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Michigan Bookmark: “Simulacra” looks unflinchingly at mental illness, class, gender and race

Jun 20, 2017

Credit Yale University Press, 2017

By any measure, Airea D. Matthews’ collection of poems, Simulacra, is an auspicious debut.  Awarded the 2016 Yale Younger Poets Prize by Carl Phillips, Simulacra channels the voices of famous 20th century poets like Anne Sexton and Gertrude Stein.  Her poems look unflinchingly at the ways mental illness intersects with class, gender and race, and she ushers the epistolary poem into the 21st century. 

The title of this collection draws upon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, who wrote, “Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original—things are doubled by their own scenario.”  Matthews is interested in this phenomenon of copying or “doubling” as it relates to art and inter-generational familial pain. 

Matthews is a virtuoso, and nowhere is her inventiveness more on display than in the series of text message poems she writes to Anne Sexton, a twentieth century poet famous for her stark confessional poetry and tragic suicide.  It is a move at once aesthetically daring and intellectually engaging.  The first allusion to Sexton comes in the poem, “Meeting Anne Sexton,” though here it isn’t the poet Sexton we’re introduced to but a nurse at a rehabilitation center.  Matthews’ speaker, under treatment for drug addiction, “told Anne a famous poet had her name, but was no longer / alive—death by asphyxiation, suicide,” thus establishing mental illness and its social significations as one of the book’s repeating concerns. 

In the very next poem, “Sexton Texts A Dead Addict’s Daughter During Polar Vortex,” Matthews invokes the historical Anne Sexton by drawing upon themes in the late poet’s work and plugging them into the contemporary digital medium.  The stanzas are staggered against the right and left margins the way text messages are formatted according to sender/receiver on a smartphone screen.  “But mother unearthed each small / bloodmain under her gauzed wrists,” Matthews’ Sexton texts.  “She fought a strange compulsion / to press her mouth against her / right pulse, taste the throbbing / veiny eels her crooked lover forsook / drink from blind lakes of their leaving, / undo their digging.” It’s unclear whether Sexton is referring to her own struggles or those of the addict-mother referenced in the poem’s title.  It is a beautiful, intentional ambiguity.

Matthews is an erudite poet whose reading and writing life are inextricable, who knows literature and philosophy as intimately as she seems to know contemporary American culture.  More importantly, she knows how those tropes reflect and inform each other.  Simulacra is challenging in the best sense, questioning language, identity and originality.  She is one of the few poets who can be totally original, while eschewing the very concept of originality.  This book aches and haunts and lives within its reader by teaching us truths about ourselves that we may not wish to know.    

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He is the author of the book, Brother of Leaving and the chapbook Heard Among the Windbreak

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

 Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

 

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