Monday, June 09, 2008

Matthea Harvey, MODERN LIFE

When Graywolf Press last fall released its second Matthea Harvey poetry collection (her first book was through Alice James Books, PITY THE BATHTUB ITS FORCED EMBRACE OF THE HUMAN FORM; her second, the first Graywolf one, was SAD LITTLE BREATHING MACHINE), word quickly circulated among poets: "She's done it again." The book was soon on the National Book Critics Circle finalists list for an award in poetry.

The title MODERN LIFE ties up the themes under a single phrase, but let me split out a few of what I see here:

1. "Modern" forms: prose poetry alternating with playful stacks of lines that read like English narrative but actually zigzag across landscapes of fragile connections, playing as much with the words as with their pathways.

2. "Modern" issues: terror. And the future. The book's structural pillars are a pair of series: "The Future of Terror" (11 poems) and "Terror of the Future" (10 poems). There's also a seven-poem sequence about Robo-Boy, unexpectedly touching in the puzzlement of the mechanical creature with real feelings.

The Future/Terror, Terror/Future sequences are each created in abecedarian fashion, using words between FUTURE and TERROR in the dictionary. Despite an appearance of random strings, each is also a braid of threat and survival: In "The Future of Terror" there's a generalissomo, there are paratroopers and inclinometers, there's a missing airlift. Then in "Terror of the Future," protests, tears, and telesthesia mingle. Harvey plays out the loneliness of being part of a group, and the un-loneliness of being part of a plan.

I especially like the poem "The Future of Terror 11," which opens with a gable window from which to shoot gargoyles and garden gnomes, and ends:

There was one shot left in my rifle.
I polished my plimsolls.
I wrapped myself in a quilt.
So this is how you live in the present.

Also delightful is "Word Park," a prose poem that begins, "Proper nouns are legible in any light and like to stay near their cages." (This is, I think, the only piece in the collection to include CHOCOLATED.) And best of all for whimsy and wonder is "Waitressing in the Room With a Thousand Moons," where the trials of waiting table with little and large moons swinging past are detailed.

Harvey lives in Brooklyn and teaches poetry at the graduate and undergrad levels at Sarah Lawrence. There are several reviews of MODERN LIFE available, but it's more fun to read the interviews with this inventive poet. Try the one at the bookslut blog; it's almost a good as having coffee with the author.

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