Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews
Yale University Press, 2017; 80 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
In the future, where I’m from, codeswitchers code switch.
Matthews forms the clay of Simulacra around a nervous system of Jean Baudrillard and rebellion, as Carl Phillips, in his introduction to this Yale Series of Younger Poets selection, outlines. The first utterance from Baudrillard sinks a deep note that wobbles everything past it: “Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original—things are doubled by their own scenario,” and Matthews is certain to duplicate and multiply this uncanny echo. These poems, and poems writ large Matthews implies, are doubles / copies / reflections, strangely similar to their original, of love and heritage riddled with inquiry. Sopping with foreboding, the early poems float grim realizations by lovers, first pointed at the nature of infestation, and second the exchange of suffering between lovers, self-inflicted or otherwise. With a section title like “Meeting Want,” the first collects these encounters with desire, to figure out, to hurt, to hold accountable, to restrain, as with the closing of “Letters to My Would-Be Lover on Geometry and Ponds,”
Nights alone. I would sweetly sing the sailors’ song in the mirror, hoping
to force myself into some sea. Hush the whirling gusts of please. (8)
We witness sexual desire, desire for heroin as with “Hero(i)n” (playing a heron against the narcotic against the inserted “i”), unexplainable desire, repetition of desire, the desire to meet Anne Sexton [realized, in a fasion], an encounter with want herself—“Smug bitch. Acted like I didn’t exist” (12)—the personification of want is quite the poet:
See-through. Peek-a-boo. Wanter who wants and doesn’t know why. Knower who knows and doesn’t know what. She who is and doesn’t know who. Mesh veil. Ordinary invisible. (12)
After the speaker meets Anne Sexton, they exchange multiple poems-worth of text messages—strange, limb-bending, sometimes delayed / out-of-order / pause-laden confessions or metaphors or pleas; the speaker meets want as well, again, begging if the first meeting was actually another meeting-again, if there was ever a first meeting of desire at all. Then from a mini opera to “Sekhmet’s Conceit,” Matthews works through the repetitive destructions of a father, of light, of men, of desire:
CHAOS 30:7 Darkness was here first.8 Light is a gentrifier. Darkness is not called un-light. Light is un-dark. (35)
Power poems such as “If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein,” “Narcissus Tweets,” and “Rebel Fugue” prod and stretch traditions and forms, still sounding the limits and illimitability of love, desire, and repetition.
Matthews places mirrors at the cardinal, intercardinal, and secondary intercardinal directions of her speakers and the reader—a surround of “infinity mirrors,” all reflecting whoever stands at the center, over and over, adinfinitum. And Baudrillard’s “universe strangely similar to the original” repeats itself in the modes of composition that saturate this collection: the twitterverse, texting, letter-writing, biblical passages, parables-of-a-sort, myths, composers, operas, hauntings, and on; every poem draws explicit attention to itself as a form of re-creation, of echo, of similarity, every poem a moment of composition and performance, a repetition of reflection on repetition, productively.
These poems bend readers, challenge them and the people / tropes / history embedded there, occasionally floating the reader off, daring them. Isn’t the core of rebellion relentless challenge?