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If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?: Poems and Artwork
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?: Poems and Artwork
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press, 2014
160 pp., 25.00

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Michael Robbins

Terminally Quirky

An exercise in the dominant period style.

Matthea Harvey is no plainspoken swooner over dusk-stippled fawns. She's one of the many water sprites who dance on the softer edges of poetic experimentation, flitting among disjointed phrases and zany images like a Looney Tunes highlight reel. This style has been hip for so long that it feels less trendy than ideological, the poetic equivalent of genetic determinism, predicated on a set of dubious assumptions that have become part of the background.

Harvey's endeavors in this addled mode are much acclaimed—2007's Modern Life received a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination amid rave reviews. If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is her fourth book, and her most ambitious. It's a collection not only of poems but of photographs, ice-cube sculptures, embroideries, and Kara Walker silhouettes. Harvey's usual procedure is to imagine some quirky conceit—what if I had a zebra for a son, what if Rhyme and Fragment and Free Verse were schoolchildren, what if new constellations appeared—and then spin out its associational corollaries.

Harvey can be a riotously inventive curator of menageries. "My Owl Other" ends with a characteristic unearthing of loss within a linguistic turn:

Yes, there's an owl in bowl, and no,
there's no bowl in owl, unless we count
the hollow in a willow left behind
when one flies away.

This is smart and strangely sad, its sonics suited to its sense, as though the relationship of signifier and signified were anything but arbitrary. Harvey's absurd premises require such precise telemetry to stay in the air. "Quick Make a Moat" describes a graceful arc from "Before the rain, only baseballs / and baby birds fell from the sky" to "the time before rain, when we never / woke to find the car in the driveway / suddenly effortlessly sparkling clean." "One Way" dreams the genealogy of directionality:

Where the first one came from,
we'll never know, but once it landed,
it did what arrows do—it pointed.

These little desacralized creation myths depend upon the attractive conceit that what we regard as an eternal feature of the landscape might be assigned a definite origin. Harvey's fancy runs amok in possibility.

But when the poems flop, they seem labored, their whimsy worn into cuteness. The opening sequence of prose poems about mermaids is representative of Harvey's madcap style at its slackest:

There's always another day. The Tired Mermaid grimaces, then sneezes. Another day is precisely the problem. It's time to get up. For a jolt of caffeine, she bites an electric eel, and the chill in her molars isn't much, but it's something.

You sense that Harvey could conjure mermaids all day long, but to what purpose? The joke—the legendary sea creatures are just slobs like us—isn't much, it's nothing.

Harvey's fables often lack surprise in this way, the relentless ingenuity become an end in itself, cleverness chasing its own finned tail:

This is not the FYI convention,
but I'll tell you about my inventions:
hors d'oeuvres served the next day
as jour d'après, flesh spackle for the cleft
of chin, my patented way to admit adultery:
Let Your Wife Know with Footsteps in Snow.

There's so little at stake, even the darkness feels staged. Elsewhere, a piece about Elvis figurines (Harvey calls them "Elvi" instead of "Elvises" for some reason) spins its wheels without ever gaining traction. The worst poem, a cod-Shakespearean sonnet called "Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare," appears to have been written by someone who thinks the most interesting facts about Shakespeare are his pointed shoes and his bells, though we're to imagine it as spoken in his voice:

I can feel his feet, but am not free
to leave this spot by the garage. I think
he feels a kind of love for the balloon
who bobs nearby. Each day he sees her sink
an inch. Though I want to tell him of the moon
and slippered feet in marble halls, these tires
at our waist are a mischief. I make believe
they are couplets of rubber, but barbed wire
would be more apt. It's very hard to breathe.

The rhythm is nominal, and there are no rhythmic pauses in which the rhymes might register—they fall inaudibly in the middle of sagging throwaway phrases. You could read it aloud and no one would ever notice the rhymes or even guess it was poetry. The allusion to Sonnet 130's "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head" merely reminds the reader how much music is missing.

"Telettrofono," a long piece about Antonio Meucci, who invented a kind of telephone before Bell, was "originally created as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett" but has been placed at the end of the book as though artistic context were a matter of indifference. It contains some nifty lines ("a sad little thud sonata. A dud étude"), but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, beholden as it is to predictable and self-indulgent principles of style (it's split up into sections with titles like "Preset Marine Telephone Mode (Mermaid Chorus)" and "Preset Verifiable Fact Mode").

Then there's the artwork. It's nice enough, but what's it doing here? When poetic multimedia succeed—from Blake's illustrated books to Anne Carson's Nox—verse and visuals are inseparable, their concerns too global for a single form. But this smorgasbord, like many similar contemporary productions, feels driven to blend genres because blending genres is what poets do now. It's all drive and no destination.

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is certainly better than most books of poetry you might read this year. It snaps with wit and cunning. But its adherence to the dominant period style keeps it from risking wonder and discovery. Byron found a "narrowness" in the Lake Poets and wished they would "change [their] lakes for ocean." For all her mermaids, Harvey's oceanic visions remain lake-deep.

Michael Robbins is the author of two books of poetry: Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, both published by Penguin. He teaches creative writing at Montclair State University.

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