Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey
I came to “Pity…” after having read “Sad Little Breathing Machine,” so my thoughts on the collection are a bit in reverse. Dean Young’s string-of-similes blurb, “this book astonishes me the way I am astonished by jeweled clockworks, siege machinery, the musculature of the shark and hummingbird,” thus, in hindsight, seems more fitting for Harvey’s second collection, which is much more a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers (not pejorative!). Thus, I am in fact struck by the coherence of the poems in “Pity…,” the fidelity to scene and conceit they exhibit. There are in fact quite a number of narrative cycles, all of them stunning, though perhaps the most narrative of note (and I think the best) is “Thermae,” a collection of prose poems that follows a very tight sort of day-in-the-life.
Of course, the “Ceiling Unlimited Series” detours a bit and is perhaps my all-time-favorite of the collection, and really, for what I can gather, links us as readers to Harvey’s future endeavors, hints at, foreshadows, etc. It’s most adept at musically linking a quickfire chain of statements that feel too distant from each other to offer the kind of tenable arguments and complete scenes the other poems afford. When these are most successful the feeling is that of a fusillade of aphorisms (even when the lines are descriptive), which, for me, is accomplished exactly because of the proximity of the lines to one another. In other words, she is being pretty D. Young here; she is making metaphors that we can’t explain in paragraphs:
cadenzas I need something to come back to.
I push the rubble out of the second-storey window.
I put the money in an envelope and it’s sucked up
a transparent tube. Only the rusted bits of roof
stand out against the sky. Yellow water
in the gutters–always the fault falls somewhere.
Now I feel like I must mention the other sort of detour Harvey takes from fidelity, though, ha!, it also just supplants one for the other–her perhaps most frequented technique (I mean, these is almost a new entry in the Book of Forms she nails it so fully) in the collection is this thing that all the Goodreaders (me too!) are having a really difficult time naming, the “carry over,” the “enjambment,” etc. Essentially, the line breaks, and the next logical word appears, but that word is now, in the new line, ACTUALLY functioning in an entirely new syntactic structure, i.e., the natural ellipses between statements, the synapses, are actually CONNECTED by a single word that is performing double duty. This does not happen at every line, but the effect is that every little area of concern, every argument or scene becomes kind of modular, connected to the next by a “joint” or “hinge.” Ah hell e.g.:
Again housewives took blue pills to magnify the moment
When they rounded the curve of a chocolate cake &
Were about to find out whether the frosting would
LAST year when something truly predictable happened…
From “The State of Expectation.” My emphasis. See what I’m saying? A lot of folks are put of by this, but I have to put myself in the OMG-Love-It camp. Doesn’t this remind people of the “Miss Susie” game?
Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell,
Miss Susie went to heaven, The steamboat went to…
Hello operator, please give me number nine,
It’s a pretty clear, formal conceit–I think it’s form introduced from on high, and while I’m one to think that that doesn’t typically lead to glory and flowers, in this case–well Harvey is just brilliant–she really pulls it off, she UNDERSTANDS what this technique can and should do, and she wastes no time getting us there. This is not to say she is ALWAYS successful. The most successful moments are, perhaps, like above, when this advances us into a new scene, esp., moment in time–other instances of the technique feel slightly more random and not quite as finely executed, perhaps, inhabit that same superficial space as pun? Taken from the same poem:
Something went wrong with the lottery & someone won
Though the government claimed it was one of series of
Tests in school were rarely given but frequently announced…
It’s difficult to measure when we are only reading the excerpt, but here, in that old workshop adage, function seems to be serving form, and we give Harvey a B+ for it.
O but I’m so sorry to end on a sour note. Read this book. More importantly, read it twice.