Saturday poetry pick: Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form

book coverLast month, Matthea Harvey came to the Seattle Arts and Lectures Poetry series at Chihuly Gardens and Glass and captivated us with a multimedia performance–slides and poetry, layers of art, the visual and verbal interacting, miniatures and ideas so huge I wondered how they fit on a page.

But I am reading a book a week, so I decided to start with her (slightly shorter) first collection, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Oh, lovely.

Right away, the title sets you up for a shift in perspective. What are we really looking at here? What are we seeing? What startles and aches, as in “Nude on a Horsehair Sofa by the Sea,” which begins

“I don’t know what to do with his body.
It looks smooth–& heavy too–
from the way the sofa’s mahogany claws
sink into the sand.”

or in “This Holds Water,” which is one seamless scene beginning with

“Those who have no visitors visit the outside weather permitting
them to sit in a row on deckchairs all wearing the same lipstick
Lilac Luxury age and an inattentive nurse conspiring to lend them
matching complexions my husband worked on the locks says
the woman farthest from the door the other women nod”

I want to say Empathetic. I want to say Fatalistic, as the people who live at the glacier in “Paint Your Steps Blue”:

“It is spring & people are out repainting their front steps
Glacier blue because this village is closer to the glacier than
The volcano emits a tiny rumble & drools lava once every few
Years go by & its followers grow fat with having nothing to
Fear here is of the icy–&-slowly-approaching variety”

And see what she’s doing? A line might end, in thought, with the first word of the next line, which also serves as the first word of that next line, so there’s a constant unsettling, a kind of knitting back and forth, a reminder to expect the unexpected.

Art shifts through the book in ekphrastic poems, and clarity, transparency speak to what is fragile, what shatters or is saved carefully against any odds. At the end, what is saved is our seeing.

For complete poems, see “One Filament Against the Firmament” and visit Ms. Harvey’s website (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four” is in the book).