Airea D. Matthews, Simulacra, Yale University Press: £14.99
Airea D. Matthews is the 2016 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets; the 111th such of a series whose previous winners have included Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery and Jack Gilbert. Matthews was chosen by Carl Phillips and his introduction comments that Matthews’ ‘use of wide-ranging form’ is ‘a way of having the book as a whole enact the ceaseless hunger that is the book’s thematic core.’ As Phillips also comments ‘the risk here is that the author may seem to lack formal control and/or restraint.’ This might be Phillips’ ambivalence about the forms of the book, or a way of having his cake and eating it too; a way of both liking the book whilst having severe reservations about it.
Certainly there are a large range of ‘forms’ in this book., from prose poems to tweets, to a fragment of opera. And networked through this range of forms there are a range of references and influences: Camus, Baudrillard, Anne Sexton, and figures from mythologies. Phillips triangulates these influences by suggesting that the book’s epigraph from Camus’s The Rebel, is linked to the title, Simulacra, taken from Baudrillard’s book of the same name, via the idea of hunger. Hunger, for Matthews, is both literal, physical hunger of varying kinds, but also more metaphysical, a hunger for truth. Here, the mouth is the image which unites both ideas. The mouth can produce truth and lies in speech, as well as being one of the organs by which one kind of hunger is satiated. And hunger as ‘want’ occurs throughout the book as well as in the title of the first section of the book, ‘Meeting Want’
Hunger for truth, in the sense of a hunger for authenticity is, perhaps, where Anne Sexton comes into this volume. As Phillips, notes, Anne Sexton occurs seven times in this volume; five times in her own right. Sexton appears as an ‘author’ of texts to various other characters: ‘a Dead Addicts Daughter during Polar Vortex’, ‘a Backslider after Breaking Lent’ and ‘Tituba from a Bird Conservatory’; Tituba is the slave who appears as a ‘witness’ in Arthur Miller’s reimagining of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible’, and twice as a nurse with the same name. This latter treats the speaker of one of the poems in an addiction centre.
There is always the danger that such extra-poetic ‘superstructure’ can stifle the voice which drives the poetry, where those references feel self-conscious and welded on to the whole. And this volume does not entirely escape that. However, Matthews’ voice is strong enough to rise above that superstructure. And there is enough good poetry to show that Matthews’ can write about ‘reality’, as in ‘Confessions from Here’, ‘When you woke the next morning, I imagine you thought it rained the night before. You called the plumber, didn’t you? To fix the basement, swollen from squalls? Did you dig your fingernail under the blistering cinder? Check for mold? Did the walls crumble?’ And such ‘hyper’-realism usefully balances other writing which might seem somewhat self-conscious, ‘I thought it was a bird. skimmed rush. hush as before a fowl fixes / its head up from shadow water / sickened by its own nature, narcissus- / reversed.’ ‘Hero(i)n’
Where Matthews is most successful is where she fixes on what we might consider to be the condition of women. In the poem called ‘Meeting Anne Sexton’, not only do we meet a real Anne Sexton, who is a nurse at an addiction centre. ‘If you’re lucky the constant mask will get you this: / one stalwart lover who fills out your paperwork when you can’t / remember your name, a beige room with one 6-foot table, a chorus / of moans and whistles from the girl next door who smiles misery / for 5 hours, adults arguing over who kicked in the most walls, an alien / who sucks her thumb to still her hands and avoids humans because of their nervous eyes,’ Here and elsewhere in this book, there is immense energy in the writing; and a keen, observant eye for the human condition. Matthews is also very good on relationships within the family. Perhaps, in her next book, she will allow that expertise breathe a little more easily.
by Ian Pople