Mather Schneider’s latest poetry book is a solid collection of 37 poems some of which first appeared in excellent small press publications such as Slipstream, HST, Misfit, Nerve Cowboy, In Between Hangovers, Winedrunk Sidewalk, Paper & Ink and Frigg. Most of the poems pre-date his permanent move to Mexico from Tucson with only the last three poems ‘Eclipse, August 21, 2017’, ‘Breathe the Damp’ and ‘Curtains’ directly linked to his new life there.
Schneider told me in December 2020 about the collection, “The poems in Rhythm & Mucous are fairly old. ‘Headlocks’ is probably 15 years old…That’s the thing with publishing, there’s often such a delay that a book doesn’t reflect where a writer is at that moment.”
The writing appears more pared back, more matter-of-fact with less use of figurative language than in some of his earlier work.
Schneider’s poems are highly accessible, and typically are first person narrative in form, from his point of view. In a recent interview with Matt Forney of Terror House Press (‘Down in the High Desert, 12 August 2021- see the link below), Schneider says candidly, “I’m not a professional writer, hardly think of myself as a writer at all. I chronicle my life, and there’s plenty of drama and conflict here in Mexico to write about.”
In explaining the origins of the book's title (in the same interview) Schneider says, “25 years ago, I lived with a guy who would always say, ‘Life is just rhythm and mucous.’ I don’t know if he made that up or if he heard it somewhere. I was just starting to send my poems out to small press journals and thinking about a book, and I thought that would make a great title. Over the next 25 years, I published 5 books and a couple of chapbooks and never used the title. I forgot all about it until I came across it in an old journal. I decided it would fit with the manuscript I put together.”
The front cover is in straightforward calavera style by the young American artist Matt Lawrence who does all of the Terror House covers. It is effective because it connects to both death and Mexico, subjects that run through Schneider's book.
The poems in Rhythm & Mucous are often inspired by Mather’s former job as a cab driver he had for 15 years in Tucson, Arizona and other unremarkable day to day experiences- trips to the doctor or dentist, attending a funeral, talking to people at a bar or coffee shop, watching television and the like. Yet within the ordinariness of his subject matter there is a uniqueness and grittiness and universality of his writing which makes it rise above the bullshit of the everyday.
Schneider’s representation of himself as an outsider allows him to make comments on human behaviour, social injustice, art and the big questions: mortality, the unreachable distance between us and what he refers to as ‘the curse of an answerless universe” in ‘Wanderlust’.
In ‘The Tooth Monkey’ Schneider uses a trip to Mexico to not only document his physical visit but also to draw out associations with teeth in his personal memory and that of the Holocaust and of ancient anthropology:
THE TOOTH MONKEY
I drove down to Nogales Mexico yesterday to get a
tooth yanked out.
The roots were curled
and the 2 blue-smocked girls spent 45 minutes
on the stubborn motherfucker.
They used every saw, pincers and pliers in their tool kit
and even had to yell down the hall
for Mario to bring in some special implements.
When one got winded
they switched places
and they used so much Novocain my right
eye went blurry and crooked.
I walked out into the sun numb
with a gap in my head and blood on my chin
until some kind old Mexican lady looked at me
and pointed at her own chin.
I looked at my reflection in the plaza fountain
and cleaned myself off.
I drove home to Tucson.
I tried to smoke a cigarette but it fell from my numb lips
caught the seat on fire
and I almost hit a car as I veered into the other lane
swatting the embers.
My dad used to tell me the Tooth Monkey
came at night to grab my teeth
and leave me quarters
how my mother shushed him
how we all smiled
I thought about the heroin addict I met
who dug most of his teeth out with a pocket knife
at his kitchen table
and the old logger in Riley’s Pub
who had made his own dentures
from a mail-order kit
laughing and saying his beauty contest days
were over anyway
and my friend Danny Beecham
who got his teeth knocked out when he was 12
by his uncle
and I thought about the teeth on the floors
of gas chambers
and the teeth they’ve found of people who lived
thousands of years ago
buried in the mud, buckets of them, truckloads,
pits full of them…
Later that night I turned my pillow over
because it was wet with sweat.
I heard the monkey rattling
his bracelets of teeth
felt him step
across the bed
smelled his abscessed breath
as he sat on my chest
opened my mouth with little furry hands
looked into me
with one crooked
then curled up
and licked my chin
until I fell asleep.
(all poems posted with the permission of the writer)
The emphasis in many of the poems is admirably not on the speaker himself but rather on the personality and traits of the people he meets- both good or bad.
Schneider is very astute at describing the repulsive, selfish, callous, drugged-out or deluded behaviour of people who he has the misfortune of meeting. ‘Fatty’, ‘The Dickhead in #14’, ‘Lemons’, ‘Traci’, ‘Bar Rush’, ‘One For Boris’ and “The Pussy Never Came Down’ are all interesting studies of hostile, incredibly stupid people.
In ‘Headlocks’ after a few beers in a pub called the Golden Nugget, the speaker is immersed into the fascinating world of Doc:
I met the Masked Marvel the other day.
He was drinking whiskey at 3 in the afternoon
at the Golden Nugget.
He was 74 years old.
Everyone called him Doc.
Years ago, he was one of those
traveling professional wrestlers
moving from town to town, grappling with men
with names like The Predator
and Chainsaw Charlie.
It was quite a life,
drinking from ship-sized barrels of rum,
a new bone or joint cracked and twisted each day.
All the towns, all the crazy fun.
He told me he still had his leather mask
and shoulder pads.
Life was real back then, he insisted,
mapping his countless scars.
He had been beaten and had come back for more
somehow enjoying it,
the small animal victories
of rubbing men’s faces into the mat,
the screams from the crowd for more gore.
He thought it a lucky game
and he fancied himself a winner
as he downed
gulp after gulp.
I was believing his story,
what with all the details and facts he had
but when he stood to go to the bathroom
the bartender cleared things up for me.
There wasn’t a word of truth to any of it.
Doc was a nutcase, a few shots
short of a clip, usually harmless
but if he tried to demonstrate any
of his old “wrestling” moves on me, it
was suggested that I leave.
I thought about the other man
inside the Masked Marvel and inside
all of us, the man who holds
everything pent up
until he finally snaps
unleashing bullets into the ring
of the Circle K
like that guy in the news last week.
I pictured him strapped
to an electric chair
or pinned against the ropes of madness,
to cauliflower-eared walls
costumed in a straightjacket.
I thought about that other man
we all fight each day
and when he returned from the bathroom
I looked at the Masked Marvel, old Doc
and raised my glass to the pain.
More sympathetic portraits are revealed in the poems ‘Rizelda & the Street Sweeper’, ‘Tombstone’ and in particular, his poignant poems about his wife and her realisation that she will never give birth to a child ‘My Woman Lies Barren’ and in her declining health, as portrayed in ‘Curtains’ and especially, ‘Breathe the Damp’:
BREATHE THE DAMP
The Mexican hospital
is hot. A long thin tube of light
sputters over the doctor’s bald head, a polished
stone. An x-ray hangs on the wall
with a skeleton buried in it. A ship
in a bottle on his desk
that my wife and I can see under
to his animal-skin shoes, the floor chewed
by the wheels
of his chair. A yellow stain in the corner
of the ceiling. What horrors are happening
upstairs? I’m dizzy and seasick
at the thought of my angel’s urine
in a cup. The cups for the water dispenser
full of dust and spiders. Her knees swell red and hot
as roasted agave hearts. Molten tequila
sears each minute’s throat. My poor Lupita
trembles on the doctor’s table. Why are you nervous?
he asks her. It’s only Death
preparing his needles. His poison smile
like a fishing hook. Bone ready to give
birth to fire. Brave woman
crippled at 43. Twitching in pain she thinks of the baby
she could never have
cries and squeezes my hand
while the doctor injects her
as if to kill bugs in a wainscoting. Later that night
we lay in bed in the little house
in Hermosillo, sticky as flypaper. Lightning
starts in the south, slices the Sonoran sky
like the soft underside
of a wrist. Rain
tramples the tin roof, scrambles for cracks. Hail
like gravel on a coffin lid and a vile
merciless wind like the Devil
blowing out his birthday candles. The lights
go black. The blades
of the fan slow, and stop. I open the window.
We lie there sprayed
by saltless tears, breathe the damp, curling sulfur
of a ghastly wish.
Also noteworthy in the collection are Schneider’s “nature” poems which he has incorporated into his work since his first book of poems Drought Resistant Strain (Interior Noise Press, 2010). The poems ‘Lizard Diddy’, ‘One Time In Arkansas’, ‘Nothing Much Ever Lived’, ‘Sunday Afternoon With Ara In July’ and ‘Petroglyphs’ all reference a declining world strangled by its hubris and lack of self awareness.
Schneider writes about what he knows, the everyday- driving cabs, being inside bars and his relationship with his woman. His writing is raw but carefully honed, combining acute insight into people and himself- with wry humour and understated humility.
Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09C62HRQW
Read at Terror House Press: ‘Down in the Desert: An Interview with Mather Schneider’ here: https://terrorhousepress.com/mather-schneider/
A short review by Wayne F. Burke: https://terrorhousemag.com/rhythm/?fbclid=IwAR1hu711o4UgumvLl81wgnhXhAbM7LS6TMF5PdIVIZ2xslCy4Q0dmij8jJQ
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