IN HER THIRD collection, Modern Life, Matthea Harvey builds on the bizarre, alternate-worldly observations that charmed readers of her first two volumes. The vast majority of the book comprises prose poems and a sprawling pair of post-post-9/11 sequences—“The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future”—that attempt to breathe new life into the jejune abecedarian. While Harvey’s earlier work relies (perhaps a bit heavily) on thumb-trick enjambments and that concise lyric catchall, the couplet, Modern Life often succumbs to formal and thematic excess, unraveling too many of its playful tropes past the point of seduction.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that here we find Harvey’s been led by Roger Rabbit into Toontown to visit the various existences of: a man who works the nightshift at the Empty Pet Factory, a navel-gazing centaur, cavemen, a restaurant full of malcontent moons to whom “a plate of dumplings can start to look like a solar system,” and a friendless automaton named Robo-Boy.
The last of these, a kind of Pinocchio of Tomorrow, grows up identifying with the likes of Mister Peanut, Aunt Jemima, and the Michelin Man, though “he has never known quite what to do with them.” Among his life’s many limitations, as Robo-Boy discovers trying to be fingerprinted at the DMV, is his lack of fingerprints. The driver’s application asks:
Is there a reason the subject cannot be fingerprinted? An amputee? Current injury? Other, please explain . . . And so Robo-Boy falls under the category of ‘other’ again.
Otherness, in case it isn’t obvious, is the book’s prevailing theme, and, in Robo-Boy’s case, does yield some tender moments, as when our alloyed hero searches his memory-banks for the moment he met his human mother and father:
In his first real memory (a whispered, “Honey, should we know how to turn him off, just in case?”) their faces ripple like ponds disturbed by giant fish fighting beneath the surface before they settle into twin grins.
The short series of Robo-Boy poems leads us through a few of his life’s defining moments, most charmingly when Robo-Boy hits puberty and a sudden magnetism sets in: “the stop signs bending towards him, the rings in the jewelry store pressing their sparkling noses to the glass, the grinning bracelets.” But with his “miniature traffic light eyes” and unprintable fingers picking “at his wrist with his fingernail . . . until a bit of beige flakes off and he can see his silver undercoat glinting through,” Robo-Boy is too stunted in preciousness. Perhaps because of its brevity, the series—pregnant with book-length allegorical potential—feels underdeveloped. Moreover, Harvey’s omniscient narrator is so infantilizing that one can’t help but wonder if an illustrated edition of the life of Robo-Boy isn’t in the works.
A subcategory of Modern Life’s obsession with otherness is the attention it pays to beings of a split nature, whose numbers include, in addition to Robo-Boy, a mix-and-match menagerie we first encounter in “How We Learned to Hold Hands,” which begins:
We halved them because we could. It turned out anything with four legs could wobble along on two, anything with two could hop along on one. Leopards. Horses. Kangaroos. Front, back, it didn’t matter. Mostly it was teenagers with their parents’ Christmas knives who did the cutting. No one knew where the Keepers came from, but they favored covered wagons with billowing sheets tucked in at the edges, puckering like a healing wound . . . At first they hid the hybrids from us.
After the haunting turn taken when the mysterious “Keepers” show up to mongrelize these animal parts into things like a “catgoat,” the poem ends flatly with “cat wanting to see its cat reflection, goat wanting to see goat.”
The halving motif continues in “You Know This Too,” which features a wistful, ambivalent centaur sitting in a restaurant, and the image-rich “Museum of the Middle,” in which an incidental journey to the earth’s core takes us past “a tapestry (2' x 48") charting the rise and fall of the middle class” and paintings whose “foreground and background have been blacked out, leaving fragments of fields, flagstones, the occasional midsized sheep.”
But despite the interesting imagery with which their scenes are set, ultimately the Robo-Boys, centaurs, catgoats, and all the rest of the “middle class” (get it?) crumble under the weight of their own representative value. The conclusions Harvey would have us draw from these dissections don’t surpass the childlike curiosity that prompted them: “We halved them because we could.” Harvey is content to brow-beat us with these conflicts of psychological ambiguity, of perpetual dissatisfaction and the sense of apathy that affects a (half)man’s search for purpose and meaning, to say something about us, about—you guessed it—modern life.
