1 March, 2008Issue 7.2Poetry

Email This Article Print This Article

American Punchlines

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Matthea Harvey
Modern Life
Graywolf, 2007
82 pages
ISBN: 9781555974800


Matthea Harvey has done the cover art for her new collection. A sequence of white dominoes zoom toward the camera lens, the face of each divided, as usual, into two—but instead of dots designating each slab’s numerical value, glaucous blackberries project from the surface, as if floating half-submerged in a bowl of milk. The technical terms for domino dots and slabs are “pips” and “bones”, so there may be some complex visual punning going on here, a wry juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, or artifac—think BlackBerry‚Ñ¢, not blackberry. It’s a startling, sensuous image, which prefigures the book’s concern with questions of individual and national identity, and the ways in which Modern Life mediates our sense of ourselves through what could be called a technology of seeing:

Where they’ve punched holes in the roof,
twenty tubes of sunlight slide through.

Rattatatat. The paparazzi clatter
up the ladder and now their eyes

are shooting sight-lines past you,
through you.

In these stanzas from ‘Restricted Vista’, the sunlight comes prepackaged in tubes, but there’s gunfire and violence subsumed in their well-machined clarity—those “punched holes” casually brutalise the innocuous office tool, preparing us for the “sight-lines” shot not only “past you”, but “through you”. The clean outlines of glossy packaging and high-definition TV belie the more uncertain and permeable boundary between oneself and the world, so hard to manage because so hard to keep sight of. Harvey’s subtle, nuanced verse provides the technology necessary, and releases us forward with a genuine, if modulated confidence.

The poet has broached this subject before. ‘Everything Must Go’, the last poem of her previous collection Sad Little Breathing Machine, highlights the disparity between an increasingly formalised environment and the fuzzy creatureliness of our being-in-the-world:

We practice drawing cubes—
That’s the house squared away

& the incubator with Baby.
The dead are in their grid.

O the sleeping bag contains
the body but not the dreaming head.

Wallace Stevens is clearly an important influence on Harvey, and there’s a hint here of his ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’, the old sailor who, “Drunk and asleep in his boots, / Catches tigers / In red weather.” Like Stevens, she asserts the possibility of imaginative transcendence, of living off the “grid”; her shimmering surface-texture gets interrupted periodically by feel-good affirmations, as when she describes the uncontainable “dreaming head”, which can’t be “squared away” by the pattern-making technologies we’re complicit with, that we “practice”. Such is the force of that rhyme carried from “dead” through “grid” and “body” to end in “head”. It’s as if one of Ted Hughes’s stale, conventional “deadlock rhymes” has somehow slipped its body bag, diffusing and re-combining its worn integrity into a new thrill.

This is to say that Harvey skilfully deploys formal mimesis to dramatise the sci-fi potential of her metaphysical quandary—how two become one, or fail to do so—how one becomes one. In Modern Life, she repeatedly uses the suitably hybrid genre of the prose poem to make play of the problem, with disturbing, jaunty narratives about composite creatures simultaneously natural and artificial—her grotesque “ham flowers”, for example (“each petal a little meat sunset”), or the manufactured

catgoat, all front, who patrolled the shop windows…When the sun hit at a certain angle, the battle would begin—cat wanting to see its cat reflection, goat wanting to see goat.

This piece is titled ‘How We Learned to Hold Hands’, which, given the sledgehammer insistence on military vocabulary—”patrolled”, “battle”—is perhaps a little too cute. It does, however, outline the ambitiousness of Harvey’s writing—in ‘You Know This Too’, her conceptual play starts to open onto real-world socio-political divisions:

The bird on the gate and the goat nosing the grass below make a funny little fraction, thinks the centaur. He wonders if this thought is more human than horse, more poetry than prose. Sometimes it’s hard not to abandon the whole rigmarole of standing at the counter—using a knife and fork to politely eat his steak and peas—to go outside and put his head in the grass. But what his stomach wants, his tongue won’t touch.

The dividing line of a fraction both separates and conjoins, but it’s definitely diminishing, like the centaur’s desire “to go outside and put his head in the grass.” As a natural hybrid, both beast and man, this would mean abandoning his given human intelligence, the impulse to creative analogy that apparently defines poetry against prose. (There is, perhaps, a subtle nod here to the constitutive moment of verse, the linebreak itself.) The vocabulary of the body is a familiar discourse, traditionally used to literalise intestine war—this is how the poem ends:

under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffiti—Long Live the Berlin….The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

Reading this, I connect the “group of extremist griffins”—classical griffins are half-lion and half-eagle, Anglo-American so to speak—with Nick Griffin’s BNP. Fanciful or not, these speculations point up the exciting fecundity of Harvey’s style. Unlike much experimental poetry, hers rarely turns boring or complacent—it’s buzzing with potential reference and excitements you don’t have to squint at to enjoy.

As the centaur lifts his head from the grass to become a kind of war correspondent, wryly sketching a political cartoon, the contrast between the aforementioned grass and his dainty “napkin” recalls Whitman’s wry mangling of the natural and artificial, replete with ellipsis:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped…

During Whitman’s stint as a nurse during the Civil War, he jotted down on bloody napkins the notes which would go to form his prose work Specimen Days, and a repeatedly anthologised contemporary review, baffled by his prosy style, begins with this outburst:

What centaur have we here, half man, half beast, neighing shrill defiance to all the world?

These subtle references, or subconscious echoes, position Harvey’s writing firmly within an American tradition—even as she subtly critiques an immanent jingoistic hubris which, she intimates, must be outgrown. The defiant hybrid centaur, self-estranged at the level of its biology, reflects critically on the question of national identity.

