Reviewed by Catherine Daly

Matthea Harvey
Alice James Books, 2000
ISBN 1-882295-26-9
$11.95 paper

The last word in the title of Matthea Harvey's first book is "form," yet the poems most noticeably employ devices to present their content. The poems are visibly similar to one another: Harvey uses little punctuation, which flattens tone; she uses italic to add emphasis back; lines are long. Lines in any given poem have a consistent visual length; breaks are not determined by syllable or stress.
The most obvious devices she uses are syntactic doubling and ampersands. While Alice Fulton uses syntactic doubling to focus attention on phrases which are grammatically ambiguous, Harvey uses the device in twelve poems, including the first poem in the collection, a false translator's note, and the second poem, the title poem, to emphasize lineation. Where the doubling occurs, a line of a poem is completed by the first word or phrase in the following line, while the following line remains a discrete syntactical unit. She signals the use of doubling by capitalizing the initial letter of all words at the left margin of poems using it. Thus, in the third section of the title poem, where it contains the poem and book title:
Pity the bathtub its forced embrace of the human
Form may define external appearance but there is room
For improvement within try a soap dish that allows for
Slippage is inevitable...
("Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form" 4)
The reader is forced to pause and consider the first word or phrase twice. "Slippage" is not slippage in the psychological or surreal sense, where the less-than-conscious is unintentionally revealed. Instead, this "slippage" device forces the reader to connect fragments which might not ordinarily be associated while at the same time it reinforces the line as a unit. A further difference from surrealism would be from the poem "More Sketches for a Beautiful Hat," where Harvey describes a series of decidedly Schiaparelli-esque hats, that is, surrealist art chapeaux. She conjures the decorative objects in order to consider the quality of being beautiful and ways to write realism into a poem. Her version of not Marianne Moore's tricorn but Moore's definition of an imaginary garden with real toads in it would be, "tiny tin gutters would be gauche, / pathetically mimetic." She goes on to reject life size bird wings put to another use and to claim drowning (in debt) an inspiration. Harvey is not writing a stream of consciousness where fragments trigger further images or epiphanies so much as unleashing a stream of rich language and unnecessary detail to surround her "absent" subject, form in poetry.
Her detail is notably rich, but, as she writes in the first poem, "Translation," "... bring me plans / And money or fans and honey each word more / Strange..." the names of the details, satin couches, horsehair sofas, lipstick colors, lentils, and brushwork techniques, many strangely appropriate to both mitteleuropa and the midwest, are decidedly secondary to her consideration of "the subject" these details hold or bear, or which "the subject" defines itself against. She writes, "I'm avoiding / the subject." Her series of self-portrait poems continually notes what is absent from the picture, or what pictures cannot contain. In her series of "ceilings" toward the end of the collection, the narrative "I" seems more closely identified with the author than in other poems, and more feeling leaches through artifice, but Harvey notes, "I've waited years for the xerox flash", "I don't have the others' / oracular bones", "All those useless lists", and "The pigeon is random / not a sign", rejecting first one, then another ars poetica.
While using baths and bathtubs, sofas and couches, odd almost-containers, Harvey proves a frustration with form and lineation. In "The Gem is on Page Sixty-Four" (on p. 41 of the book), she writes of a society where vague received "rules" deny beauty affect and art, aesthetic transfer of emotion. These impossible laws are thwarted by a primitive sign system, where children exchange "Beauty Cards listing what page & book to look in".
In this book, Matthea Harvey provides prose poems which could be lineated, and lineated poems which could be prose. She doesn't break rules of punctuation: she doesn't use it in certain poems. She offers the ampersand, a former letter, and a device. But though some of the devices described in the poems and the devices employed in the poems dampen the otherwise rich sonic effects and tone of her language, they cannot thwart Harvey's lyricism.

e-mail the writer at
info on the writer
to go back to the home page