These ideas are never more painfully hammered home than in the book’s penultimate poem, “Strawberry on the Drawbridge,” which calls to mind Stevens’ consideration of a jar in Tennessee. Here the speaker, experimenting with the fission of fruit, places a jar over a strawberry planted at the center of a drawbridge and cranks the lever to see what happens:
The bridge groaned and began to open. Some of the roots went to the left, some to the right. The bell jar wobbled, then toppled into the water with a celebratory splash. Soil sifted into the river. And the strawberry hung there, suspended between its two sets of roots and stems like an atom in a science experiment. First the skin, with its little grainy seeds strained, then split. Then as the fleshy part broke open, I could see the pale V of its interior and when that split too, the words finally separated into straw and berry and draw and bridge, and like recombinant DNA, formed new ones. Strawbridge. Drawberry. In the world they conjured the straw bridges were sharp and shiny, too delicate to cross, and there in the berry patches were the artists, islanded at their easels.
Finally, it’s the language itself that gets the halving treatment, crossing the symbolic and mnemonic to produce the moronic.
About halfway through Modern Life, the prose poems exit and the aforementioned twin sequences, “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future,” step in. Each is a series of eleven numerically subtitled, loosely abecedarian poems, on average 30 lines apiece, in tri-, tetra-, and pentameter. Their shared setting is a surreal, pervasively militaristic American future, in which the speaker navigates the madness with her “sweetie.”
Apparently worried that readers will bring to these poems their preconceived notions of the abecedarian (generally considered a mnemonic exercise for children), Harvey slips into the Notes section the following explanation:
The poems “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” were inspired by making lists of the words in the dictionary between “future” and “terror.” They are not strict abecedarian poems because they are not acrostics, but they do mimic the abecedarius’s alphabetical footsteps. The words “future” and “terror” act like “A” and “B”—they were the markers that mattered.
To put it another way, anything palatable in the lexicon’s midsection is fair game, not excluding, one supposes, the words “kitchen” and “sink.” And Harvey certainly has gathered and deployed quite a vast selection. The first poem begins:
The generalissimo’s glands directed him
to and fro. Geronimo! said the über-goon
we called God, and we were off to the races.
Never mind that we could only grow
gray 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.
Poem after poem is driven by the same breakneck, rambunctious alliteration, like the military barrage that looms in this state of perpetual wartime. Still gonzo for the letter G, another one begins:
We got most of our gear from
an abandoned general store—gnat spray
for our serious sojourns under the gumtrees,
seed for the garden warblers in case
they ever sing again. Out of glass blocks
we built a glorious latrine which we meant
to show the governor when he arrived . . .
Taken one at a time, these poems strike the eye, and the ear, as lively and attention-grabbing, the result of an obsession for wringing from language every possible mellifluous word. But it’s exactly this “wow factor” that undercuts the series. The alliterative repetition is at times so cloyingly loud that it usurps the otherwise Strangelovean tone of the whole adventure. Furthermore, the alphabetical accumulation annihilates any attempt at actual ardor and/or affection, even as “Terror of the Future” approaches its would-be poignant conclusion, when the two lovers begin to console each other:
Your breath was sweet like swamp azaleas.
You weren’t going to survive this—none of us
were—but who signed me up to stroke your hand
while the stratocumulus gathered sullenly in the sky?
S.O.S., I repeated quietly as I made you a soft-boiled egg . . .
Despite their flaws, these poems do possess a good deal of charm, and in many respects Harvey has managed to give the traditional abecedarian a new face. One might expect a project of such ambitious scale to either make or break a book, but here, it does neither. Surrounded as it is by other poems that are likewise too taken with themselves, with their own clever peculiarities, to be taken seriously, they struggle—and fail—to transcend the merely playful. Modern Life is plagued by the irony it pretends to explore: after arts and crafts with animals and robots add up to ennui, after America finds itself suspended inextricably between “terror” and the “future,” it’s easy to identify with that centaur who, weary of sitting, just wants to “go outside and put his head in the grass.”