Sad Little Breathing Machine/Ugh Ugh Ocean/The Latest Winter

Matthea Harvey/Joanna Fuhrman/Maggie Nelson

Graywolf/Hanging Loose/Hanging Loose


Monday, April 5th, 2004

A poetry trick I admire almost every time is the enjambment of an observation to look like an imperative. Matthea Harvey uses this one to open “Bird Transfer,” the second poem in Sad Little Breathing Machine: “Unfasten the crows & the clouds/come crashing down.” I’ve only just formed the objection that I don’t want to get close enough to a crow to uncurl its claws when suddenly I’m looking for the clasp on a cloud—or rather, about to write off the experience as poetry-in-quotes. Almost makes you forget what usually follows “unfasten.” Then voila, what was starting to feel like an unfair burden—maybe an enstranged sexual overture?—has turned into a hypothesis; true, it’s a hypothesis plausible only in a world part cartoon. I don’t care. I feel good having made it past the tiny scare this poem gave me to the relaxation I wanted. I’m so relieved I don’t notice that the poem’s got its foot in the door.

Or rather, its feet. Harvey mixes and matches alliteration with internal rhyme and mot after mot juste, unabashedly recalling Wallace Stevens—titles include “To Zanzibar by Motorcar,” “The Transparent Heir Apparent,” “Definition of Weather.” These effects would merely be charming if Harvey had an iffy ear, to use the ideologically-loaded shorthand for whether a poet cares about prosody and diction.

the fish that live
in a plastic bag think the edges

of the world pucker. It’s one thing to
make an image. It’s two things to find one.

(“Life-Size Is What We Are/(A New History of Photography)”)

Set aside the charged memories of spring fairs in childhood just naming the fish in bags brings up; harder still, avoid entering the goldfish’s belief system; most impossibly, do not feel the buoyant bulk the word pucker sculpts like a Jeff Koons bunny. Just listen. I note here the caesuras and line breaks, how over the first four phrases she builds up the expectation that she’ll keep stretching from iambs to anapests to I don’t know what, only to catch the line up short with a trochee. By the time I get to pucker I’m dazzled enough to smile at the plays on one and two that recall “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Stevens has persistently been reproached for an evasive or impersonal quality. If that’s how you feel about the author of Ideas of Order, dear reader, I regret that not even Harvey’s distinctly more habitable emphasis on the second person will likely do it for ya, as she sometimes inflects it. In her first book, enjambments were often occasions to link two sentences by a shared word (e.g., “Pity the bathtub its forced embrace of the human/form may define external appearance”); I realize indie musicians from Liz Phair to Pavement have gotten away with this trope but on the page it gave me vertigo. These new poems resist compulsive rereading in an entirely different way—after I imagine I’ve nuanced all the savor from one allegory, it’s on to the next. Maybe that’s a backwards way to say each time I read this book it’s as if I hadn’t before.

At first I thought her cryptic indication of certain poems’ “engines” might make her a homegrown Oulipian; many poems here include the letters x, y, and z. I look forward to reading the interview in which she discourses on her method. Until then, rather than speculate on what she might be up to, with her knowing riddling tone, I’ll just admire her persistence rerouting feeling into the third person, fable, and a mildly jaded tone. I hope I won’t be accused of fault-finding when I point out that it puts me at a distance when phrases such as “Aren’t we all” recur, and when the reader is addressed as “darling” —more so when it’s “dahling.”

Another kind of close reader will, I hope, have a field day annotating the sensuousness of the intellect that goes for an internal rhyme of “echelon” and “nonchalant” in “You’re Miss Reading,” a title worthy of Lee Ann Brown, while probably not an outright homage. It’s not images or emotions, or even the array of tropes I carry away, though, it’s the words she uses to stop everything—nope, iffy, hottie, ex, skis—how easy to miss they ought to be. If that sounds like a value judgment, I mean it as praise.


