True story: A teenager saw me with Matthea Harvey's new book of poems as I sat with it in a café and asked if she could look at it. She was the scowly sort, angry tattoo on her shoulder, who I thought was going to ask me if I had a cigarette; not, offhand, the type who maybe cares much about modern American poetry.
I do, though, and if you care about modern American poetry you care about Matthea Harvey. Her first collection, "Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form," put us all on notice, first with its name — still holding the crown for Most Delicious Poetry Collection Title to Say Out Loud, despite challengers like "Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread" and "Ooga-Booga" — and then with its cheerful, almost reckless breadth. Many of the poems, including the long title one, are free of punctuation, leaving you to decide when to take a breath; then you turn the page and there's something easier to get a grip on. It's a spiky, tangly book — no wonder that one of the best poems was called "In Defense of Our Overgrown Garden" — and a debut that says not just this is what I'm doing but you'd better get ready for it.
Since then she has taken us every which place, from collections like "Modern Life," which concocted poems by "making lists of the words in the dictionary between 'future' and 'terror,'" to her charming, bonkers books for children, which juxtapose her texts with similarly odd and imaginative art.
Her new book is awash with these layouts — flip through the pages and you see photographs, drawings and assorted whatnot, just the sort of thing that catches your eye in a café.
The book is called "If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?," already off-kilter with the missing comma after "True" crowding those other words together so we slow down and think about them. Then we think about mermaids — the book starts with a handful of prose poems called "The Straightforward Mermaid," "The Objectified Mermaid" and so forth, paired with silhouettes made, as with all images in the book, by the poet, depicting creatures that are half woman and half household appliance, such as hammer, surge protector and gun. Both image and text look askance at the narrative of a typical mermaid; rather than slinky, aquatic male fantasies, these beings are textured with the grit of real life:
"The one time he brought her fries — delicious fries — she took them as if in a trance, and dipped them, two at a time into the ketchup. The shared memory sprang to both their faces — two severed legs, blood everywhere, and his hand gripping the saw." It's a startling image, made more startling by that "delicious fries" interruption, and it's juxtaposed with a half-woman half-wrench silhouette, which is striking, not only by itself but because the poem begins, "The Homemade Mermaid is top half pimply teenager, bottom half tuna." It may be that the illustration casts doubt on the text, and vice versa; it also looks like maybe they just put two things next to each other, and that's that.
The collection has some wilder flourishes — Harvey whites out a few pages of a Ray Bradbury book, and there's a section of nothing but photographs of toys frozen in ice — but for the most part the book is more conventional, each poem laid alongside a photograph that more or less directly corresponds, i.e. the Elvis poem has a photograph of some Elvis dolls. As with picture books, it's tricky to get the balance right; an honest-to-goodness sonnet, "Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare," begins, "I've taken many forms over the years." Already funny. I am picturing it. Do I need a picture of a Michelin Man?
This is a question I keep chewing over with this book. A long poem, "Inside the Glass Factory," has photographs of bottles alongside each stanza. When the girl factory-workers of the poem "are all having/the same idea at the same time — /to make a girl out of glass," suddenly the wallpaper becomes foreground, and the shapes of the bottles become shapelier; it's a terrific moment. But then there's the long piece that closes the collection, concerning a mostly forgotten Italian inventor, in which the scripty texts scramble with some hand-stitched illustrations. It lost me completely; even as I stared, fascinated, I didn't know where we were.
So I let someone else take a look. The teenager took awhile, and I watched her with the photographic interludes, the silhouettes, and thought of my favorite poem in the book, "When the Water Is at Our Ankles," which begins with an invitation, teen-like, to sneak out at night:
Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I'll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we'll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two.
The river's a baby, it's a toddler, it's grown.
"This," swear to God she said to me, "is the coolest book in the world."
And there you go. This is where Matthea Harvey is, reaching out to the page-flippers and the inked, without turning her back on the grown forms and the choices that make wonderful poetry so wonderful to behold. Take a picture; make one. This is where we are.
Handler's new book as Lemony Snicket, "Shouldn't You Be In School?," will be published in September.
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Poems and Images
Graywolf: 160 pp., $25 paper