Modern Life

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

One might say Matthea Harvey comes from the Enchanted School of poets. Her first two books, the catchily and somewhat preciously titled Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000) and Sad Little Breathing Machine (2004), are easily traced to that pack of largely Iowa and Iowalike M.F.A.-ers (indeed Harvey’s pedigree) who privilege language play and the search for the sublime over the immediate, visceral images of real life. With her third collection, the refreshingly two-word-titled Modern Times, Harvey breaks away from that school, and establishes herself as someone poised to enter the center ring of American poets.

Each piece in Modern Times—whether it’s a prose poem or almost-blank verse—creates an alternate universe of its own. In the deeply metaphorical “Your Own Personal Sunshine,” a grumpy speaker blurts out, “Where was my taxidermist version of the world?,” and finally tells the “basketball-sized yolk” of the sun, “Let it feel like everyone else.”

If that sounds a bit goofy, it’s because it is. In Samuel Coleridge’s division of “imagination” and “fancy,” Harvey falls in the latter camp. It’s one that the Romantic famously held in lesser regard, with its reliance on wit and fantasia rather than an organizing image or principle. But Harvey does fantasia so well it renders that dictum moot. Two series at the literal and spiritual center of the book, “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future,” strike a balance of enchantment with direct statement. “[W]e were homonyms away from / understanding each other,” Harvey writes here, “like halve / and have, like ‘let me hold you’ and ‘I hold you responsible.’ ” These sections are witty, sure, but they’re also nothing short of blazingly original.

—Daniel Nester

By Matthea Harvey. Graywolf, $14 paperback.