When I write about poetry, I sometimes feel a responsibility to explicate the work—to act as a guide to the reader while acknowledging that my view is necessarily blinkered by my experiences and education and biases, among other things. Part of this impulse comes from my time teaching first- and second-year students with limited experience in reading poetry closely. But every so often in those classes, I’d assign some poems where I didn’t need to be that guide, not because the poems were easy but because they were plain-spoken and direct. Oddly, that made teaching the poems more difficult, because my students had been trained to think of poems as puzzles to be unlocked, and so were convinced the poems must be doing more. They’d twist themselves in knots trying to find the hidden meaning until I’d finally tell them to just let it be. Let the poem breathe, and sit with it.
The poems in Thea Matthews’s new collection Unearth [The Flowers] are direct in this way. They’re piercing and honest and straightforward in their message—which is not to say they’re simple. They still make you work. They demand your patience.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Unearth [The Flowers], read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Thea Matthews, you’ll need to subscribe by May 11!
Each poem in the book is named after a flower, and the book is divided into two sections: “Perennials” and “Annuals.” The title of the collection hints at something more with the choice of the word “unearth.” Unearthing suggests an excavation of something hidden. It’s not a word that immediately comes to mind when I think of gardening. It makes me think of secrets coming to light, of digging into one’s own past, and of the things there that we maybe wish would stay in the past, dead and buried. Because even if we wind up with something beautiful after the unearthing, there’s still consequence, as in Matthews’s poem “Cherry Plum,” which begins with the line, “Touch me and I might kill you.”
These poems build upon each other, not like a garden but as part of the “pastoral tradition… through a contemporary feminist lens,” as the poet Jericho Brown says in his blurb for the book. We’ll be exploring that tradition, along with the ways the book’s divisions and structure help inform the subject matter of the poems, throughout the month of June. If you join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by May 15, you’ll get an early copy of Unearth [The Flowers] and be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Thea Matthews in early July. I hope you’ll join us!