September 2, 2014 | by Stephen Burt
Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.
Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”
Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?
I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!
This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?
Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough. Read More »