Goosing the Golden Gimmick: Matthea Harvey's Abecedarianism

One of the most common pieces of advice given to poets is to avoid self-consciousness—to carefully partition the artifice from the art, to hide the crafting from the crafted. And it’s good advice. The pleasure and insight we receive from poetry comes from our ability to enter it, to suspend our disbelief and become fully absorbed in the moment’s object. It’s almost impossible to get lost in a poem when the author keeps popping out from behind the bushes with a sign that says, “You’re still reading a poem.” Yet this is exactly what Matthea Harvey does in what might be the greatest poetic sequence of this young 21st century.

Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence, from her book Modern Life, is abecedarian, meaning that the lines proceed alliteratively through the alphabet—in this case bookended with F for “future” and T for “Terror,” her grist all the words that start with G through S in between. As described in American Poet (1MB PDF), she stumbled on the form accidentally, after hearing the phrase “the future of terror” repeated over and over again on the radio. She wanted the words to “mean something concrete as opposed to being an amorphous umbrella of dread.” (American Poet, 11) A trip to the dictionary had her making word lists on a whim, as her fingers traveled from “future” to “terror,” and certain words that seemed to relate caught her eye. Those lists grew spontaneously into a post-apocalyptic narrative of 21 poems—11 moving forward through the alphabet, 10 moving in mirror, backward T to F.

The result of this formal “gimmick” is wild alliteration, some of it almost too musical to tolerate:

We all carried plump pods filled with poison
that quivered as we made our daily rounds
of the ruins. Giving sadness the run-around
was even harder after your Sergeant succumbed
to Salt Lake Syndrome. At night in our
smokeproof sleeping cars we dreamed
of sharp sticks that would make wounds
a simple surgeon’s knot couldn’t fix…
(Modern Life, 13)

At times, particularly during longer runs of S’s and P’s, the speaker seems to channel Looney Tunes’ Sylvester the Cat, spraying the room with spit: “Our poets were Pied Pipers handing out/ photocopies—parroting, parenthesizing.” (12) The language is so acoustically rich that it’s impossible to forget at any point that you’re reading a poem, that an artist is carefully spoon-feeding you art.

It should be difficult to become engrossed in 21 pages of this richness, akin to 21 slices of chocolate cheesecake. Yet the imagined world that emerges from the abecedarian sequence is so haunting that it happens anyway. Matthea Harvey set out to give form to the umbrella of dread that’s been dogging us all since September 11th, and she has. She’s made tangible the real terror of terrorism, the deep and occluded unease about everything we thought we knew—a future full of soldiers without orders making daily rounds of civilization’s ruins. With one line she captures our despair: “We ate our gruel and watched the hail/ crush the hay we’d hoped to harvest.” (22) With another she crystallizes a culture of paranoia: “Suddenly the sight/ of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.” (11)

The simplicity and acuity of that line is astounding, and its easy to see how it evolved out of the form, from the alliterative key words “suddenly,” “sight,” “schoolbag,” and “scrambling.” The image, so perfectly attuned to this moment in history—not a “handbag,” but a “schoolbag,” denoting childlike innocence and its loss—wasn’t something she held in her mind and shaped into a poem, it sprung spontaneously from the poem itself.

Harvey acknowledges the spontaneity of the process in her essay: “…the words led me, pulled me in new directions, created a narrative I didn’t have in my head. It was perhaps the most wonderful experience of writing without knowing where I was going that I’ve ever had.” (American Poet, 12) She goes on to call her experience with the form “one of extraordinary exhilaration and surprise.” Indeed, and seemingly unintentionally, she surpasses her own amorphous dread to explore dozens of relevant social issues, moving beyond the apolitical nature of her previous books. Some lines comment on the incumbent President:

We could all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there’s an intimacy to invasion.
(Modern Life, 11)

On torture:

When we got jaded
about joyrides we could always play games
in the kitchen garden with the prisoners.
Jump the Gun, Fine Kettle of Fish, and Kick
the Kidneys were our favorites.
(11)

