To begin, there is nothing not interesting about Airea D. Matthews’s debut collection, Simulacra, selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. And I don’t use the word “interesting” here as a placeholder for something else, least of all as polite decline for some more incisive comment.
This book is interesting, not “to a fault,” as we sometimes say of stunning excess, but to a virtue—as in: Matthews’s capacious project provokes interest, stokes interest, and successfully demands interest in everything from Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum to Camus’s notion of the rebel, to literary luminaries like Anne Sexton reimagined in contemporary culture, e.g. “Sexton Texts a Backslider After Breaking Lent,” and Gertrude Stein, in one of my favorite poems, as the speaker’s late grandmother.
In the interest-rife cosmos Matthews has created, Narcissus tweets and Psyche is on Prozac and the seemingly intractable (or so he seemed to me in graduate school) philosopher Wittgenstein is made, not “accessible”—for it would be false and also unfair to Matthews to call her work that—but freshly “encounterable” in poems like “The Lover Problem in Analogue (from Wittgenstein’s Lost Black Book)” and “Can? (from Wittgenstein’s Lost Black Book).”
Some collections ask readers to suspend disbelief in the presence of surprising or radical content; other collections ask readers to suspend disbelief with regard to mind-bending innovations in form or style. But Matthews’s Simulacra is how I imagine a poet-as-philosopher/poet-as-scholar/poet-as-rebel/poet-as-mythmaker answers, “D) All of the Above,” on a suspension of disbelief exam, and then goes on to complete the written portion under a header like “Please Demonstrate Below:”
What Matthews consistently demonstrates is that she is a poet who will not be pigeonholed as any one kind of writer. Is her work “confessional”? Is it “political”? Is it “experimental,” “ekphrastic,” “epistolary?” The answer is always, Yes, and. The answer is always, Et al. Which brings me be back to the collection’s opening epigraph from Albert Camus: “What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.” This is a riddle of sorts, isn’t it, and an interesting one at that? How does one—anyone—refuse without renouncing, say no without meaning no way, no how?
Matthews is a poet of multivalent ways and hows, an artist at home in the riddle of refusal. She structures and spins the three sets of poems that appear in her collection—in sections titled “MEETING WANT,” “…AND REPEATING,” and “WHO”—on an axis of rebellion, which she interprets as refusal made useful, renunciation transformed into action. We enter the book through “Rebel Prelude.” We pass through the fulcrum of the book with “Rebel Opera.” We exit the book with “Rebel Fugue.”
These three modes of music—prelude, opera, and fugue—announce another thread of interest in the book: music as a field of study, as a genre of performance, and also as a notable quality of Matthews’s poems. Music, you see, is also an et al: a subject of the collection, as in the intriguing poem, “Dodecaphony,” as well as a method by which the collection is made.
We as readers may think of a prelude as a preview of coming attractions in the scope of a larger work as well as an orchestral opening to an operatic act. Notably, a prelude is a musical score that also precedes a fugue. So here again: music as et al, Matthews’s aesthetic as yes, and.
But what makes this particular prelude rebellious is that it refuses to introduce what follows in any visually consistent or ideologically uniform way. The poem (and with it, the book) begins:
in the garden
or our bedroom, we’d made love or
fought about bushes
hydrangea or rhododendron
purple ivies climbing our back fence,
opal basil wilting, one of us
had forgotten to water her or was it
autumn and she was dying on her own?
How artfully deceptive are these spare, unrhymed couplets, meditating on the domestic scene! It’s as if Matthews is letting us know she knows how to make a poem that is sonically and syntactically flawless, a poem in keeping with the comfortable/comforting image of female poets writing about the home space, sensual love, and flowers. Yet far from establishing the voice and tone of the poetical/musical numbers to follow, as a traditional prelude would, this poem subverts tradition and draws back the innocent, white-margined curtain of the page to reveal behind it a visceral prose poem with a drop cap called “The Mine Owners’ Wife.” On the adjacent page/stage, “Letters to My Would-Be Lover on Geometry and Ponds” appears, where each of the salutations is listed as “Dear ________,” mimicking a form letter perhaps, slated for a mail merge to many recipients.
Are these poems critiquing the ways women have traditionally been presented in poems, ways they have traditionally presented themselves? Yes, and. Are these poems the kind that stretch into long, unwavering lines and declarations like “if you ask me—Ouroboros is one sorry, spun-out, tail-in-his-mouth son-of-a-bitch”? Et al.
And so in this manner of ways and hows, Matthews rebels against the notion of a prelude with her prelude (refusal that is not renunciation), as she will do again with the notion of the opera and the notion of the fugue. Her nouns become verbs, the accent shifting from the first syllable (RE-bel) to its second (re-BELL). Now you can better hear the “bell” in it and better recognize for whom that bell tolls.
