September 18, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Matthea Harvey, Robot Children, and the Future of Terror

After hearing Matthea Harvey read in the jubilat/Jones Library reading series from her soon-to-be released new book, Modern Life, due in October from Graywolf, it is safe to say you should plan on purchasing it. If the reading was any indication, the book is funny, smart, and holds a spectrum of tones. One moment there’s a line that could be from the voice of a child–then one that sounds like Yeats, then something that could have been overheard on the bus to work, then something like a scientific explanation of a tacitly impossible occurrence. All that leaping around makes for some pretty lively poems.

Fittingly, then, the poems that Harvey read from the book ranged from very short jokes and lyrics, to series-length poems taking a larger section of the book. She spoke of her fascination with halves, and halving, in the book–reading poems about chimeras, and reading poems from a series about a robotic boy, who wonders whether he is more boy, or more robot. The confusion is tender, but funny too. For him, its a legitimate curiosity and a borderline concern. Somehow, listening to Harvey read the poems, you find yourself vaguely sympathizing. At least half of yourself. Maybe your robot half.

The poems are a good refresher on individuality. I’m not sure Harvey’s concerned at all with telling us how some bigger force has power over us (No Eros that shoots arrows at us, no unifying oppression we each suffer equally.) I’m not sure she’s interested in bigger connections–rather, the poems she read suggest the unique and temporal world, the collected and collaged world; not the self, but the many selves that all fit in one head. Not singular, plural. Not a moment distilled from the canon boom of objective significance, but a complex of truths, independent and significant, summing together. One line that stuck with me went something like this: “tapping their tail lights with teaspoons.” Instead of that canon shot, Harvey’s poems go for a spoon symphony, some with tivoli patterns pressed into their finery, some with bulbous serving-sized bass taps, some with the soprano-ly tink of sugar spoon. Of silver and of tin, from Ikea or from an antique store. More a chorus of teaspoons than a canon boom.

She also read from the central section of the book, two long poems called “The Future of Terror” and “The Terror of the Future.” Each is composed of words culled from the dictionary–in the first poem, sequentially from “future” to “terror,” and in the second, the same method in reverse. Many were published in advance of the book: find versions here and here. (See also Harvey’s website, with many clickable goodies.) Below is an interesting take from her on these poems in an interview she did with Tarpaulin Sky:

“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.”

Harvey also has a children’s book forthcoming from Soft Skull press, called The Little General and the Giant Snowflake.

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