Modern Life: Poems by Matthea Harvey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In a bit of a rush, but I want to get this quick review off to you. Modern Life is the third in Harvey’s collections of poems and is most notable for the two sections, “The Future of Terror,” and “The Terror of the Future,” which anchor the book like two firm columns running through this seven sectioned collection. Please pick up a copy at Graywolf. Like much of Harvey’s work, the book as a whole is extremely organized, with a parallel section structure that runs roughly like this:
The Future of Terror
Art section I
Art section II
The Terror of the Future
Poems in the TofF and FofT sections follow a similar rigid organization, as Harvey describes in the notes: “the poems “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” were inspired by making lists of the words in the dictionary between “future” and “terror.” They are not strict abecedarian poems because they are not acrostics, but they do mimic the abecedarius’s alphabetical footsteps. The words “future” and “terror” act like “A” and “B”–they were the markers that mattered.” And one feels this alphabetical counting strongly, moving forward in the TofF section and backward in the FofT, which has this cumulative, somewhat bewildering effect on the reader’s sense of time, especially as we seem both in some imagined future and some imagined present. This is the core strength of the collection, I believe, in that Harvey seems to accomplish what so much science fiction cannot, by bringing her strange universe and her strange futurism to a very private level in the reader. No doubt, Harvey is characteristically challenging, colorful, and witty, and any reader thinking this collection to be a critique of the War on Terror is right only insofar as Miami is representative of America (thanks Jay!). TofF speaks, mostly, from a soldier’s point of view, and FofT speaks, mostly, from a citizen-in-maybe-post-apocalyptic-world point of view (what better place than these parentheses to mention that the sense of apocalypse in this collection is very sophisticated–perhaps, that it’s not even post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but some caffeine-addled dream of the mucus-drenched entanglement of the two). Here’s a taste of The Future of Terror, from “The Future of Terror / 3,” which has my favorite image in the collection, though I will not get to it below (why not here: “Periodically, we started projects: one man / made dents in the shape of stars on the inside / of his P.O. Box with a Phillips head screwdriver.”):
Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi. Even armed with invoices,
it’s human nature to proceed inch-meal.
We were a sad jumble of journeymen and here’s
the kicker: a few of us had never been love.
And here from “Terror of the Future / 9”
The teacups tied to strings along the walkway
stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing.
We shook talc onto our tastebuds
and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed,
until night blacked them out like a giant
While the projects of these two sections provide the most ostensible place to go for meaning, they are not in fact what I most enjoy about this collection. Like many things, I think there are many great moments in these poems, but too often I feel the form a bit clumsy, and while I like stepping alphabetically up and down the aforementioned feeling this evokes, I prefer Harvey when she is a bit freer to design her poems according to image. Which, let me mention, Harvey is a design poet, something I like to fancy I am. I don’t mean she’s a formalist by any means, but time and time the meaning I get out of her work is a direct result of the way she designs things, her counterpoints, juxtapositions, transfigurations, etc., and, if you would be so kind as to remind me next week, I’d like to get into this idea more thoroughly: poetry as design (as opposed to poetry as testament).
The geometrically true center of this collection is in the Robo-boy poems, and as the blurbs on Graywolf’s site suggest, this is very involved in this sense of fragmentation, of being in-half, a monster, half-human half something else, missing something, etc. Robo-boy, by the thorough involvement by the poet in hashing out several poems on him, develops the strongest sense of character, and in this way is perhaps the lightest reading of the book in the clarity of concern the poems have. He’s somewhat hapless and pitiful, but loveable and very relatable in pretty standard ways–we all feel his sense of estrangement, his robot-among-humans confusions. But by no means are these feelings limited to this group of poems. Rather, they are extremely pervasive throughout the collection and, I think, the strongest meaning in the book, our collective contemporary state of estrangement, both from the governing principles of our societies and institutions, and, sadly, from each other. Hence the title Modern Life and not Future Life.
Harvey has a great accomplishment regarding this latter notion, in that, throughout the remaining prose poems, she is able to write pieces playfully surreal, creating what feel almost like installations on the page, and others that are much more deeply personal, direct addresses, matters of romance, perhaps, or certainly intimate human connections, which are especially prevalent in the closing section, whose emotional tenor is satisfyingly amped. The variation makes for peppy reading.
Let me close this by giving two examples of the prose poems, the first being this kind of “installation” poem, and the latter being this more intimate one. From “Waitressing in the Room with a Thousand Moons:”
The moons desperately want to circle something, so when a dish comes out, they dive-bomb it, bump into each other and a dusting of moon-rock falls into the food. They know the plate won’t be a planet. We’ve been here for centuries and not once has a planet come in. I guess they do it just-in-case. Having lived most of their lives too close to everything, their sense of perspective is poor.
And, “You Know This Too,” in entirety:
You Know This Too
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; what his mouth wants, his stomach recoils from. Through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffitti–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.