Reviewed by Keith Newton
The shape that many of the poems take in Matt Hart’s first book, Who’s Who Vivid, is one of dizzying self-definition. Some variation on the fundamental ways we have for defining our experience (“I am . . . ,” “I was . . .”) recurs throughout the book, determining the formal construction of the poems and revealing to us what’s at stake for the poet. From the opening lines of “Completely by Accident”--“I was in a fix. / I was sloshing with joy. / I was looking at my feet and my feet looked good”--to the formula by which the closing poem proceeds--“I am of the mind . . . I am of the gut . . . I am the shadows . . . “--Hart undertakes the urgent, frightening, ridiculous task of self-recognition, and through that process shows us what it means to inhabit our identities in a culture of mesmerizing falseness.
The subject of Who’s Who Vivid is not hard to define: the modern search for authenticity, the search for the authentic self. But, of course, it’s what we find along the way that interests us, and in those terms Hart’s journey is immediately compelling. Attributing to itself aspects of both coherence and incoherence, the book takes us through the pleasures and absurdities of our cultural moment (“Tristan Tzara . . . Welcome / to America, may I take your order”) without relinquishing the strong, consistent lyric voice that guides the poems, a voice at once cheerful, irreverent, disarming, and sad, lost but hopeful, cynical but optimistic. It is the voice of the faux-naif, but also of the faux-skeptic, with a kind of innocence that has somehow already passed through a stage of total disenchantment. Yet there is, at first, no way to know how this condition has been achieved. Does this sense of the self come, perhaps, a little too easily? A little too cheaply? It is the risk of this cheapness, in fact, that makes the book work so well, since it is Hart’s knowledge of the inherent absurdity of our search for ourselves that drives both the thematic and psychological tension of the poems. In “Poem Where the Message Trails Off,” Hart manages to evoke, in an absurdist mini-epic of losing and finding oneself in a dark wood, not only the self-perpetuating conventions of poetic urgency and poetic vision that we use to generalize our experience of identity, but also the paradoxical nature of the actual language of the self:
Once upon a time I was missing completely
and that time, once upon, was now.
In my shoes an intruder.
In my face a world of trees.
Whosoever may know these seas, row your boat out
to the meadow to meet me.
Do it soon, and do it quickly.
Don’t stop to read this, please!
The title of the book, Who’s Who Vivid, goes a long way toward characterizing these tensions--and those of the volume as a whole. Certainly there’s a kind of playfulness and light-hearted absurdity, but also a deep-seated misgiving about the relation of language to identity, an inherent refusal to give to language the capacity to identify us. Implicit in the title is the problem of how we recognize the individual self: does it operate as a question, an opening of possibilities, or as a clarification, a defining and closing off?
In poems such as “Nervous Aluminum Rabbit” and “Giant Traumatism,” Hart displays an energetic lyric mania that is one of his strongest modes. Through the force of the poems’ imaginative momentums, built on the disjointed logic and propulsive absurdity of a mind adrift in a culture already lost to itself, Hart evokes the ways in which we never cease to be called by the world to take part and--although “there are no incorrect answers,” as he writes in “Self-Helper”--to be sustained in an endless hunger to know the meaning of our experience. What complicates Hart’s writing throughout the book is that, despite his attachment to the idea of a poetic mode of candid self-expression that not only exists but is, by its nature, a condition of authenticity, he reveals a profound instinct for a satiric and parodic style that takes the materials of self-expression as one of its primary targets. The book’s final poem, “To the People Who Know Better, Let Me Say in My Defense,” negotiates this division perfectly, since the apology comes to serve as the natural mode of self-definition, simultaneously self-revelatory and self-justifying.
The poems “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” and “Letter to a Friend Who I’ll Never See Again,” each self-defining catalogues of the poet’s life, also make this conflict explicit. In “Letter to a Friend,” the act of self-definition takes the form of rendering what the poet “believe[s]”--and what he reads and thinks and feels and remembers--in a style as down-to-earth and conversational as he’s supposedly capable of, while the form of “What’s Inside a Giraffe?” is that of an actual list, answering the question he poses in the title with, in a sense, his whole life. This means, in fact, not only his memories and experiences but also all of the detritus of culture that forms his associations: “Narcissus. / Mommy, I’m thirsty. / Somebody give me a beer. / Evening caught in a parasol weeping. / Nerval out walking his lobster on a leash. / Rooftops. / Postmarks . . . / The proper method for modeling a turtleneck. / The distance from here to your mother in spots. / From there to your father in shredded coconut. / Why pregnancy isn’t an option . . . / Survey says . . .” That all the books and movies and music and TV shows and culturally conditioned beliefs and fleeting images of childhood could ever possibly do the hard work of making a self is clearly being parodied in both these poems, yet what Hart slyly suggests under the surface is the idea that without this detritus, without the accumulation of the bits and pieces of our life and thought, without the ridiculous and arbitrary nature of the culture we happened to be born into (“Completely by Accident” is the opening poem of the book), we would never come to recognize ourselves, never come to be attached to the world and attached to an idea of ourselves in the world, and therefore never come to recognize the self.
Is this an argument that the source of our authenticity is the hours we spent watching Family Feud? Not exactly. But what Hart shows us is how easily we confuse the “surface” and the “depths” and don’t think to look for ourselves in the most familiar places, for fear of discovering our inherent poverty. For all of Hart’s successes, though, the book has weak poems, which tend toward the unfocused, with touches of the sentimental, and treat the absurd more as a posture than a state of being. Because he maintains a consistent voice through the book, Hart also runs the risk, at times, of the constriction of a limited register. Yet overall this is an exciting first book, in which it’s easy to share the poet’s sense of the “ridiculous/delicious” aspects of the world. “What luck!” he writes in “Half-Empty,” “to be alive and engaged.” Or, as he puts it another way in the same poem: “Yippee!”