Modern Life

Matthea Harvey

Graywolf Press

Matthea Harvey has published three full-length collections of poetry since 2000. Each book showcases a number of Harvey 's creative experiments, resulting in an overall sense of absurdity and strangeness. Most would correctly label her a surrealist. Modern Life begins with a ham flower and ends with a series of imperatives advising the reader on how to use scissors to help set the dinner table. The risks Harvey takes, however, are not for risk's sake alone. While her poems often feature the quality of showmanship, there's always a punch beyond the punch line. For instance, despite the book's comic brushstrokes, Harvey 's most recent collection offers no shortage of complex moral dilemmas.

One prose sequence tells the story of Robo-Boy, a kind of human prototype. Robo-Boy, we learn, has been both blessed and cursed to be created and assembled with some (not all) elements of ordinary human consciousness. For Robo-Boy, the result is simultaneously comic and tragic. However, after reading these seven poems, a question lingers: What, exactly, is Robo-Boy? Harvey never quite answers. Instead she crafts a fictional character who remains both human (“…his head tilts when the Flirt Program goes into effect, usually in the vicinity of a Cindy or a Carrie….”) and inhuman (“When Robo-Boy feels babyish, he has the option of really reverting.”). By doing so, the sequence reads, ironically, as a commentary on what's at the core of human nature, and not as a testament to the curiosities and curses of technology or a proselytizing examination of its consequences. In other words, should we really ask ourselves, “What, exactly, is Robo-Boy?” No, Harvey 's poems suggest. We should ask instead, “What, exactly, are we?”

Once we do, the character of Robo-Boy becomes a mirror by which we're allowed to examine ourselves, in particular our burdensome inability to maintain control over our most quintessential impulses and emotions. For instance, when Robo-Boy's family moves from one house to another, Robo-Boy struggles to reconcile where he's been with where he's going: “Robo-Boy has five emotions, HAPPY, SAD, ANGRY, CONFUSED, and CONTENT. When he switches from one to another his body makes the same sound his dad's Acura makes when shifting from first into second gear, second into third…..” Clearly, Robo-Boy's human emotions, restricted as they are by design, have begun to take their toll. However, it's what Robo-Boy does next, how his everyday dilemma also reveals other things at the core of human nature that's most telling. After all, Robo-Boy turns his dark experience into an opportunity for growth. Here's how the poem, and the sequence, concludes: “…in the new house, he starts the project, labeling them as he goes. For MELANCHOLY TINGED WITH SWEETNESS he soaks the sheet in gloppy gray paint, pastes on ripped photographs of factories and sprays the mess with Chanel No.5. For TEARS TURNING TO LAUGHTER he sprinkles the top half of the sheet with glitter and paints a baseline of blue. Tomorrow he will go on a walk with the sheets stowed in his backpack. He'll sit on a fence and look at the clouds, through exhilaration, hysteria, delight, despair.”

But the greatest and best poems of Harvey 's book can be found in the section entitled, “The Future of Terror,” where Harvey negotiates the impossible political and moral riddles of a post-9/11 world. The sequence (and its sister work, “Terror of the Future,” which comes later in the book) is Harvey 's most ambitious experiment to date and has also produced some of the most important poetry written in the last seven years. Here's how Harvey describes their impetus: “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.” Because of the nature of the experiment, Harvey 's word choices prove random and absurd (“generalissimo,” “intracranially,” “micromotions,” “nutmeats,” etc.), no doubt a purposeful embodiment of the current social and political moment. If art supposes to hold up a mirror to human experiences, the poems of “The Future of Terror” accomplish nothing less.

If art supposes to help us understand what we see in the mirror through critical analysis of the image before us, then the poems also accomplish such a goal. In fact, what's notable about these poems is, not only the jarring and unidentifiable sense of place established within them, but also the use of point of view, which feels intimate, despite the consistent use of the third person. Both characteristics allow creative space within the sequence. In one poem Harvey describes how the individuals of this society have survived:

We got most of our gear from
an abandoned general store–gnat spray
for our sojourns under the gumtrees,
seed for the garden warblers in case
they ever sang again.

Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Harvey 's sequence remains mute on the disaster at hand. The poems only offer clues as to what political strife has occurred, but because of the use of the third person, we feel an integral part of what's happening, even if we're not sure why. All of which makes it easier to laugh when we should:

Out of glass blocks
we built a glorious latrine which we meant
to show the governor when he arrived
with his hand on his heart, but for some reason
we hesitated.

On the other hand, a lack of definition defines the sense of place, as if Harvey has constructed a map made entirely of question marks:

We spun the globe to forget
our grievances. Greenland : gone.
The gulf, a blurry gouache.
We went on hayrides and watched
The gulls glide overhead....

Where are we again? Most hayrides do not occur with gulls nearby. Turkey hawks maybe. Or at least a heck of a lot of horseflies.

The temptation with surrealism is to not take it seriously, but that's never a factor here. These poems engage the most significant questions of our time: How can we live in a world where any fight for freedom cancels the notion of freedom itself? How can we seek direction from those in charge of us when they're not willing to show us where we need to go or express any willingness to help us get there? Does it make us complicit if we ignore even the mildest of atrocities, even when we don't really have to power to keep from happening? In fact, which is worse: ignorance or action? Not only do the eleven poems of “The Future of Terror” address these concerns, they also illustrate why Modern Life is a must read:

I don't know who took the first shot, but I know
that we all joined in. There was a wild spray of bullets,
along with whatever else we could find to throw.
When it crumbled we stamped on the ruins.
It felt great to tear something down again.

--Jay Robinson