Title:Poets without borders Author(s):Cynthia Hogue Source:The Women's Review of Books. 10.

8 (May 2001): p15. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type:Book review Bookmark:Bookmark this Document

Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2000, 67 pp., $11.95 paper. Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2000, 58 pp., $12.95 paper. Within the vastly dissimilar aesthetic projects that characterize Matthea Harvey's and Natasha Trethewey's prizewinning debut collections, there are a few points at which the two collections resonate together. Both open avenues of dialogue between poetry and art by investigating and contemplating the issues that representation raises: how do we represent what we see? How do we accurately and respectfully represent another? Both Harvey and Trethewey already have distinctive and mature voices. Both locate themselves in relation to one tradition or another: in Harvey's case, to the twentieth-century avant-garde; in Trethewey's, to the Harlem Renaissance. Their relationship to such formal traditions is where the two diverge: Harvey is seeking formally to write an innovative, postmodernist poetry, whereas Trethewey situates her poetry formally and linguistically in relation to African American history and Anglo-American literary tradition. But both collections reach beyond such descriptive frameworks. Harvey wrote Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form with postmodernism in mind: many of the poems are written in meaningful fragments and respond to current debates about poetry. Discussing such debates in a recent issue of the literary journal Fence, poet and critic Juliana Spahr suggests that emerging writers of her generation advocate a poetics of "joining," by which she means the tendency to disregard the aesthetic boundaries of various poetic schools. Harvey is a good example of this generation. One of her predominant themes is the self's perception of the world and the representation of self, and her poems strikingly negotiate this theme through style and form as well as content. Hers may seem a difficult poetry to many readers, so let me begin by describing Harvey's use of form in more detail. Many of the poems resemble prose poems in shape and often read like "exquisite corpse" exercises (a surrealist technique of

disrupting narrative: different people each write a line of a poem without knowing what the others have written). Lines are usually long and unvaried in length, there are rarely formal stanza breaks and there is often no use of punctuation. There are some interesting exceptions. "The Illuminated Manuscript," for example, is formatted according to the illumination being described: monoscenes are comprised of single, block stanzas, while diptychs or triptychs are split into two or three parallel parts, in which case the word columns can be read both horizontally and vertically. But in most of the poems the reader is compelled forward with logical but not typographical pauses. A section from the opening, prefatory poem, "Translation," illustrates Harvey's main method: They see a bird that is bright in both beak and feather And call it cardinal not thinking to import the human Kind words welcome those who stumble to shore With the tilt of the sea still in their step salt stains At their hems that seem to map out coastlines left far Behind the new songs are the old absurd hopes A woman wiping the table sings bring me plans And money or fans and honey each word more Nothing is quite the same here a woman writes a letter Near the lighthouse but the fog is so thick the words Run as she writes them for a moment she can't tell The sea spray from the fog one falls back the other stays Suspended between two houses in the distance is a Clothesline with a red shirt on it but she sees a bird (p. x) Who are the "they" who first see a cardinal? What is their relation to the woman wiping the table or the woman writing a letter, who observes a clothesline but "sees a bird"? Questions about the poem's narrative coherence are clearly beside the point, for the poem is up to something else. This is a poem about how

we humans perceive, how we invariably (mis)represent the phenomenological world and ourselves. The poem opens with seeing a bird and closes with a woman writing (surely a figure for the poet) near a lighthouse. Words and visual images run together in the scene as if in fusion through the processes of the brain's circuitry. They run together in the poem as well: we can't always "tell" form from content (or vice versa). Another poem that explores thisfusion method is aptly titled "Lessons in Seeing," a poem in three subtitled sections. The first section, "Examination," opens with a little girl's eye exam, during which she sees an E not as a letter but as an image. In response to the doctor's instructions to read what she sees, she tells him what she perceives as an object: .... comb coming down Comb going up and two kinds of comb Distracted the optometrist fusses with different lenses And reaches behind her to stop the machine's Humming he measures her head her eyes and the space Between her braids her white parting looks like a chalk Path carved out of a brown hill in the part of England He grew up in.... (p. 46) The girl is reading the letter E but seeing a comb in different positions. The doctor is analyzing her sight but in looking at the part between her braids, he is seeing in his mind's eye a path he walked as a child. The mind thinks associatively in and through images, the real thing morphing into the remembered scene. As the doctor recalls toward the end of the poem: "Clarity is for reading not for seeing a painter once sternly said."

