Matthew W. Baker’s debut chapbook Undoing the Hide’s Taut Musculature (Finishing Line Press, 2019) is a visceral and incisive exploration of what it means to have a body. Baker’s poems delve into mortality, illness, surgical interventions both elective and necessary, and radical changes both voluntary and beyond the speaker’s control. The speaker in these poems grapples with isolation and relationships, offering an unflinching portrayal of the mother/son dynamic.
The chapbook opens on a poem entitled “My Birth as f(x),” which provides a narrative of the speaker’s birth that shifts between fact and fantastical: “I was born next to a lake made of geese./When I was born, cathedral bells rang/and mixed with steam from sewer vents in spring.” This poem, with its bizarre images and gorgeous sound work, sets the expectation for the rest of the collection. Baker’s speaker offers us glimpses into childhood with his mother, like learning to ride a bike, and the heartbreaking narrative featured in “Birthday Parties.” The speaker declines a birthday party when his mother offers, forgoing “all the hats and cake and fizzing pop/coursing through my veins and those of kids/who acted like my friends but lately/hadn’t been friendly at all.” I admire Baker’s ability to render such stunning sensory detail, and this poem demonstrates the speaker’s drive to dig deep into bodily memory. This impulse gets increasingly complex as the collection progresses, as later poems focus on the challenges the speaker faces in caring for his aging mother.
One of my favorite things about this book is the crown of sonnets entitled “Body, Burn, Memory.” A crown of sonnets is a sequence (fifteen sonnets, in this case) where each poem takes its first line from the final line of the preceding poem. The sequence develops several threads: the speaker’s relationship with a woman called Sarah, the death of a friend’s mother to cancer, the speaker’s own mother, isolation and desire. The final sonnet in the sequence encapsulates these concerns and expresses what this book accomplishes: “I have collected the bones/of the women of my life, have erected/monuments in me. They flash brighter/than anything celestial in this/wasteland.” The speaker in these poems honors the past and makes a monument of bodily history without dismissing the truth of mortality.
I encourage you to pick up a copy of Undoing the Hide’s Taut Musculature, and allow yourself to be drawn into its dark, surprising world. You should also listen to Baker’s Inner Moonlight performance from January 2022, in which he offers further insight into these poems.
Logen Cure is a queer poet and professor. She curates Inner Moonlight, the monthly podcast reading series for The Wild Detectives in Dallas. She's an editor for Voicemail Poems. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her debut full-length poetry collection, Welcome to Midland (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021) was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Awards. She lives in Dallas-Fort Worth. Learn more at www.logencure.com.