Tintinnabulation, move over! There’s a new noisemaker in town!
When we reach “Rebel Opera,” the setting designation reads as follows:
(The opening scene begins inside the father’s mouth. Mother and Daughter resting on the pillow of his bottom lip after daily brushing and flossing his one remaining tooth.)
There’s an oboist who “sounds the note” and an orchestra that “tunes to standard pitch,” just as we’d expect from an opera. But here’s what we don’t expect: the first act commencing with a daughter who asks/sings/rebels—“How do we get the fuck out of here?”
I hasten to add that Matthews isn’t merely pitting a notion of high art (opera) against a notion of low art (profane or vernacular speech), splicing the two together within a single rebellious song. She’s doing that, and. She’s writing a new story into an old form in this dialectic of addiction between a mother and daughter:
It doesn’t work like that.
We inherit the cause, not the illness.
Drugs? Needles? Blood?
(drops umbrella and thumbs through her wallet for a loose white pill)
Remember: they are still poised inside the father’s mouth. That is, a real conversation is taking place within a surreal landscape (read an impossible conversation within an impossible space), and the effect is real taken up a notch—Baudrillard again—this time his notion of the hyperreal.
Then, this insight—a couplet so luminously compressed it captures Matthews’s leitmotif in two lines:
Desire is spacious.
Want’s in the DNA.
By the time we readers arrive at the final poem called “Rebel Fugue,” we find ourselves stripped of expectations. This is an exciting and also a relieving fact. We have forgotten, or at least suspended, our typical assumptions about poems: how they can be made, what they can contain. (Fittingly, one of Matthews’s poems begins with this imperative: “Explain the word ‘can.’”)
We may have forgotten, too, taking on one valence of the word fugue, that early epigraph from Baudrillard: “This is where seduction begins.” And now, like a bell ringing after a subject has been hypnotized—and Simulacra is certainly one of the most hypnotic volumes of poetry I have read in years—the reader is stirred by the lines, “seduced by godless sway // moments forgetting Lucifer, too / was a beautiful musician.”
The fugue-state of lost awareness, lost identity, flight from one’s usual environment, is giving way now to awakening as the re-BELL rings a third time. (Three times to break a spell, right? Yes, and. Et al.)
This final poem acknowledges our collective experience as readers—not collective delusion so much as collective simulacrum: the many-sidedness of every solitary thing, the impossibility of a single way of looking, a single way of seeing anything:
it’s possible to fall
in terrible love
surrender to the notes in our pulse
exhaust both pain and pleasure
until, winded, we come up
breathe in mystery
But of course a fugue is also a musical composition comprised of two or more voices arranged in contrapuntal dialogue. This is why Matthews structures “Rebel Fugue” in two columns, allowing the poem to be read two ways (vertically and horizontally). Both readings—the interwoven version and the sequential version—paint a cogent, poignant, and equally prosodic portrait of the world of this book and also the world beyond it. Yes, and. Et al. Matthews’s speaker is being tongue-and-cheek when she says, “after all, there’s no need to bring/ cosmology into this.” Oh, really? Is that a fact? Aren’t we in fact drowning in cosmology by now?
Above all, this poem makes clear: “should what swallowed us, / not quite kill us,” we have no choice but to ring the rebel bell. In other words, the rebel’s imperative is not to renounce anything but to sing everything.
Waking from our fugue-state, we start to recall other words of the many-voiced song Matthews has conducted for us, from “Letters to My Would-Be Lover On Dolls and Repeating”:
I don’t want to be presumptuous, so I’ll just wait to
hear back. I have a tendency to read into things.
And from “Narcissus Tweets”:
I’ve said: I’m
not parched, but I’m parched. He can’t grasp nuance.
And from “Sekhmet After Hours”:
I ignore fiction’s mercies to wash
my real face
Baudrillard’s words from his own Simulacra and Simulation also echo portently in our ears: “Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original—things are doubled by their own scenario.”
This book strangely resembles a universe we know or think we know. After all, how can we read a line like “how am I to know pronouns translate to / war in your language?” and not think of the war against transgendered people in our country right now? Yes, and. How can we read a line like “Darkness was here first. Light is a gentrifier,” and not think of the annihilation of native peoples and the abduction, buying, selling, and enslavement of Africans, the glorification of light skin, the imbrication of white privilege with class privilege, in perpetuity? Et al. How can we read a line like “When has blood ever stopped men? Why would it?” and not think of violence perpetrated against women, against children, against black and brown citizens by white policemen? Yes, and. Et al.
Remember when I said this book is interesting? Well, “interesting,” like all words, is multivalent. I meant, likewise and simultaneously, that this book is hypnotizing and thought-provoking, arresting and devastating, unnerving and cathartic. I meant also that Simulacra is in your best interest—and our collective best interest—to read.