Tumbling for Amateurs by Matthew Gwathmey

We measure our lives by what our bodies can do.

An important function of art is to disturb comfort. To jostle us from the everyday, and demand that we call into question our previously-held notions. Arguably, the way that art does this successfully is to pluck on strings of emotion – fear, anger, sadness – that resonate through former safe positions and shake their foundations, so that we can then reconsider and rebuild them in different, but stronger, ways. Unfortunately, in reading this new poetry collection by Matthew Gwathmey, I struggled; despite ample time for reflection, I found myself only disoriented without knowing why or what was being disturbed.

A step back: there are good, interesting pieces in here, ones that are thoughtful to the underlying theme of exploring relationships and latent homoerotic themes embedded in an old tumbling instructional manual (the source material being written by a relative of the author’s). These are more effective as extensions of the source material but also as pointed and purposeful disruptions to the reader. These pieces consider the relational and kinesthetic work and tension of tumbling, and of relationships:

We have no other way to touch each other. 
Really no other way to touch each other. 
We seek this particular exercise because 
we have no other way to touch each other.

These are, though, the minority. Other pieces instead use typography as paint to create visual art that lacks the same emotional pizzicato and thus is challenging to connect with (one poem repeats the word “tumbling” in various spacings around the page, to give the appearance of a word springing through the air; yet another throws kerning to the wind and presents the words in a singular block of text with no spacing between words, but with each letter evenly spaced). These do indeed disorient like the acrobatic feats that inspire them, but they do questionably little to expand on the relational tensions that Gwathmey addresses in 0ther pieces more effectively.

At the end of the book is an explainer that they took a tumbling instructional written by a distant relative, and made the poems as a modern-day extension. While I don’t think it would have completely addressed the concerns noted above, I think it would have better prepared the reader as a preface. It wouldn’t limit the disorientation but it would have set the table for that mindset, and I think helped the especially avant-garde pieces be more digestible.

about the author

Matthew Gwathmey was born in Richmond, Virginia, and currently lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on Wolastoqey Territory, with his partner Lily and their five children. He studied creative writing at the University of Virginia and recently completed his PhD at UNB. He has work published in The Malahat Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead and The Iowa Review, as well as other literary magazines. His first poetry collection, Our Latest in Folktales, was published by Brick Books in the spring of 2019. 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Coach House Books (Sept. 19 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 155245469X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1552454695

Bryn Robinson lives in Quispamsis, NB, although she still, and always will, consider herself a Saint Johner. She uses her BA in psychology and French, and her PhD in experimental psychology, from the University of New Brunswick, to help her support health research in the province. She prefers contemporary fiction, narrative non-fiction, graphic novels and poetry - and if they are humorous, all the better. When not reading, she's exploring the New Brunswick forests and seascapes, camera in hand.