In contrast to the Parnassian detachment that comes through in Harvey’s work, the personality I hear in Joanna Fuhrman’s bizarrely titled second collection, Ugh Ugh Ocean, is somewhat more approachable. Or is at first—about a third of the way into the book, Fuhrman finds a poetry phone booth where she changes into a superhero of self-consciousness and confusion:

These doubts are like holding
a hand over a burning candle
to feel if it’s hot

As if it would be cold?
(“Knowledge Blobs”)

At first, the strategy of mixing self-effacement with knowing disjunction looks like it’s going to place Fuhrman somewhere between doormat and quirky (“Just throw a glass of water in my face and I’m happy”, “My belief?/Trees.”). Any such concerns evaporate with “Stable Self Blues”; whoever’s speaking in this poem isn’t just making a virtue out of a flaw, she’s letting you know that she will be here and in the way, and just this side of ironic about it:

I’m just another pizza delivery girl
Without a pizza, a raconteur with nothing
To recount. I heavy-breathe by the rabbit
Iconography, refusing to multiply. Mina Loy
Is my favorite video game.
I love blowing up those enemy nouns.

Yes, it’s a sestina; Fuhrman takes the form about as seriously as it deserves, which is to say she makes a hall of mirrors out of the dumb repetition the stanza breaks force: “You’re too girly/Dressed to kill like Mina Loy//Pretending you’re just a minor Mina Loy.” Mainly though I’m excited by the prospect of Fuhrman finally giving the what-for to the noun, that part of speech modern poetry most placed on a pedestal. I’d had to temper my enthusiasm for Freud in Brooklyn, her first book, in light of its faith in concrete nouns—or rather, in the glare of its consistent emphasis on images in lines such as these:

a broken underground sprinkler shrieks,
a man tying a kayak to a car

clears his throat. White petal flakes fall.
(“Another Hypothetical Question Ignored”)

It’s fun writing but I couldn’t help feeling I’d been in this particular zone of displaced feeling before, or rather, was ready at least to leave it for art that risked a less black-and-white approach. In Ugh Ugh Ocean Fuhrman invokes some of the writers most capable of inducing cognitive dissonance in recent times, from the rebarbative Chris Stroffolino to the glossolalic Adeena Karasick to the paradoxical Bob Perelman to the overwhelming David Shapiro. In the absence of a novel aha I will take a stirring huh? any day, and Ugh Ugh has huhs aplenty. From surprising plainspoken sestina she goes straight into an off-putting lit-crit villanelle, “Retronormativity”:

The 1950s end for you in Eden
and end again under impressive tits.
This is a favorite clichéd history of reading,

and is, as well, the failure of our every meeting—
why I feel like such shit
when you claim the 1950s end for me in Eden.

Is this where all those words were leading?
You burn a match you claimed was never lit.
This is a favorite clichéd history of reading.

There isn’t a poem in recent memory (mine, anyway) that a) cops to that particular feeling and b) so deftly swaps attributions from speaker to addressee. It isn’t pretty but they tell me genuine emotions seldom are.

I have this idea that it’s healthy for a writer to say (write, whatever) whatever comes to mind. Whatever may include exciting or negative material, it may be lucid or haywire, it’s whatever. What I take as unhealthy, or anyway get on edge about when I recognize there but for the grace of etc feelings is when a writer beams a gloomy affect (or lack of affect) out into the world of memes. There’s only so much self-loathing I can consume in a year, and most of that quota is booked in advance by nostalgia trips to the music of the 80s. Even when Fuhrman is coming to the conclusion that “It’s just so much harder than I thought/being a person,” I don’t get the feeling that she’s advertising her diagnosis—besides she says immediately afterwards that “I keep wanting to roar a little,/to convince those invisible tigers that I’m with them,//wherever they are.” I believe she is at home with those tigers, and hope she will continue to be, for several books to come.


A poet who seems to have been born saying whatever is Maggie Nelson, whose The Latest Winter is put forward as her second book after 2001’s Shiner, but to do so is to ignore her part of an Agni Take Three anthology, a perfect-bound chapbook titled Pacific, and her half of a Soft Skull book co-written with fellow Wesleyan grad and unrelated namesake, Cynthia Nelson. Nelson is one of the younger poets sometimes put forward as the reincarnation of Frank O’Hara as a woman (Ange Mlinko is another), and you’d think I would empathize enough with her not to repeat that burdensome praise. After all part of the mandate for publishing poets is to produce work that looks recognizably like already acknowledged poetry, but not too much so. Influence labels that stick make it difficult to get closer to the work without evaluating the alleged ventriloquism, consciously or unconsciously.

