Matthew Shenoda,
Somewhere Else
(Coffeehouse Press, 2006)

Water is a central symbol in the work of Matthew Shenoda:

I am living in a lake of tears that knows no border, a place
Where the salt is abundant and the lake is dry.

Those lines are from the poem "Enough," a political work with an Allen Ginsberg-like chant structure with a chorus that takes a line from the Chilean protestors who opposed Pinochet: "the blood of the dead is not negotiable." Shenoda adds a second line to the chorus: "The wine of the wicked is not sweet."

This poem shows you what you are dealing with when you read this book: a young poet of considerable technical skills who is engaged with the world, possibly because he is to some degree outside of its mainstream.

Shenoda is an outsider because he has embraced his Coptic heritage. If you're not up on your religious or Middle Eastern history, the Coptics broke off from Egyptian Christianity in the 12th century when they found themselves unable to follow the Pope's directives concerning Christology. Shenoda's Coptic heritage informs most of his work. Many of his finest poems concern the religion and the Egypt its members inhabit.

Shenoda's poems reveal him to be a person living in several worlds, both geographical and mental: American, Egyptian, literalist, mystic, symbolist and politician. As he says in "Sounding the Meander,"

I am the music of the living
I am the River Nile.

Again, the water metaphor. Poem after poem flows with water imagery. Its meaning shifts slightly with its different usages, but always the river is associated with life. It is the source and the ultimate essence of life.

While Shenoda explores his religious and ethnic background well, he also touches on the political and again, water imagery figures in: "There's a river forming in a bureaucrat's head/its water made from rusted milk." Political poems often age quickly, even as the problems they dramatize linger. Because of his vision and his skills, that won't be the case with Shenoda's work. Rather than just being political rants, the poems hold up on their own level. They work as poems, as pieces of art.

That's not to say that Somewhere Else is just a collection of political poems. Shenoda works on a large canvas and his personal poems are fine also. The final lines of "Remember Me" are:

The river of God is filled with water
and all I have is the hope to swim.

Who can fail to identify? This is a book you'll find yourself picking up off of the shelf a lot. That being the case, I recommend you pick it up, read it and place it in an easy to reach spot so you won't have to search for it when you feel compelled to read it again.

by Michael Scott Cain
6 January 2007

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