If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. —A. Anupama
In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. And if that’s not enough, the list of collaborations and co-inspired projects at the end of the book adds audio, film, and even more poetry and visual art to the experience.
Matthea Harvey is the author of four collections of poetry and two children’s books. Born in Germany in 1973, she lived in Marnhull, England, until age eight, when she moved with her family to Milwaukee. She earned a BA in literature from Harvard, then an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third poetry collection, Modern Life (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was also a New York Times Notable Book.
A silhouette of a mermaid with a hand-saw for a tail greets us on the first page of this new collection. And the mermaids tie back to that earlier collection. In an interview about Modern Life, Harvey said, “My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.” The strikingly beautiful sequence of mermaid poems that opens her new book could have leaped right out of “You Know This Too” in Modern Life:
…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 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.
As Harvey scissors back into the subject, various types of mermaids sing their grievances in brief prose poems. “The Backyard Mermaid” suffers namelessness as well as persecution by the neighborhood cat, and “The Straightforward Mermaid” has learned through experience to avoid hooks and sailors. The lament of “The Objectified Mermaid” reveals that:
The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it!’ He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine. Without asking, the assistant resprays her with glycerine…. After an hour under the studio spotlights, she’s starting to smell pretty fishy. Can’t blame it (as she has before) on her standard seaweed bra because this fool of a photographer has her holding two clear fishbowls in front of her breasts so it looks like goldfish are swimming past her nipples. She’s supposed to pretend it tickles. She wants to ask if he’s heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’ which she recently learned at Land Berlitz. When asked if she’s tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.
In another brilliant sequence, this one titled “Inside the Glass Factory,” Harvey pretends to invent a new type of mythic creature: girl factory workers who live entirely within glass walls and glass ceiling.
Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.
When they make a girl out of glass, the creative process anneals to reveal that their kiln-born invention is an accomplice in escape:
The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
about their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.
Rhyme slides like reflections across glass throughout this sequence and the collection as a whole. Harvey creates special effects with slant rhymes, like “cross-legged” and “fogged,” or various styles of non-end-line rhymes, like “she,” “see,” and “key” in the middles of lines 6, 7, and 8 in this poem. Often Harvey uses one end word and one internal word as a rhymed pair, as with “lead” and “heads,” or she flattens the poetic line with placement of one word in the middle and the other at the end, as in “smeared the sky. At break they lie….” In the three lines beginning with “Once a stag,” Harvey’s combination of slant rhyme (scraped / gasped), end word with internal word rhyme (wall / all), and assonance with alliteration (glass / gasped) and consonance (stag / past / gasped) reveals the dimensions of kaleidoscopic reality. At the end of the sequence, Harvey remarkably renovates one of the most clichéd rhymes in English poetry: trees / breeze.
Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.
The titles of the poems in this sequence are photographs of glass bottles, which distill space, color, and light in a dazzling movement. The images and texts scissor past each other, raising the highest temperatures of sensory attention. My review copy offered only black-and-white reproductions, completely unlike the full-color experience, which I was happy to find available online at the American Public Media website along with an interview and audio performance. This set of poems and their photograph titles were commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between the Poetry Foundation, American Public Media’s Performance Today, and the White Pine Festival, as a multidisciplinary performance of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5” with the Miro Quartet.
Before I snip loose threads and sew up this review with glories from the substantial final sequence, let me add a few poems from the middle of the collection that reveal some of Harvey’s poetic tone. “When the Water Is at Our Ankles” devastates with its calm, dark voice cutting through to reality in the form of global warming.
Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two…
“Last Stop Dreamland” prefaces a string of post-apocalyptic poems, most of which are titled by photographs and which I marked as little marvels, beautifully imagined and individually distinct. In this particular poem, the robot–beverage cart on a train “is careful about feet / so careful about feet. Once someone slapped / it, and the cart thought, ‘this will serve me a lesson / to look where I step’….” Later in the poem, Harvey observes this—
…Through the window,
a flash of horse nodding in the field (nose to
the hay, nose to the sky) and the chorus
of sugar maples above singing almost there, nary
a care, as the passengers gather their reflections
from the windows and slap them back onto
their faces and chests, flex their feet, and
arch their backs to erase the shape of their sitting.
The ice cubes are all melted, the books are
stowed away, and as the people exit the train,
they look dazed, hazier, as if their bits aren’t
quite put back together. The Treatzcart hums
along happily—soon it will start over, chugging
down the aisles offering bagels, coffee, juice.
It loves to watch the faces waver as they choose.
The passengers’ staring into glass for a semblance of themselves echoes the action in the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory.” Harvey manages this evolving repetition masterfully throughout this collection. Another example: the ice cubes melting in this poem echo an earlier sequence of photographs of objects embedded in effervescent ice.
The last sequence, “Telettrofono,” echoes the mermaids in the form of Esterre Meucci, wife of the inventor Antonio Meucci, who is credited by some with creating the first telephone. The dramatic scene-by-scene text reads like an instruction manual or patent application, with scientific figures illustrated in embroidery. The first of these figures is a cross-section of Meucci’s telettrofono, featuring a double-helix in periwinkle thread next to a microphone stitched in chartreuse. The first instruction reads: “Hello? Please turn off all twenty-first-century gadgets, as they will interfere with the delicate instrument you are holding in your hand.”
The delicate instrument could be the long poetic sequence itself, measuring the precise length of a love of sound:
Esterre wants her ears closer to the clouds,
wants them to stretch over the water
so she can hear the opposite shore.
You give her one thing, she wants more.
I bring her a hare after a long day of hunting
and she cries and strokes its long ears.
and the density of a love affair:
…She gave me scraps
of white cotton and muslin for my snow cradle—
we suspended the bag above the stage and a man
in each wing shook the strings gently, gently
so the snow-cloth sifted through the holes
in the bag and drifted down onto the singers.
That snow scene was the only silent thing that
ever made her smile.
Some of the segments of text are framed as stage directions for an opera, dramatic monologues, math problems, or fairy tale. The sequence takes up the last quarter of the collection—a significant portion of the work. Harvey created the sequence as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett, and the hour-long audio is available on the Poetry Foundation’s Soundcloud [https://soundcloud.com/poetryfoundation/telettrofono-by-matthea-harvey]. The full text and images are also on the Poetry Foundation’s website. If I could snip a couple of favorite images from this sequence, they would be the bone xylophone and the marine telephone—beautifully close to seeing Harvey’s poetic language and imagining the sound she had in mind.
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? contains worlds and collections, which spill intimately, like your suitcase probably would upon security inspection, and pronounces what you already know: you’ll never get that thermometer back.
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.