“Almost like dancers” completes Tom Quontamatteo’s description of horses mating in the fields at dusk. If he’d used a metaphor, that would color the horses in our minds. If he’d written “like dancers” we’d miss their essential quality, their horseness. They’re energetic and graceful in ways that are difficult to articulate, but we’ve all seen them, and “almost” frees our imagination to remember their full beauty and mystery.
Every poem shows this precise attention to the world, to his psyche, and to exactly what his words accomplish. “A full moon inflated over the eastern hills.” “Sirens wail in the distance like insects in search of a fix. “In the back of old Chevys still going straight in the hot redneck wind.” And “The telephone rings a few times before I take notice of it” concludes the title poem of his book, Emptiness That Plays So Rough. Quontamatteo presents the situation and his mind in a way that holds the essence of both.
Quontamatteo treats his subjects, mostly loneliness, flawed love, and tenuous spirituality, with the same acute awareness. His work is written in the plain, most controlled, most concise language of his mind, with no enhanced feeling or embedded glamour. Compare Wieners’ “A poem for record players,” where both are uppermost, with Quontamatteo’s “Minor Chords,” which has neither. Such an exquisite sense, of how little need be said, should elicit admiration, but Quontamatteo’s own estimation is understated. Did he not know the beauty he created?
There was nothing glamorous about his adult life. That he was bipolar is troubling. His decision to die without medical analysis, in one view, is admirable. His acceptance of the psychiatric industry’s arrogance and disregard is another. “Do you talk to your therapist?” we asked, after an episode like that in “Wondering What the Trouble Is.” “Yes” was his answer, but it was clear he wasn’t being helped and he didn’t know how to manage. He let his teeth turn black and rot in his face.
The poet functions as personal and cultural guide, and this shamanic quality is omnipresent in Quontamatteo’s poems. But our society has dismissed that role, to our loss. Quontamatteo participated by devaluing his life, profoundly aware of his ineffectiveness and of his sadness. “I am calling your name as if you can hear me.” “I put together an insignificant poem, my evening’s raison d’etre.” “My reality is, yes, a contrivance, etched out of loneliness.” The same can be said of many of us, and the shamanic quality of these lines needn’t be restated.
Nothing was said to Quontamatteo about his value, beyond the little a few friends mentioned. I participated, too, sadly, unaware and slow to express my love. Free now from the pressure of trying to relate, I see Quontamatteo’s power.
“Now that I am gone I am leaving you alone with me for the first time.”