Selected by Patricia Smith as winner of the 2018 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, Matt Morton’s debut poetry collection Improvisation Without Accompaniment embraces uncertainty with a spirit of joyous playfulness.
These lyric poems follow the rhythms of life for a young man growing up in a small Texas town. As the speaker wrestles with ruptures within the nuclear family and the loss of his religious beliefs, he journeys toward a deeper self-awareness and discovers a fuller palette of experiences. Over the course of this collection, the changing seasons of small-town Texas life give way to surprise encounters in distant cities. The speaker’s awareness of mortality grows even as he improvises an affirming response to life’s toughest questions.
Poignant, searching, and earnestly philosophical, Improvisation Without Accompaniment reaches for meaning within life’s joys and griefs.
Two thousand miles away from here, my father
is lying in a strange room, being tended to.
It is always getting later. No matter
if morning is dampening the earth,
or burnt orange evening rending itself apart,
the doldrums of afternoon stuck in between.
This morning, I was sifting through
a famous nearly-dead novelist’s letters,
wondering why he’d kept them all
so neatly filed away. I wasn’t certain,
but I had an idea. An idea
cannot fix a heart. It cannot douse
a house on fire, which earlier I thought
my neighbor’s was, but no, he was burning
wood in his backyard. Right now, I’m heating
a frozen dinner. In the studio next door
a woman is singing, and a voice on the radio
is trying to resuscitate itself beneath layers
of static. I had an idea that each day seems
the same, yet somehow shorter.
Slight variances in the weather,
rhythmic substitutions in the traffic’s pulse.
I’m not sure what, but something
is long overdue. Do you understand
what it is I am saying? Somewhere
in America my father is dying and I am
sitting here, listening to the radio.
“Morton's poems are expert and instinctive, like a cool Ed Wilkerson sax solo bouncing with lived rhythms. Morton's consummate poems will echo long after they are read.”
“What follows are poems of arresting insight and stark assurance. What follows are the agile lines of someone who has mastered the sudden slap, the hushed lyric.”
—Patricia Smith, from the Foreword
“What stands in the back of Matt Morton’s beautiful and disturbing Improvisation Without Accompaniment is a persistent emotional attachment to literary and religious traditions in which the speaker of these poems intellectually disbelieves. Familial trauma and a foundering romance become occasions for a book-length compelling meditation on our particular moment in history, on the enduring value of person-to-person connection in a world whose ever-accelerating pace of change complicates and deepens the very needs it promises to satisfy.”
—Alan Shapiro, author of Against Translation
“Matt Morton must not have gotten the memo that American poetry is in an extinction event. These are poems of immense intelligence and presence as nimble as flames conveying the nearly unbearable intimacy this life demands, threatens and rewards us with.”
—Dean Young, author of Solar Perplexus