[close this layer]

by Matthea Harvey

Graywolf Press, 2007
Poetry, 80 pages, paperback

Reviewed by
Nan Burton


Matthea Harvey has created a universe within the fissures. Modern Life is a text that bears witness to that which exceeds historical experience — a beautiful yet apocalyptic mirror of our enigmatic present.

Harvey’s use of language delivers readers into a space of "forgotten focus" where "foreground and background have been blacked out" — she calls this space the "middle distance." It is the crossroads place — the gray area where hybrid forms break apart our hierarchies and open our repressions, liberating them from the dark margins of our culture and our individual minds. Thinking of the "middle distance" as a hermeneutical space, it is one poised between human and beast, life and death. The texture of this space is that of skin — skin as the vital crossroads between internal and external — a landscape never fully mapped. Harvey fashions the "middle distance" to be of immeasurable dimension — a place and simultaneously a creature — a field of play. In the opening poem, "Implications for Modern Life," we encounter the dismembered carcass which has become the whole of a city:

The ham flowers have veins and are rimmed in rind, each petal
a little meat sunset. I deny all connection with the ham flowers, the
barge floating by loaded with lard, the white flagstones like platelets
in the blood-red road. I’ll put the calves in coats so the ravens can’t
gore them, bandage up the cut gate and when the wind rustles its muscles.
I’ll gather the seeds and burn them. But then I see a horse
lying on the side of the road and think You are sleeping, you are sleep-
ing, I will make you be sleeping.
But if I didn’t make the ham flow-
ers, how can I make him get up? I made the ham flowers. Get up,
dear animal. Here is your pasture flecked with pink, your oily river,
your bleeding barn. Decide what to look at and how. If you lower
your lashes, the blood looks like mud. If you stay, I will find you
fresh hay.

This is a post-surreal landscape that stares back to us [a memento mori]. In this poem, flesh/viscera is the base of all materiality — it is also a ghost town that is never completely abandoned, but swells the fibers of each page. In Harvey’s apocalyptic vision, skin serves as intimate reminder of death. A death we are told from the first page, we have made just like we make the ham flowers and the fallen horse.

In Harvey’s narrative, language functions like instinct — an intuition coiled within the driven vocations of words and sounds. The sentences are like lines of vision, or perhaps lineages. Like the photograph of the Mahjong pieces taken by Harvey that appear on the cover of Modern Life, one thinks of dominos falling, a kind of tag-you’re-it effect which drives one image into the next.

To enter this visceral game one must accept a new line of vision [or perhaps a new lifeline]. Harvey generously offers us a chance to envision the gaps in the larger matrix of language. For the reader, the effect of such a [very serious] game is to have the opportunity to revivify the ways we envision “modern life”. It should be said that this game is musical. Within the field of the page, a reader’s vision jumps between asymmetrical octaves — Harvey plucks the chords which unite subject and spectator and the reverberations redefine the contours of "Other."

In this book the hybrid is a paradigm of hope, but like every contraption it is riddled with implications. Harvey offers these implications up for our own ruminations. What, for instance, separates me [spectator] from the subject [the fallen horse]? Are we not already one? Is the dichotomy of animal and beast less defined than I imagine? In the dark of such questions I am reminded that Harvey says, "If you lower your lashes, the blood looks like mud." Hybrids of the sort we encounter in Modern Life are located, always, just beyond the page — a slippery domain where they, as creatures, also question us: “How can we divide in two what is always in a state of becoming?” (Edmond Jabès)

Modern Life is an inventory or assemblage from "the middle distance." As a text, it exists as a state of becoming. Harvey’s words assume every silence of her page — words as signs which guard against a nothingness. As a result, Modern Life is a deep luminescence, an archive of the creative gestures that locate us in the strangeness of life.

Nan Burton lives and works in Denver. She has work forthcoming in Trick House.