not need another metaphor.  What was needed here was cold observation if such a thing was still possible: the facts and then some viable conclusions if they could be drawn.”  But metaphysical (or pataphysical) answers aren’t forthcoming, nor are they sincerely queried.  In fact, the possibility of conclusive inference is asterisked, whereby an eponymous source informs us that “Discoveries were made, then later lost, forgotten.  Some things came to light, while others disappeared, certain beliefs becoming accepted as fact, some as legend.”  The security of one’s convictions is trivial and passively held.  The difference between fact, fiction, and fantasy is negligible.  Seeing is believing; and believing is seeing the marginally tolerable.

The pursuit of definitive truth in our relationships is an asterisked Sherlock Holmes adventure.  We’re all a bit like Holmes’s sidekick Dr. Watson—the opacity of fact-finding leads to consternation and the footfalls of aching bunions.  A persona’s neurotic misery over distorted memories is an unheeded metaphor for how screwy our relationships are or can become.  For him, the nature of romantic connections is as inscrutable as the directions for IKEA furniture, or the logical procedures of a famous English detective.  He ponders whether “It was better to be Watson, better to have the shoe on the other foot.  The question was almost always better than the answer.* [*What is IKEA?]”

This statement makes us ponder the indomitable Swedish conglomerate, and yet it also reports on the exit polls of any philosophy class.  It is Hamlet’s stoical conclusion to be inconclusive, which inspired John Keats’s Negative Capability.  That is, if heaven’s colors are majestically painted, then it’s rather pointless to unweave the rainbow in search of Truth.

Matos’s asterisked world contains donkeys, size nine-and-a-half women’s shoes, licentious goats, and the reverberating echoes of Nautilus-shell genomes.  There are cage fighters, ex-boyfriends with giant penises, and a Yeti-loving heroine.  Eddie Vedder, who often appeared in live concerts as a Yeti, and Chuck Norris make cameo appearances.  It’s an absurd world in which no one wants to voluntarily donate their organs.

The novella is organized into sections, referring to the self-referential detours of the two characters: “He,” “She,” “It,” “They,” “You,” “We,” and “I.”  Inasmuch as Matos describes a world of digressive parataxsis, he also shows us his lively Azorean roots in Sao Miguel, with its backyards smooth as a priest’s tonsure, populated by families who fish for a living, sip kale soup, and own a mysteriously disappearing goldfish named Salazar.

For Matos, the asterisk is a conveyor belt of fluid dynamics.  His voice trembles with the Doppler Effect of personas that relate to us over a vast span of temporal geographies.  In the background of digressive echoes is the light-hearted imaginings of a working class latch-key kid from a Portuguese immigrant family.  His poetic narrative is no Junot Diaz-style Bildungsroman; rather, it is a dialogic juggernaut of multiple intelligences, an asterisk map of a young boy’s monkey pajamas, leading home.

 

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