One of poetry’s most magical twoisms is its capacity to toggle between ambassador to the past (a poem on a page is always an artifact) and agent of the now through the simple activation of speech. A great challenge for poets, word to word, is to push back against the past that inhabits every line (not to mention the implication of the page’s second job as a gravestone) by letting the present be what pulls the lines to the page in the first place.
There may be no better active practitioner of this ethos than CAConrad, who over a series of books (a highlight of which was 2012’s luminous “A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon”) has explored a methodology of “(soma)tics” — that is poems that originate directly or indirectly from “ritualized structures where being anything but present was next to impossible.’’
This could mean riding an escalator in a mall, or clutching a crystal while communing through touch with a favorite tree, interviewing strangers to rate the consistency of their semen, meditating on seven possible genders for a week during which “days two through six were variations of our world,’’ or reflecting on dreams while listening to Prince.
From these rituals come notes; from those notes come poems; and from those poems comes not just a view into his process, but an entrance into another present, which a reader could as easily follow on her own — across the page as a poem, or across time as a performance of the same ritual.
On a blog where Conrad posts new (soma)tic exercises, he chases a poetry “which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit by using nearly any possible THING around or of the body to channel the body out and/or in toward spirit with deliberate and sustained concentration.” And certainly, these poems take William Carlos Williams’s prescription of “no ideas but in things” to a level that is both more literal and spiritual, and no less beautiful.
A meditation in Wyoming leads Conrad to create his own constellations in the sky, and find “a tinsel of/ mending found in/ the fossil record” in the dirt below. Another mediation on a webcam poised on a family of hawks leaves him “not sure/ if what we do to live will/ smash us to dust/ hawks washing through our veins/ tongues pressed to spiderwebs.”
The discoveries Conrad makes in his poems are renewable, available to any reader. In the introduction to 2008’s “(Soma)tic Midge” — a seven-poem/seven-day cycle based on the “natural order of color,” and for which he would only eat and wear things of a given day’s assigned hue — the course he charted for writing his poems doubles as a helpful map to reading them: “I cannot stress enough how much this mechanistic world, as it becomes more and more efficient, resulting in ever increasing brutality, has required me to FIND MY BODY to FIND MY PLANET in order to find my poetry.” In leaving a trail behind him, Conrad offers us a path forward.
If Conrad’s book proposes an implosion of process, Brooklyn poet Matthea Harvey’s new collection represents its explosion. “If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?” is Harvey’s fourth collection and by far her most adventurous, which is saying a lot considering the inventive energy and elegant weirdness that has charged her poems since her 2000 debut, “Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form,” seemed to leap from the shelf (presumably to escape dull neighbors).
Here Harvey’s poems are surrounded by her own artwork; but unlike, say, the ancillary doodles of Stevie Smith (which themselves seemed to be the lines she couldn’t quite coax into words), Harvey’s multidisciplinarian milieu gives the poems further dimensions to inhabit. A series of colorful snapshots in gilded frames serve as the titles for a suite of poems, busy with reflections like “With my love of poetry, fear of rashes and mixed feelings about zoos, I like to think I’m a Christmas tree tricked out in similes.”
Elsewhere, the stunning “Telettrofono” — a long poem arranged as a series of inventor Antonio Meucci’s 19th-century patent proposals, both real (like “Improvement in the Manufacture of Effervescent Drinks from Fruit”) and imagined (like “Giant Stone Piano’’) — is accompanied by Harvey’s embroidered renditions of them. The surreal silhouettes that run alongside a series of poems on mermaids feel like punk rock cameos. The tiny figurines and furniture suspended in ice that she presents as a series of photos allows entry into grander metaphors in her work — our social and domestic roles frozen in time, the potential every breath carries to melt us free.
In extending her concept of poetic craft into the physical realm, and by refusing to honor its discretion from poetry, Harvey has created a work that is both generous and sui generis, that makes as good a door as it does a window.
ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness
Wave, 160 pp., $30
IF THE TABLOIDS ARE TRUE WHAT ARE YOU?
By Matthea Harvey
Graywolf, 160 pp., paperback, $25
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe .com.