Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry
Matthea Harvey’s If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? resembles a museum, every section a glossy curio cabinet. Harvey weaves a tight sharp world where girls are made of glass and mermaids can grow legs and become costume designers. Each of the book’s sections is accompanied by strange multimedia art (personettes of mermaids with household appliances for tails, embroidered cloth, pictures of everyday objects encased in glass, and so on). Harvey is like a surrealist sculptor who makes miniature worlds out of pinecones, and the result is stunningly beautiful, disturbing, genre-migrating writing.
The women-girls in this book take male fantasies and exaggerate them, stretching them out until they break. They are aquatic, insubstantial or too substantial, held back by either a physical defect or dysfunction, such as the mermaid who can’t swim because she is half tuna, or the mermaid in “Telletrefono” who is slowly killed by the world she wasn’t meant to inhabit.
The book opens with a group of prose poems about malfunctional, objectified, male fantasy-warping mermaids. The poems are accompanied by mermaid silhouettes, in which the tails are household tools. One mermaid is too straightforward. Another is inside out, her organs are her skin. The Impatient Mermaid is too fast and wired, longing for death. The Tired Mermaid is perpetually exhausted. Morbid Mermaid is enraptured by death, but dissatisfied with the foam that mermaids turn into when they die. Backyard Mermaid is trapped in a suburban neighborhood. The Objectified Mermaid is doing a pin-up photo shoot and working in a dive bar. Deadbeat Mermaid is an aquatic hick. Homemade Mermaid is botched:
The book’s fourth section, “On Intimacy,” houses a collection of poems (“My Zebra Son,” “My Wolf Sister,” “My Owl Other”) about woman-child-animal hybrids. Like the mermaid poems in the book’s previous sections, these poems characterize the stigmas surrounding womanhood and family.
The Homemade Mermaid is top half pimply teenager, bottom half tuna. This does not make for a comely silhouette, and the fact that her bits are stitched together with black fishing wire only makes the combo more gruesome. The Homemade Mermaid floods Mermag’s “Ask Serena” column with postcards that read, “O why not half salmon or half koi?” signed Frankenmaid. Sure, she’s got the syndrome—loves her weird-eyed maker who began his experiments with Barbies and goldfish in a basement years ago—
Another part of the book, “The Glass Factory,” is a long poem broken into sections and framed by images of household items filled with glass. The girls in the factory have never been outside. First they make a girl from glass, then they make new worlds:
Harvey follows “The Glass Factory” with a group of animalistic dystopian poems with retro images that juxtapose the harsh realities of Harvey’s writing with kitschy multimedia images of miniature household items and small, seemingly random objects.
Harvey uses the mermaid as a token of womanhood again in the last section of the book, “Telletrefono”:
In “Telletrefono,” a mermaid who dares to leave the ocean because she is craving sound faces the consequences as her legs and body break from the noise, a metaphor akin to the shaming and punishment inflicted on women in fairy tales and in the real world for their expressions of sexuality. The mermaid is punished for coming ashore, and, metaphorically, for becoming immoral because of it. Her inventor husband creates bright, loud worlds for her as their life becomes increasingly ruinous. Throughout If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? Harvey takes stereotypes and destroys them, leaving a trail of shards in her wake.
The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
above their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.
Preset Antonio Meucci Monologue Mode:
It looks plastic and unbeautiful, no? But oh if you filleted this telettrofono, the wonders you would see. Two tubes lined with fish scales and mercury, sparks of electricity tripping up tiny gold stairs, a spirit level stitched into a swimbladder, a microphone made of minimolluscs, and, floating in a small stoppered vial, one petticoat snippet, one mermaid tear, and a cell from the gill of an electric eel. You are holding in your hand “the telephone which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me.”
Preset Mermaid Monologue Mode (Esterre Meucci)
Look up. The clouds are a pod of belugas,
the sun, a bloom of jellyfish fluorescing
a few fathoms up, or no, make it nighttime—
the light underwater was never this bright.
That was once my life. I moved through it
smoothly, too smoothly—sometimes just to feel
something, I’d take—between my thumb
and forefinger—one of the many hooks
that were hunting underwater and give it a tug.
Hello, I mouthed underwater, hello?