If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Graywolf Press, 2014
The illustration of a camera with a zebra trapped inside its lens; twin Elvis figurines in white jumpsuits singing silent songs; the silhouette of a mermaid with scissors for a tail; tiny chairs frozen in a block of ice. These images are collaged together on the cover of Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, a collection of poetry and images. The book is daunting and irresistibly intriguing at the same time, starting with its very poignant question in the title.
The first nine poems in this collection are prose poems about different mermaids, but you will find no redheaded cartoon character or Disneyfied optimism here. For each poem, the text is on the left side and an image of the mermaid in black silhouette compliments it on the facing page. Each mermaid has a top half that looks human, but the tails of these creatures are anything but traditional. “The Straightforward Mermaid” has a Swiss Army knife for a tail and “has already said to five sailors, ‘Look, I don’t think this is going to work,’ before sinking like a sullen stone.”(3) Each character is unique, not just because of her unconventional tale/tail, but because of these striking details that Harvey surprises us with. Dark humour (of which there is much) aside, there are moments where her careful use of language and sensory detail make you gasp, much like a fish lulled into a sense of security before biting down on that hook
Collaboration, particularly between visuals and text, is an integral part of the collection. Many of Harvey’s poems have photographs or illustrations in place of traditional titles. Two of her prose poems about new constellations (“No More Suicide Fox” and “Retaliation Rat”) have those constellations on display as their title. While initially unsure what to make of these images, after each reading they come into focus and meaning. With many of Harvey’s image-titled poems it feels like you are viewing an artifact that was born out of the literary creation it is paired with. In the prose poem on page 100, the speaker says that “stereotypes stand on street corners mostly…they thrive in places where they are different, where people believe that difference.” She considers if she is one herself:
With my love of poetry, fear of rashes and mixed
feelings about zoos, I’d like to think I’m a
Christmas tree tricked out in similes, not one
store-bought thought hanging on me, but if I sniff
a peony, is it a pose? Do I smile generally and at
no one in particular?
The title is a picture frame, inside it an all-white silhouette, faceless, hanging as if from a branch: blending in and yet on display.
The more elaborate collaborations that Harvey has been involved in with other artists are documented in their own sections of the book. Both are fascinating in terms of their content, creativity, and sheer scope, but neither is really done justice on the page, and as a result they require research outside of the book itself to understand each collaboration’s intent. It says a lot about Harvey’s work that when it is overly confusing, you instinctively search for more information rather than simply giving up or turning to the next piece of writing, but the fact that these pieces require additional information suggests that they need to exist on more than just the page to be fully understood and appreciated.
“Telettrofono” is a good example. It was originally created by Harvey and sound artist Justin Bennett as a sound walk that took place on Staten Island, where Antonio Meucci first invented the first telephone-like device. Although you can listen to the audio online, complete with ambient noise, a mermaid chorus, a wave metronome, and a stone piano, you are missing the experience of being at the location and being instructed to “pick up a shell. See if it purrs when you scratch it” (115) or walking past the water as you hear mermaids speak in unison about the abundance of wealth under the sea:
…Pearls? We have shellsfull.
Treasure chests, etc., spiral down in slow
motion, bump softly onto the ocean floor
and spill their treasures. We don’t know
what to use them all for, so we crown
the crabs, hand the octopus the scepter. (128)
On the page, without the sensory experience, the structure and multitude of voices can become overwhelming and confusing for the reader. The poem depends on the listener taking a physical journey, and without that opportunity, it is nowhere near as effective as it could be. You can listen to the audio recording here for a better sense of what the experience would be like: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/247174
Matthea Harvey’s collection of poetry and images is awe-inspiring. Each section of work could exist as its own complete and satisfying collection, but together they create a narrative that explores the search for identity. It seems fitting to close with Harvey’s sonnet “Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare”. Narrated by the Bard, he sums up quite nicely this dichotomy between inner and outer self, between truth and fiction, between choosing who you are, and becoming what you are told to be. “I’ve taken many forms over the years, /but this may be the strangest one”, Shakespeare laments. “Make us a man, or make us a machine—/but do not leave us trapped here in-between.” (39) Whether it is workers living inside a glass factory who want to unlock another world, those tabloids themselves that tell us stories that may just be truer than you thought, or a mermaid reconciling herself with a new tail, Harvey will leave you behind the glass, lost in the headlines, and under the waves with those trapped in-between, and you won’t want to surface for air.
Megan Barnet holds a BFA in writing from the University of Victoria, and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. When not writing poetry, she works undercover as a high school English and Creative Writing teacher in Surrey, BC.