Holed up in my room with the Puritans
They woo me with their vigor and eye for detail

but still I schlep Roman for icons of cloud out
my window, ominous gray then shouting gold

then dispersed into an archipelago of dust
As night comes and closes the shops that sell

cashmere scarves outside my price range
strollers roll by stuffed with extra children

Everyone is stocking up at the deli, there’s a certain piracy to it
I think it’s the streets that first make the sound of rain

Unbridled honesty, is there any other kind? Oh yes
I used it yesterday, when I half-told you something small
(“Holed Up”)

I don’t know what it means to “schlep Roman” except in comparison to do nothing with American pilgrims, but other than that there’s no obscurity in this excitedly cranky brief study in chiaroscuro. A typical Nelson poem will proceed reasonably and parseably from one tiny surprise to the next, deploying the occasional gorgeous description and subliminally overloaded detail; her most satisfying poems don’t disdain to end dramatically. She usually appears to be writing to someone she has feelings for. I doubt that in the last analysis these poems will turn out to be a sum of calculated effects, she’s not guarded enough for that, no matter what the pitch perfect mode change on price change implies.

That this is not really her second book excuses her from the requirement to undergo dramatic change from her debut, although there are a few welcome developments. For one, she is easing away from her recreational use of exclamation points. For another, she is pursuing emotionally-charged material from the past without giving up her well-earned command of unambiguous flirtation and the walking-around-New York poem. All three poets under review here can claim New York if not as a full-time residence then at least as a welcoming chamber of poetic commerce, but only Nelson goes straight towards Ground Zero:

Say something awful, say
“She leaned on the fork”

Say something beautiful, say
“Eyes smudged with soft kohl”

Now lead the way under
the spiders, yes under the spiders
(“The Poem I Was Working On Before September 11, 2001”)

A talky, nearly impertinent meditation on beauty and beastliness, “The Poem” actually shows as much of the influence of James Schuyler as of the one whose massive address book earned for all time the right of New York poets to the I do this-I do that poem. “You never let me see you naked/but when you do it is like a rain of almonds” won’t meet your criteria for Best Simile of the Year but I would hope you’d acknowledge that her eagerness to be vulnerable (or at least complain about the relative lack in this world of that eagerness) is refreshing. The accepted wisdom on Schuyler is that he’s the member of the New York School who can achieve the sublime while remaining disarmingly lucid (that is, he lets you imagine you know what he’s talking about). To get to that critical line you have to ignore the prickly side of Schuyler that leads straight to Eileen Myles, not a mistake you’ll catch Nelson making.

Re-reading The Latest Winter I notice that the poems I want to skip because they don’t fit my idealized image of Nelson as old New York school actually demonstrate her ties to newer Yorkers from Myles on. I’m thinking (among other poems) of “Words to a Woman,” the second stanza of which lists “Nipples coming right at you/wagons, kabobs, sugar-dips, cannons.” But these poems too are tender and surly, and I have to come back to the sense that Nelson’s gift for following every strong feeling will serve her better than any particular allegiance I want to imagine for her. If there are lines, attitudes, or confessions I would for whatever reason wish away (why does the account of an adolescent ski trip bug me, for example?), the overall effect of her work keeps saying “tough luck.” Like all naturals, Nelson is driven by an ambition somewhere between mission and compulsion. Lucky for us.

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3 Responses to “Sad Little Breathing Machine/Ugh Ugh Ocean/The Latest Winter”

  1. idiotmusic Says:

    […] See” is a short poem, and the danger of short poems is having to say so much in so few words, and Harvey’s work reflects this by her need to allude to something greater in her imagery: her mention of […]

  2. The Spoils: July 2012 « Editions Of You Says:

    […] Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey (reviewed with three other […]

  3. The Maggie Nelson Seminar – Exercise #3: Poem(s) | Tin House Says:

    […] week, the class has focused on The Latest Winter and Shiner. Read the reviews here:  Jordan Davis, The Latest Winter in The Constant Critic and David Gunton, […]

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