Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Matthea Harvey's Modern Life and "The Future of Terror"

Matthea Harvey's latest book, the subtly titled Modern Life, is a bizarrerie of poems that evoke not only the surreal poetries of Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Nin Andrews, and David Berman, but also the host of fabular and visual arts of Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell, and others. Comic-melancholic, stranger than fiction, Harvey's Modern Life feels like a post 9/11 book; all of its landscapes, however fabular and cartoonish, invite all-to-real pressures of the "terror years." The two largest sequences, "The Future of Terror," and "The Terror of the Future," in fact, act as political and personal excavations of love in a time of uncertainty and dread. Both fragmented and incomplete abecedarians, these sequences confront our own subjective worry and inability to act. Consider the opening to "The Future of Terror (3)":
We wore gasmasks to cross the gap.
Goodnight, said the gravediggers, goodnight.
We looked heavenward but kept our hand
down when they asked for volunteers
so they simply helped themselves.
Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi...

The poem, with all its g's and h's here, has a loony quality that initially masks the sense of guilt about our own fears and inaction in the face of what has happened. Whether we are failing to volunteer either for war, or failing to protest, there are others who "help themselves." Thank you, Halliburton. (Last night, I was thinking again of Dick Cheney. Is it too ad hominem to suggest that a man who donates almost nothing of his immense personal fortune to charity is someone who does not believe in the common good, and should never be in elective office?)

Here's another poem, published in Tarpaulin Sky:
The Future of Terror / 3 by Matthea Harvey

The generalissimo's glands directed him
to and fro. Geronimo! said the ├╝ber-goon
we called God, and we were off to the races.
Never mind that we could only grow
grey things, that inspecting the horses' gums
in the gymnasium predicted a jagged
road ahead. We were tired of hard news—
it helped to turn down our hearing aids.
We could already all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there's an intimacy to invasion.
That much was true. When we got jaded
about joyrides, we could always play games
in the kitchen garden with the prisoners.
Jump the Gun, Fine Kettle of Fish and Kick
the Kidney were our favorites. The laws
the linguists thought up were particularly
lissome, full of magical loopholes that
spit out medals. When we ran out of room
on our uniforms, we pinned them to
our mourning bands, to our mops.
We had made the big time, but night nipped
at our heels. The navigator's needle swung
strangely, oscillating between the oilwells
and ask again later. We tried to pull ourselves
together by practicing quarterback sneaks
along the pylons, but the race to the ravine
was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.'s
and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight
of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.

Finally, from her interview in Tarpaulin Sky:
SS: In looking into the history of the word "terror"—at least as it is recorded in various etymological dictionaries—it is interesting to see that it seems to make linguistic history only when in reference to war atrocities or very naughty children. What does "terror" mean to you, and in what ways does it relate to the process of making poems?

MH: I think my initial response to the government's way of talking about terrorism was like that of a child. Even though intellectually I knew that the word "terrorism" was a label designed to inspire fear, nevertheless I still felt heart-stoppingly afraid whenever I heard phrases like "the future of terror" on the radio (which I've listened to every morning since 9/11). One day I decided to write a poem that would turn this vague phrase into something more specific. So I made a list of the words that appear in the dictionary between “future” and “terror” and from that list I wrote a poem called “The Future of Terror.” I had no idea when I wrote this poem that it would turn into a series, but after writing one I clearly had more to discover. I then thought of writing the “Terror of the Future” poems, which take the same terms but in reverse order. I didn’t set out to write political poems—it seems like I must have, but truthfully I felt I was following the words. When I look back on the list that sparked “The Future of Terror /3,” I can see that I unconsciously gravitated towards words like “generalissimo” and “mourning bands” and rejected some other delightful candidates like “outfox,” “pilaf,” and “palanquin.” The formal strategy allowed me to address things that I hadn’t found a way to express previously. That’s how the world of these poems—an apocalyptic future in which absolutely everyone is fucked, civilians and soldiers alike—came into being. The process was a strange one—I wouldn’t say it was imbued with terror exactly—more a mixture of adrenaline, sadness and dread. I cried when the “you” who appears as a lover in the “Terror of the Future” poems died, even though I was the one killing her. I really felt the words were leading me, and that gave the process an electrical charge. Like tangoing blindfolded amongst landmines.

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