Book Review

“I began writing because I had made friends with the dead,” writes Mary Ruefle in her essay “Remarks on Letters.” In his latest book, Surrounded by Friends, Matthew Rohrer goes beyond befriending the dead to converse and collaborate with them. His straightforward, contemplative poems—which, like the work of the haiku masters they engage with, contain a mix of attentiveness, humor, and insight—examine daily life in the 21st century. In doing so, they investigate the most timeless of questions: How shall we live?

The book begins with poems that are populated with inanimate things. We spend a moment with the Mars rover: “There is absolutely nothing lonelier / than the little Mars rover / never shutting down….” Next, we’re at the bank: “Le machine ate himself the card that is mine / I said, and I have need of the card….” In these poems and others like them, Rohrer signals his attention to a wide range of subjects. This is not a poet who elevates one element of life over another. Outer space, ATM cards, and all things in between are fertile ground.

One of Rohrer’s strengths is his use of juxtapositions to reveal how the mundane and the metaphysical converge in our lives. In “Sudden Summer,” Rohrer places our desire for connection—“I wish you walked / slightly in front of me / and I could put / my hand on your / shoulder”—alongside the hassles of commuting—“the R train / slamming me / into the seats.” The poem goes on to explore the bewilderment we experience when daily life presses up against tragedy. It also exemplifies Rohrer’s spare diction and short, sparsely punctuated lines, often enjambed in a way that mirrors our bewilderment:

…and I text you
to see what you think
which is sent
to pending
beneath the Cortland Street station
which is still imperfect
and will remain
all the days so
though people
come from everywhere to see
water pouring into
the memorial fountain
I’m sure it’s beautiful
which is confusing
one woman asked me
how to get to the site
of the terrible disaster
she was holding a map
I said you don’t want to

Another of Rohrer’s strengths is his use of humor. In “Fuck the Banks,” a two-line poem, he writes: “you can’t even storm out / they have to buzz you out.” We laugh, but it’s a defeated laughter. Likewise, in “Two Poems for Issa” he makes use of the kigo—a conventional seasonal reference in haiku that gives a sense of the human amidst the world’s cycles—to humorous effect:

Role-playing after dinner
to buy a used car
… the car dealer
(who is S.) won’t bend
even sitting at the table
with the tortillas I made
I tremble I am not
prepared to spend any money
autumn evening

“(A)utumn evening” is the kigo, and it disarms us, makes us laugh, before we return to more mundane concerns.

The trajectory of the book is that of a rising chorus. Rohrer brings in the speaker’s family and friends, as well as writers and artists from across the ages (René Magritte, Virgil Bănescu, Marcus Aurelius, and others). Poems for others in the first two sections give way to a series of poems written with Bashō, Buson, and Issa, the haiku masters of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Japan. In these poems, Rohrer borrows phrases and lyric gestures from the masters, and intersperses them with his own lines. The effect is to render the world, and our concerns in it, both as it is and as it has always been.

In one “Poem Written with Bashō,” Rohrer examines the perennial human concerns of grief and impermanence:

A photograph
on the back of a hand mirror
resembles someone you knew
who sang themselves utterly away.

…You and I can stay
in the morning dew.
My little telephone
in the mulberry fields
going unanswered
on that blade of grass.

We know we can’t actually stay in the morning dew, but this poem votes for letting distractions go in order to focus on that which is before us now. The distractions vary over the centuries; the challenge of living in the moment does not.

The book’s last section contains ten translations of Hafiz and a final poem by Rohrer. I’m not qualified to judge whether these translations are faithful, or whether they add to the conversation of Hafiz translations over time. What they deliver, regardless, is a continuation of Rohrer’s immersion in our everyday humanity: “I said it before / and I’ll say it again / it’s not my fault” and “All I want to do / is get drunk with my wife.” Still, after the momentum of the book’s first three sections, to this reader the translations felt somewhat tacked-on. The final poem redeems, however, with its attention to small gestures of love and the palpable joy of its ending. “She sends me a text / she’s coming home” begins “The Emperor”:

… I light the fire under
the pot, I pour her
a glass of wine
I fold a napkin under
a little fork

the wind blows the rain
into the windows
the emperor himself
is not this happy

As I was finishing this review, a friend stopped by and picked up Rohrer’s book from my desk.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

Without thinking I replied, “It’s not a book to like, it’s a book to live with.”

Which is not to say I didn’t like it, but there’s something more important about this book than whether it’s aesthetically pleasing to one person or another. These poems persist, coming back to us as we wait in line at the bank, fold socks, soothe a child over some small grief. They keep asking questions and offering answers: How to live? Pay attention. Connect. Make art. Make it in conversation with others. Laugh. This book has become a part of my days as mother, wife, poet, person. I can think of no higher compliment.

About the Reviewer

Molly Spencer’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Linebreak, Mid-American Review, New England Review, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. She’s a student at the Rainier Writing Workshop and a teaching-artist for California Poets in the Schools. Find her online at