On our disillusionment with the government:

Out of glass blocks
we built a glorious latrine which we meant
to show the governor when he arrived
with his hand on his heart, but for some reason
we hesitated. Was it the rust on the hinge
of his briefcase? His car horn’s half-hearted honk?
(14)

All of these scenes seem to be generated by the chance alphabetical lists of words, but as Marcel Duchamp once said, “Your chance is not the same as mine.” The real operator here is the interaction between randomness and the author’s unconscious mind, which has been mulling over these issues of war and terrorism since the start of the “War on Terror.”

When the overt, conscious mind becomes preoccupied with form, the wellspring of the unconscious is free to rise to the surface and assert itself. For decades, psychological studies have shown a link between distraction and persuasion—the over-mind serves as a kind of shield for the more malleable under-mind—and I believe the effect works in the opposite direction, as well. Formal poets often describe how their own meter and rhyme becomes a kind of crutch; after awhile they can no longer access their own creativity without having their focus fixed on the form. It becomes the only way the formal poet knows how to enter what Elizabeth Bishop called the “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration”—the meditative state necessary to create great art. Without the form, they’re left with what the Buddhists would call too much “willful will”—the stronger, overt mind resists the emergence of the transformative, covert mind.

Harvey seems at the cusp of understanding what’s really going on when she develops a metaphor for what she calls the “abecedarian’s particular combination of restraint and freedom”:

Perhaps writing with full access to every word in the language is like looking at a 360-degree panorama from which we can choose to look at any thing at any time. The thing about the panorama, though, is that, while it’s available to us, we don’t use it all at once. We can’t ever keep the entire possibilities of the language in our heads at one time… By contrast, writing abecedarianally…is more like walking up the stairs of a castle and looking through a series of small windows. From one you see the forest of F, complete with flora and fauna. Through another you see the meadow of M… There’s a lushness to the abecedarius that speaks to the old saw about form allowing freedom…
(American Poet, 13)

She understands that a narrowing of focus leads to an expansion of consciousness. All that’s missing from her description is the underlying why.

“The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” comprises less than half of Modern Life, and it isn’t the only sequence that deploys a poetic gimmick in pursuit of new understanding. Other sections use other gimmicks with varying degrees of success. The dozen or so “Robo-boy” prose poems remind—or were perhaps inspired by—Haley Joel Osment’s role as an android in the Spielberg film A.I. They work individually, and remain interesting throughout, yet fail to match the cultural resonance (and relevance) of the abecedarians. The subject makes sense for the book, and certainly seems like meaningful commentary on “modern life,” but rather than formal and full of chance, the conceit is situational, and thus too overt, the stylings too plainly stylized. The Robo-boy poems fit within the metaphor of the small window—the narrow opening, this time, being the narrative of the young android—but the narrowing isn’t distracting to the author’s will, and so doesn’t have the same revelatory effect.

This problem has far more excruciating results in a series of extremely brief poems, each written around a kind of joke between “I” and “You.” Here’s a complete example:

You Have My Eyes

Give them back.
(Modern Life, 75)

The initial idea is as quirky and interesting as that of “The Future of Terror” or “Robo-boy,” but the conceit leaves absolutely no room for input from the interior. Here the idea for the poem is the poem; the only will is willful. These are the poems that, in an otherwise glowing review of Modern Life in the New York Times, David Orr calls “coy productions.” In other words, they’re too self-conscious, the gimmick too glaring.

“The Future of Terror,” on the other hand, uses the gimmick of the abecedarian poem to quiet consciousness, thus allowing the poet to act spontaneously within the work. Later in his review of Modern Life, Orr remarks that “One suspects that the reason Harvey likes to talk about the safe subject of form so much is that she’s a bit unsettled by her own project.” That unsettled feeling is what makes the sequence so powerful—and it feels so unsettled, I believe, because the raw imagination was exposed through her close attention to its form.