Reading back through the poem in this context, words like “knife” and “counter”—with its subtle acoustic juxtaposition against “centaur”—take on a more disturbing significance, bringing to mind the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, “hard not to abandon”. This is far-fetched—from page 11:

We could already all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there’s an intimacy to invasion.

The “steak” re-appears here in the first lyric of ‘The Future of Terror’, which, together with a second sequence called ‘Terror of the Future’, constitutes Modern Life’s most substantial achievement. In total, there are twenty-one roughly page-length, loosely abecedarian lyrics, working forwards from F to T and then back again. As she manages the transition from one letter to the next, Harvey demonstrates impressive technical skill, manipulating her alliterations to nicely comic effect in these lines, with their bathetic rhyme on imitations / invasion.

The form lifts the poet and the reader beyond knee-jerk reactions—Harvey doesn’t contribute to the “impeccable imitations” of Bush we can “already all do”, but uses the alliteration to allocate the American “idiot” the curious, disturbing word “intimacy”, which the man himself would surely never use. The point is to analyse more deeply than imitations or copies, which this poet has little time for, and which the next lyric associates with both deadening technology and, paradoxically, socio-political stagnation:

Our poets were Pied Pipers handing out

photocopies—parroting, parenthesising.
With the right pomade you can smooth over
anything. In the precinct they were making predictions
based on prehistory, listening to old recordings
of preacher-birds.

It’s easy—a little too easy?—to admire this smooth jibe at the fundamentalist irrationality behind much stateside neo-con rhetoric. Such “preacher-birds” work from an outdated text, blindly aping its strictures; Harvey suggests that much mainstream poetry is little better, a ready-made lyricism that glamorises complacency. (As the smooth linebreak on “smooth over” is clamped bathetically by “anything” full stop, the effect recalls those “insistent incisors working on / A steak”, nothing more.) To photocopy, parrot or parenthesise is to give up the individual freedom of one’s own poetic voice, and Harvey’s sophisticated acknowledgment of her influences suggests that she has thought deeply about this—her elegant verse-rhythms show this thinking taking place. ‘Save the Originals’, from her previous collection, features a copy room:

When I look up, I see that Sylvia has made herself three copies at 10%, 35% & 75%. A Sylvia crescendo.

Harvey’s considerable formal intelligence clears the space for an astringent, clear-eyed, identifiably female voice that has no need of recourse to generic Plath-style confessionalism. By closeting her A-B-C narrative between “terror” and “future”, she critiques America’s inherited conception of history as either a utopian development towards global democratic “crescendo” or linear degradation from the golden age of the fifties:

The polls showed no one wanted to proceed
alphabetically anymore. We were pioneers,
and we thought we might make our way back

to paradise if we spoke in the past perfect

In making this point, the sequences also demonstrate how a sense of structural constraint produces Harvey’s best verse. (Poetic form is itself a kind of technology, for thinking with.) Her abecedarian boons recall the determinedly flexible syllabic verse of Marianne Moore—what Elizabeth Bishop called her “musical inaudible abacus”—and Moore’s famous paper nautilus makes a cameo appearance later to re-stage its aesthetic transcendence:

The only thing that helped with the palpitations
was to hold a paper nautilus to your ear and listen
to the sighing of its parallel seas. Somewhere

in there were seagulls whose pinfeathers
were starting to unfurl, families taking Polaroids
of the piles of quahogs they’d collected,
a shopkeeper opening his shutters while
his space heater happily hummed with oil.
In there, the Spite Fence had yet to be invented.

Moore’s nautilus “constructs her thin glass shell” for its own sake,

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea

—a natural excrescence—as Valéry described the poetic act—but also an artificial product, a glossy souvenir prefiguring Harvey’s “polaroids”, with their extra step away from artistic authenticity, a step towards commodification, cheapening and the instant copy. Both writers are worried about this slippage, but their lucid verse insists —in the teeth of any demystification of the aesthetic—on the worked value of creative endeavour, the redemptive potential of form.

What’s distinctively American about all this—if that umbrella term has any real meaning—is the overlap between that implicit aesthetic credo, as updated for Modern Life, and the disenchanted nostalgia of Harvey’s tone, as she walks the thin line dividing token resignation from real lyrical engagement. Ashbery’s “somewhere in there”, but her concern with identity and martial division—that ‘Spite Fence’—goes all the way back to Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’, as a diagnosis of his country’s social atomisation and national insularity. Moore’s paper nautilus “knew love / Is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to”; Frost’s speaker in ‘The Most of It’

would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.

In the final lyric of ‘Terror of the Future’, Harvey returns to these lines, their felt need for an identity secured by a communal movement towards the other—although she cynically steps around the word “love”:

Sweetheart, there’s no one on the street.
I attached the speakers to the steeple

but even on its loudest setting, the stereo
gets no reaction. If you ask me (ask me,
please) the split screen of the brain
needs a sounding board, doesn’t like the only
signals in the skyway to be its own synapses,
doesn’t want to go solo in the sandbox.

The muezzin’s call haunts these lines, but, read through Frost’s lyric, they also belatedly recognise the growing disparity between the concerns of the United States and the rest of the world, a form of entrenched cultural isolation that no amount of technological development can solve. (The sandbox refers to both the “solo” playtime of a child building castles and wrecking them, and the conditions of desert-based combat.) In Modern Life, Harvey seems repeatedly on the verge of breaking into an open tirade against her nation’s repeated self-definition against an implied aggressor only, with no sense of generosity and reaching-out unsmutched by vulgar sentimentality—a sentimentality she both critiques and indulges as she negotiates the national poetic tradition towards these touching American speech-cadences, arrested and enabled by form. Vulnerable, disturbing and concrete, this is brave writing.