Matthea Harvey, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (Alice James Books, 2000)
My crush on Matthea Harvey grows with each of her books I read. Pity the Bathtub… is her first collection, and it’s incredible. There’s so much wow factor here that I’m not sure quite where to begin. There are two basic types of poems here, so we’ll start there. The first type takes enjambment to its absurdist conclusion; this type of poem comprises about three-quarters of the book. The only thing to which I can compare them is Claude Simon’s unreadable novel Conducting Bodies. In prose, it was an awful experience to try and read; Conducting Bodies is a single two hundred fifty-six page sentence that doesn’t make one bloody bit of sense. In poetry, however, and with Harvey adding such niceties as punctuation and imagery, it works fabulously:
“Pity the bathtub that belongs to the queen its feet
Are bronze casts of the former queen’s feet its sheen
A sign of fretting is that an inferior stone shows through
Where the marble is worn away with industrious
Polishing the tub does not take long it is tiny some say
Because the queen does not want room for splashing…”
(–p. 3, from the title track)
Okay, that Apollinairian bit of grand guignol may have not been the best example of how she introduced punctuation into the form. But just listen to the way those words bounce and rattle, every one of them dripping with context. That’s crazy talk, right there.
The second type is more traditional, relying less on form and wordplay than on image and story. They’re just as good, a shade less striking for obvious reasons but just as accomplished, and let’s remember that this is a debut collection.
“Dear dust-ghost, the instructions don’t make
sense unless I sing them. If the bottom-most hem
is six feet from the ground, how do I get into this dress?
Bird ode: dark triangle feet in a wind-field.
Fifth Museum Poem: O swim on through.”
(–p. 57, from “Almost Anything”)
I totally stole “the instructions don’t make/sense unless I sing them” as a title for an upcoming XTerminal track. Not sure I can give you a more strident recommendation than that. I have loved, loved, loved every book of Matthea Harvey’s I have read so far—and this is the best of the lot. **** ½
For those of you who missed the reference in the photo caption.