‘If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?’ by Matthea Harvey
“I don’t want to talk about that fox”
Matthea Harvey’s latest collection, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, is not just a book—it is an artifact to be dug up in a century to let our alien offspring know just how weird the turn of the 21st century was. In the tradition of artisanal publishing (McSweeney’s, Typecast), Graywolf has effected its own exploratory book design idiom, well in keeping with Harvey’s expanding universe of creative impulses. From Modern Life and Sad Little Breathing Machine, it was clear that Harvey’s scope was considerable, but with this new collection we have a self-broadening panorama.
Here, Cleverness meets Invention. Harvey speaks through a device of her own genius, a mechanism that magnifies the miniature and shrinks the magnificent, drawing everything to eye level. This work is as much interactive art installation as it is poetry collection: one pulley summons an embroidered rendition of a wave metronome, another, a close-up photograph of playhouse chairs frozen in ice. Just pull a lever, pull a knob, and you are deep within these poems.
The book is broken into sections along these whims—first mermaids, then tabloids, then animals—each poem accompanied by an image that’s more than just punchy conversation filler. In one section, poem titles come embedded in paper animal cut-outs. The title “My Zebra Son” looks as if it’s been engraved onto the focusing ring of a camera lens, in which glass can be seen the outline of said son’s stripes. It’s a process as visual as it is literary, demonstrating how various the ways a poem takes corporeal form, a prototype for the multimedia and multitextual poetry of the future.
In the final section, “Telettrofono,” Harvey adapts a soundwalk on 17th-century Italian inventor Antonio Meucci (hear the original collaboration with sound artist Justin Bennett on the Poetry Foundation’s website), dazzling the reader with a multimedia archive of the mythical life of the inventor and his wife. She writes, “It looks plastic and unbeautiful, no? But oh if you filleted this telettrofono the wonders you would see.” Harvey offers us a cross-section by way of cross-stitch: a way to cut in deeper, a new way to see.
While it seems rude to say that If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is some kind of departure for Harvey, it sure feels new. It’s like this collection is talking into a tin-can telephone with the “Terror of the Future/Future of Terror” series from Modern Life, propagating the wavelengths of its science-fiction futurism. But now with a possibly more accessible—definitely more somber than terrifying, and even more distilled—human logic. Take the poem I can only refer to as the “No More Suicide Fox” constellation poem, in which the speaker is unconvinced of the constellation’s guaranteed safety:
“Where is he during the days, the gray days or the ones too bright with sunlight? We need a dog patrol that sniffs out despair and a horde of someones who will ask every single person every single day, ‘Are you okay?’ before another friend is found dead in the bathtub, on the floor. I don’t want to talk about that fox. He’s pointing at people I know.”
Perhaps being unconvinced is the sentiment of the 21st century. It’s hard to pinpoint, but something here has shifted in flight. Some prism has gotten clearer. Something in the water has settled. Something new has come to light, to sound. Whatever that is, it’s worth seeing for yourself. This book shouldn’t be loaned, it should be bought. Instructions included.