Close Reads – “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” by Matthea Harvey

Now I’ll admit that this week’s poem up for a close read isn’t the sort of poem that lends itself to people’s hearts or the fulcrum against which they decide to change their lives, become moral, good mothers and fathers and citizens of the universe, but then, I think it’s pretty clear this poem has no interest in such a place for itself. This poem does not comfort me, but I choose it because I think it is earnest in a different sort of way, as a kind of study, perhaps, of poetics and the limits of what can be gestured, etc. I wrote recently about Matthea Harvey and mentioned the book in which this is found, Sad Little Breathing Machine, as “a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers,” and I hold to that for the all the value it has. When I was thinking that thought, I was really thinking about this poem, and I hope to make you really believe me by the end of this post. What is great in “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” is how apparent the structure of her transfiguration is, how this theme re-instances itself over and over. While I would usually say such repetitions should move through variations that describe an arc of change in the speaker, I can’t really say that this is what Harvey is attempting here—that her speaker has been changed necessarily. Rather, I think of this poem much more as a kind of questioning, perhaps, unveiling, of the complexities the speaker has with her reader, the complexities of their (our?) relationship. Okay but I’ll get into all of this. Please buy this book here. Shall we then?


To Zanzibar by Motorcar


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain

I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temple

My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things–mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where

the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical

& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


So, the title—it hits first with its anachronistic tone and diction, this oldschool, let’s call it British (unfair, but you’ll see why I bring this into it shortly), “motorcar,” and the gleeful, almost insouciant declaration of adventure, but then it hits quite quickly again with the sonic proximities of “motorcar” and “Zanzibar,” which really secures the joke, an albeit outdated, wordplay kind of joke (ahem, anachronistic)(and O, Zanzibar isn’t exactly accessible by motorcar, at least not car alone). Of course, if we really think about Britain and Zanzibar and, I guess, the entire history of post-colonial Africa, this might rub us as a bit insensitive, but let me assure you this doesn’t go unaddressed, if you don’t see it already. What is really significant, to me, is this sonic wordplay, and let me just come out and tell you that this whole poem is about parallel existences and experiences. Already in the title we have the sonic parallels of the two main nouns; we have the suggested parallel of Britain and Zanzibar; and, perhaps most seriously, we have the parallel of the light-hearted language and the serious subject (the collapse of colonialism). O and what do we get next?


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain


That’s right, couplets! When I read this line I can’t help but hear the echo of another joke, which has many iterations, but is essentially “In America, money owns people,” or “In America, jeans wear you,” and so forth. I’ve puzzled over Regensberg for a little while now and can’t come up with anything conclusive other than the fact that Germany was another colonial contender and entered into a treaty with Britain over Zanzibar, though this treaty, as far as I can tell, was preemptive—Germany never had anything to do with the place. Whatevs, so the cloud left the mountain, which is code for “the curtain is lifted on the drama,” in this case, the drama of landscape as we traverse it. Now, the cloud is slightly anthropomorphized, but I’ll be damned if I have time to think about that. Also, “vain” and “vein,” as in rivers, circuits, roadways, if youknowwhatImean? But MOVING ON:


I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temples


“Crinolines” kind of hides in equal, uncertain possibilities. It establishes the speaker as a woman, prolly, of the nineteenth century, and her attempt at undermining her fabric (ahem, her social place) is in vain due to the fabric’s stiffness. That’s a pretty simply metaphor to understand, but let me also posit that crinoline gains its stiffness, historically, with a warp and weft of differing materials—hmm, kind of like a parallel. Ah but what I think is way more important in this couplet is the fact that the speaker is not in fact located in Regensberg, what with “sand” and “temple” and all. And so we take the suggestion that she is in fact in Zanzibar already, thinking of Regensberg, and here we get, to me, the central parallelism to the poem—the parallel locations of imagination. Zanzibar is the destination in the title, but in the poem, that destination seems to be Regensberg. With that established, we move deeper into her current location and her kind of state-of-affairs:


My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things—mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where


