Poets tend to prefer one elemental force over all others. Some, like Sylvia Plath, for example, are all about fire. Matthea Harvey's obsession is water. Nearly every poem in her newest collection, If the Tabloids Are True, What Are You? (Graywolf Press, $25), mentions water in some way. The book opens with a taxonomy of mermaids, from the Impatient Mermaid to the Objectified Mermaid. ("The Straightforward Mermaid has already said to five sailors, 'Look, I don't think this is going to work,' before sinking like a sullen stone.") A poem about a global-warming-inspired flood, "When the Water Is at Our Ankles," finds everything going wrong:
When the water is at our shoulders, the officials will
roll out the boulders and we'll throw our bonsais in
the river to simulate that underground forest they said
might help—a miniature, misplaced effort, it's true
Harvey even displays an alchemist's gift for transmuting one element to another; her long poem "Inside the Glass Factory" is about a woman who confronts a Plath-like inferno—"The thermometer hits one thousand/degrees"—but still finds herself "hot, glowing, almost still liquid."
Water, water everywhere, but why is she so attracted to it? Water's shifting qualities, its ability to adapt resiliently to any climate, must be an influence on Harvey, who uses nontraditional media in her poetry to great effect. She's a rare poet who's not afraid to use illustrations when they best suit what she's trying to communicate. (Many poets are allergic to pictures; most publishers have stories about poets who have gone into tongue-swallowing fits of rage upon seeing the cover image for their book for the first time, deeming it to be inaccurate for the weight and nuance of the text. They generally loathe photographs the way a factory worker loathes the robot that's come to take their job.) Tabloids is a profusely illustrated book, featuring embroidery, silhouettes, erasures of a Ray Bradbury story, and, most poignantly, a photo poem called "Stay," which features tiny plastic figures—a man in a suit, some dollhouse chairs—frozen into blocks of ice.
Harvey is gifted at adapting her art into whatever form she desires. Her book, as big and as colorfully multimedia as it is, is not a gimmick. It's the product of a mercurial brain that doesn't conform to barriers, that seeps into everything, that allows us to float freely in the power of something greater than ourselves.