In Part Two, "Trompe L'Oeil," an artist makes a living by painting exact replicas of oriental rugs on the floors of the affluent (her original idea had been "to transform concrete walls into airy windows"). As she defines it, trompe l'oeil "tells two stories this is what it means to fool the eye to / Fool the eye into seeing what-is there behind and beyond." Seeing accurately, as this poem ironically proposes, can be foiled by what is seen, just as the clarity needed for the act of reading can be complicated by what is read. If there is a caveat in my high regard for Harvey's collection, it is in the nature of what is not there, not what is there, about which I have a delighted appreciation. I don't want to belabor the point, but given that it goes to the heart of the difference between these two poetic projects, let me explain by contrast. I quoted a line from Harvey's "Lessons in Seeing"--"Between her braids her white parting looks like a chalk"--without comment. The girl's race is denoted as natural, almost unnoticeable (how many of us white readers, in fact, noticed?), Compare this line, with its casual mention of "white parting," to the opening of "Flounder" in Natasha Trethewey's Domestic Work: Here, she said, put this on your head. She handed me a hat. You 'bout as white as your dad, and you gone stay like that. (p. 35) In Trethewey's poem, not noticing race is a luxury that neither Aunt Sugar nor her niece enjoy. White is not an unconscious norm but a conscious ideal, a precious possession that Aunt Sugar strives to teach the child of mixed-race heritage to protect in the same way as she teaches the child to fish: This is how you hold the pole to cast the line out straight. Now put that worm on your book, throw it out and wait. When Aunt Sugar catches a flounder, the child watches her, fascinated on a number of levels: She sat spitting tobacco juice into a coffee cup. Hunkered down when she felt the bite, jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish that wriggled and tried to fight back. A flounder, she said, and you can tell 'cause one of its sides is black. The other side is white, she said. It landed with a thump. I stood there watching that fish flip-flop, switch sides with every jump. (pp. 35-36) Just as the poem's language switches effortlessly between "black" vernacular to "white" English, so we surmise that the child will find herself flip-flopping between the absolutes of white and black as she grows up: she will literally and figuratively flounder to breathe. In this poem, white and black have, by implication, everything to do with how both aunt and child are socially positioned. The aunt's handing the child a hat to protect her face suggests that the aunt foresees what the child will discover: that she will go back and forth between privilege (because she is nearly white) and prejudice (because she is not white). The rhymed quatrains are utterly apt, a traditional form in Anglo-American poetry that Trethewey has critically and semantically recontextualized. Half the volume is made up of well turned, autobiographical poems like "Flounder"; two for the poet's white father, "Mythmaker" and "Amateur Fighter," and two for her dead mother, "Family Portrait" and "Saturday Drive," are particularly poignant. But the distinctive center of this collection, to my mind, is the title series of poems from photo graphs by Clifton Johnson of working class black women in New Orleans and Mississippi at the turn of the last century. In "Wash Women," The eyes of eight women I don't know stare out from this photograph saying remember. Hung against these white walls, their dark faces, common as ones I've known, stand out like some distant Monday I've only heard about. (p. 8) These women could be the speaker's grandmother and her sisters. The speaker could be observing a moment that captured the history of labor and survival in her mother's family. Beyond the photograph's frame, the speaker-observer can

hear the women's laughter, imagine them taking a streetcar to the movie house, or crocheting by a window. She listens as one of the women, so like her grandmother, croon hymns. But within the photographer's framing of them, women do not smile, their lips a steady line connecting each quiet face. They walk the road toward home, a week's worth of take-in laundry balanced on their heads lightly as church hats. Shaded by their loads, they do not squint, their ready gaze through him, to me, straight ahead. (p. 9) Like the photographer, Trethewey captures the women's quietly defiant pragmatism (it only looks like resignation), while at the same time sketching in deft strokes the lived richness of their lives, however imaginary the small joys. Likewise imagined is the inner life of a female elevator operator. She reads the moles on the hands of her passengers, the itching of her own palms and an eye twitching as signs of a change in her for tunes, for "she's tired of the elevator switch,// those closed-in spaces, white men's/ sideways stares." But what she imagines as a "boon" is eloquently telling of the limits of her circumscribed world: What's to be gained from this New Deal? Something finer like beauty school or a milliner's shop--she loves the feel of marcelled hair, felt and tulle, not this all day standing around, not that elevator lurching up, then down. (p.14)

Trethewey's use of form--here, another poem in rhymed quatrains (there are superb sonnets as well)--is trenchant. The honed, spare quality of the quatrain above, with its scheme of perfect and slant rhymes (Deal, school, feel, tulle) is as full of music and longing for a dream deferred as a blues lyric or a hymn. And in that resonant ending on "down," we feel the augur of the girl's fate, and the hopes and dreams that may come to naught but sustain her nonetheless. If I am deeply moved by poem after poem in Trethewey's collection, I am not unmoved by Harvey's poetry, albeit often for a beauty of expression that is untranslatable into prose English. Yet even though I think I understand every word of Trethewey's poetry, because it seems more obviously accessible, I know that there are aspects of the lived experience of growing up as a person of color in this country to which I am blind because I grew up white. I see the word, but like Harvey's oriental carpet painter, it tells two stories. While I nudge Harvey for her apparent universalizing color-blindness, I admire the ambitiousness of the poetry, its abstract and lyric breadth. Trethewey's vision, steeped as it is in a genuinely tragic sensibility culled from personal and racial history, has a depth of compassion that is hard-won. I admire the ambitious plumbing of those histories, that depth. These collections together demand that the traditions with which they are in dialogue move over and make room for them. As such, they constitute what I do not hesitate to call equally admirable, even stunning debuts by two serious--and seriously talented--poets. CYNTHIA HOGUE has published three collections of poetry, most recently The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999), and has co-edited an anthology of essays on women's avant-garde writing, We Who Love To Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics (University of Alabama Press, forthcoming 2001). Her new poetry collection is entitled Flux (New Issues Press, forthcoming 2002). She lives in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches English at Bucknell University.
Source Citation Hogue, Cynthia. "Poets without borders." The Women's Review of Books May 2001: 15. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Apr. 2010. Document URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CA74942184&v=2.1&u=phoe84216&it=r&p=LitR C&sw=w

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