This is pretty standard fare—we are introduced to the act of looking, and we sweep briefly around her environment. Of course, she complicates this by showing us only very small things, and this lends us a sense of her deeply private existence there. She sees only that which her faculties can accommodate, but doesn’t it just so happen that both those things, the furtive mouse and the twitching pansies, are things that appear afflicted. The symbol of the mouse moving quietly behind the walls is so established as a symbol of an oppressed people she might just come out and say it, except for the fact that these lines are much more ostensibly about shape (like, of the eye). Here are the other parallels: eye/eye-shaped; mouseface/mousehole; pansies/palsy; flickering/twitching, with the larger parallel of mouse/pansy. While the remainder of the poem continues in this vein, with an unrelenting display of parallels, this section is especially concentrated around really visible parallels, largely, through the repetition of word and sound. This is where her theme tackles language itself, and this is the clearest presentation of the technique to the reader, the one that most immediately demands our attention. It’s a kind of climax and marks a significant shift in the poem, which ends up being one from a concern about the speaker’s situation to that of Zanzibar itself, as a locale:


the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical


I’m breaking the excerpt at an unfortunate place to maintain the strophe, but what the hell. So, we have now shifted from “My eyes,” to “Where…are common,” a shift from the self to the place, and once again it’s handled in a fairly conventional fashion, describing cultural behaviors and norms and, I suppose, their historic context, the “rebels” and “15th & 16th parallel.” Now the inclusion of “rebels” feels almost perfunctory—it really is her duty to be clear about this aspect of the location—but again the odd thing is that she in fact testifies to its absence. This kind of coincides with the fact that Zanzibar is not, in fact, located between these latitudes, north or south. So what are we supposed to do with that? Have we again shifted to a different location, just north or south, where there is peace, or, at least, where rebels do NOT lurk? Is she alluding to the “red line” 16th parallel of Vietnam? Oh my God is this about the Cold War? The short and long answer is that we don’t know, and while this might strike us as her evading a difficult subject (for any number of legitimate or illegitimate reasons), I think she is actually getting at something deeper, which is better seen, perhaps, by the fact that she has also shifted, in this section, tense. We are now in the present tense, and while this seems relatively natural grammatically, since we might take these descriptions as unchanged, mostly, by time, as characteristics of this place (versus the cloud that left the mountain, or her eyes that “took” things only during the period of her stay), it also raises an interesting narrative question (and makes the title work again!). Perhaps the title is in the present tense and her description of being “outside the temple” is in the past, SO, her call for adventure (in the title) is in fact a call to return. She remembers this place and has decided to go back. This makes for a more compelling story—we assume she has some kind of unfinished business, that she has reason, but isn’t it just like poetry to give us just a taste of that and no finisher? Again, we really can’t be certain; we are living in conjecture. But before I get ahead of myself let me finish the poem out:


& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


I have to think that this ending is quite purposely ugly. It is in a mode of antagonism rather than one of rapture, seduction, and this tone, even as it can be read, again, as jocular (she’s “pretending”), strikes me as quite serious—it makes no apologies for itself, and, we assume, it exhibits this strength to empower its subject. My point in all of this is that the speaker refuses clarification. How do you delineate something by freezing, by making no action at all? It’s a kind of protest. And what I think she is protesting, ultimately, is the folly of history. We don’t know if the rebels are there or not; we don’t know if she is there or not; we don’t know if this is a land of flickering mouses, palsied, ruined flowers, or if it is a land of kisses; we don’t know if it is a squint against something (pain? light?), a squint of pleasure (as when people kiss), or a squint to sharpen one’s view toward something of importance; and we certainly don’t know if the children are symmetrical as they stand in the street or as they lie in a mass grave. By going through all of these confusions, we get to see what the action of history is like, how it hides and confuses, how it makes ghosts that haunt the perfect weather. The poem then really, truly, becomes one about vision, what we can see, in the brief moment when the cloud has left the mountain, or when the mouse appears in the mousehole, etc, and how this operates in relationships of otherness, the parallel existences at either side of power.

One thought on “Close Reads – “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” by Matthea Harvey

  1. UPDATE: like, as though this were news. Perhaps one of you out there noticed that this title, “To Zanzibar by Motorcar,” is in fact a common mnemonic device for remembering the branches of the facial nerve? Since wordpress isn’t letting me hyperlink it, here it is:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_nerve#Outside_skull_.28distal_to_stylomastoid_foramen.29

    Not gonna fold that in at all–go ahead and do it yourself. Also, don’t let this discredit my otherwise genius read of the poem. That still exists. Alright I’ve got cookies to make.

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