THE WAY THAT we live now: I don't always pick up the annual Yale Younger Poet book, but I saw this on the new poetry table at Elliott Bay Books and was intrigued by the cover, so I bought it. I was reading it in the coffee shop attached to the bookstore when our younger adult child (whom we were visiting) took my picture and posted it to Facebook. Within a few minutes we found out that our kid is Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who are Facebook friends with Airea Matthews.
That seems surprising to me, but for all I know it's the new normal.
Matthews's title and section epigraphs invoke the principal intellectual concept of Jean Baudrillard, that the original and authentic are chimerical, definitively unavailable to us, however badly we desire them. But the poems often invoke (by name and quotation) Anne Sexton, one of the great mid-century confessional poets, and confessional poetry typically does hold out the promise of the unmediated, the original, the authentic; it may be messy, it may be embarrassing, but it's authentic. So how square this circle?
The Baudrillard-Sexton conjunction makes the reader wonder how much of confessional poetry is gestural, a set of moves that speak to a certain real but unsatisfiable readerly hunger. Several poems in Simulacra, for instance, mention a father, now deceased, who was addicted to heroin. Is this confessional poetry or only a detail that we tend to read as confessional?
The book's formal versatility (e.g., a poem that adapts Schoenberg's technique of 12-tone serial musical composition) suggests to me that Matthews wants us to think about just that sort of question. Is there a formality to confession? Does form depend on matter?
"If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein," for instance, crosses the avant-gardism of Tender Buttons with the gritty pain of the Great Migration. The historical pain reflected in the poem could have made the literary experimentation look frivolous, and the poem could have seemed like a parody. But what happens instead is that the defamiliarization that gives Tender Buttons its strange magic makes the losses and hardships of the Great Migration generation visible in a new way.
A memorable debut.