Matthew Zapruder’s poems are among the friendliest in contemporary poetry. I don’t mean that they are eager to please, or accessible in the sense of being easy and unchallenging. Their meanings, in fact, can be quite elusive, and they are, as well, reliably strange, displaying a kind of gentle, domestic, frequently humorous surrealism. But his poems manifest, or perhaps presuppose, the intimacy of friendship, written in the voice of someone you know and trust who has let his guard down in an attempt to unburden himself or describe his experience. He might ramble a bit at times, or say things that don’t quite add up, in his attempts to offer a precise articulation of just what it is he’s feeling. (Because Zapruder writes in very short lines and uses very little punctuation, it’s often fascinatingly unclear just how to parse his thoughts, or where his sentences begin and end.) But because his sincerity is apparent, you don’t really mind. That’s how it is with friends, after all.

Zapruder’s new book, “Father’s Day,” is firmly situated in its (and our) political moment, and is anchored by a compelling gravity and urgency. His past poems sometimes hid themselves behind a shield of protective irony, using a deflective wit to reassure readers that there was nothing serious at stake. But the new book makes clear that there is a great deal at stake, if not in the poems themselves, then in the world with which they engage. (Zapruder is reliably and admirably clearheaded about the unlikelihood that any given poem will alter our situation or fix our problems).

“Father’s Day” is not entirely devoid of irony, but the irony that appears here is directed mostly toward the poet himself, who presents himself as a genial, highly self-aware figure largely bemused by the quirks of his own consciousness, a figure for whom the deep weirdness of the world — its stubborn refusal to make sense — is sometimes a sort of amusement but at least as often, now, a source of threat and anxiety.

Why this shift? The book’s title hints at a partial explanation: Zapruder has become a father . One doesn’t have to be a parent to be distressed and dismayed about the current state of things. But it does, perhaps, render one’s fears more poignant, and makes it all the more difficult to protect oneself through ironic detachment. (As he writes in the book’s title poem, “we must not think / this is some dream.” ) It’s not surprising, then, to find a kind of bewildered dread making repeated appearances in these poems:

others booed

the mayor which was

my friend said


I don’t know

what is anymore,

everyone understands

in a different

contradictory way

the so far purely



so many millions

of choices

brought us

There is anger here as well, and the poems, despite their general affability, do not always refrain from naming names; the subjects of the poems “Paul Ryan” and “Roseanne Barr” will not, we can assume, be flattered. (Barr’s poem begins, straightforwardly enough, “Is there anyone worse / than Roseanne Barr?” ) But Zapruder’s sense of humor, and his refusal to exempt himself from the possibility of responsibility, not only prevent him from being very angry for very long, they also enable his poems to avoid the perils of didacticism and hectoring self-righteousness that mar so many attempts at political poetry. A poem titled “Today” begins:

Justice Kennedy retired

farewell pious blowhard

from the dark collective

grief of half of us I stole

one long hour to think

despair is a privilege

we can’t afford but really

a few of us totally can

The reference to despair is understandable in light of current events. But the book’s afterword reveals an additional dimension, one hinted at but not made entirely explicit in the poems themselves. There we learn that Zapruder’s son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum — about a month after the November 2016 election. Zapruder’s initial reaction, he admits, was tinged with a dismay and fear he found hard to separate from the election and its aftermath. Looking back, he can see that this reaction said more about himself, and his personal anxieties and limitations, than it said about his son. “It turned out that I knew virtually nothing about autism,” he confesses in the book’s afterword, “and what I did know was wrong.”

Zapruder handles this juxtaposition of a traumatic private event and a traumatic shared public one with considerable grace and delicacy, effectively exploiting the coincidence of these events without ever being exploitative. His son’s autism lies in the book’s background, while the poems themselves adhere to the details and textures of daily life, and are far less interested in conventional illness narratives — or, for that matter, cliched and simplistic political ones — than in the complex, volatile, and constantly altering kaleidoscope of experience that is contemporary life. It’s a complexity that is relieved, from time to time, by brief interludes of peace, stillness, and beauty:

all the multicolored

signs said

with love

we will resist,

over my head

I lifted my son

so he could see

what people

look like

when they hear

the song Imagine

Many poets today strive for an appearance of unflappable coolness, and I greatly admire Zapruder’s willingness to skirt the boundaries of sentimentality in passages like this. Reading “Father’s Day” not only made me feel less alone, it also reminded me how great, in times of confusion, frustration, and shared anxiety, is our human need for tenderness, for forthright yet gentle speech, and for unashamed sweetness.

Troy Jollimore’s most recent book of poems is “Syllabus of Errors.”


By Matthew Zapruder

Copper Canyon. 96 pp. Paperback, $17