October 5, 2009

Review by Greg Weiss

MODERN LIFE
by Matthea Harvey

Graywolf Press
2402 University Avenue, Suite 203
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55114
ISBN 978-1-55597-480-0
2007, 80pp., $14.00
www.graywolfpress.org

Modern Life is distinctive, intelligent, and well-written, but something is missing from it. In his back-jacket blurb, George Saunders writes: “Matthea Harvey’s vision of America is spooky, apocalyptic, and beautiful: proof that there is wonder in even a dark time like ours.” I don’t disagree with Saunders aside from his implication that these times are uniquely dark, but it’s striking that his endorsement of Harvey amounts to little more than her literally having an interesting point of view. His use of “wonder” demonstrates that by “vision,” he does not mean “conception,” but rather the act of seeing, which is unique for Harvey because the relationship between her and what she sees is not as stale as it is for most people. But an interesting viewpoint is noteworthy not for its mere existence but for what it allows its owner to see and, in the writer’s case especially, report to others. But for Saunders and other effusive reviewers, Harvey’s viewpoint seems only to report that Harvey has an interesting viewpoint.

What I mean to say is, there is no there in Modern Life.

The poems in the book may be separated into three categories: (1) abedecarian-esque prose-poems, (2) under twenty-five words, and (3) more than twenty-five words but still short and with line-breaks. Because (1) is the meat of Modern Life, I’ll address (2) and (3) first.

“Out of Order,” which is an example of (2), is my favorite poem in Modern Life:

Today it’s about truth and hope
and there are no ha-ha’s
between me and the living.
World, I’m no one
to complain about you.

Unfortunately, “Out of Order” is the exception, which I assume is what Harvey meant by the title, albeit differently. Two more typical examples of (2)s:

A THEORY OF GENERATIONS

You’re it.
You’re it.
You’re it.

YOU HAVE MY EYES

Give them back.

The (3)s are underwhelming but inoffensive, and heavy on wordplay. They, like the (2)s, are insignificant to the book as a whole, but here’s an example:

SET YOUR SIGHTS

“Let your fur-hood soften
the periphery,” says the psychiatrist.

When that doesn’t work,
he gives me the snowgoggles. Split

second, split minute—he’s taken
my ogle, the angle I was working:

180o of the igloo and the snowshoe strut.
Listening quiet the glistening,

slits line things up.
So this is focus. Fine.

Fine.

But the three series of prose-poems—“The Future of Terror,” “Terror of the Future,” and “Robo-Boy” —are the heart of Modern Life, which owes its critical acclaim to their alleged topicality even though they only mildly update 1984. The vast majority of these poems work a semi-offbeat metaphor out much more literally and for longer than you would have expected, which can be interesting but tends to resemble itself after awhile. Their social commentary is glib, obvious, and heavy-handed. Harvey is extremely talented, but poems like “[ ]”, which asserts the badness of naming things—get it?—lead me to believe that Modern Life is primarily notable as a chapter in Harvey’s development:

A child glanced up at her father and they named that “Buttercup.”
The stripes on the road (not the new ones but the ones the wheels
had worn away) they named “Ghost Morse Code.” They named the
difference between a photograph of a red barn and a photo-realist
painting of the same red barn, “One-Minute-Past-the-Hour.” They
left no stone unturned, naming the rock’s light gray belly, the smears
of soil that stuck to it, the indentation left behind in the ground. Even
the damp smell of centipedes warranted a word. The Naming Books
were stored in warehouses across the country at exactly 64 degrees.
There wasn’t much that wasn’t in them, a nation of Adams fling-
ing names across the land had seen to that. Some people rebelled
and there was a name for that too. Somewhere there was one hotel
with no name, no sign and no list of guests. If you managed to find
it, you might come upon a crowd huddled around a group of wait-
ers who were flinging water at vents expelling such icy-cold air that
the water would freeze in a random and unclassifiable manner, then
melt as quickly as it had frozen. On a row of long tables with bowls of
something that was neither sauce nor soup and outside the window,
a bonfire of pink letter paper.

I quote “[ ]” in its entirety because of the uniformity of Harvey’s prose-poems; if you’ve read this one, you’ve read them all. And, to finish on a note of snarkiness, why don’t they name the way the water freezes “Random and Unclassifiable Manner”?

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Greg Weiss’s poems and reviews have previously appeared or are forthcoming in Now Culture, The Columbia Review, The South Carolina Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Margie Review, Rattle, The Southern Poetry Anthology: Mississippi, Luna Park, and others. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi.