Of Lamb

By Matthea Harvey

with paintings by Amy Jean Porter

July 2011

Reviewed by Mitchell McInnis


On its face, Matthea Harvey's Of Lamb functions as an adult fairy tale. It explores the relationship between Mary and her lamb through a series of sometimes intricate, sometimes humorous micro-poems carved from David Cecil's 1984 biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb via erasure.  Each of these little poems is accompanied by playful, cartoonish illustrations by Amy Jean Porter. The poems and illustrations are housed in a slick, coffee table worthy book reminiscent of the highest quality children's books. The decorous quality of the book likewise resembles 19th century poetry volumes, and could reside happily beside the illustrated poetry of Letitia Elizabeth Landon or Felicia Hemans.

The book's slick exterior belies the dark content of the biography of poet and essayist Charles Lamb as well as the dark overtones in Harvey's resulting text. Lamb and his sister Mary shared a close yet tragic bond similar to that of their friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Ten years older than Charles, Mary served as a motherly figure to him when he was very young. Later, the siblings became responsible for the care of their indigent parents. Mary worked relentlessly as a dressmaker and nurse to bring in money for the struggling family. In 1796, Mary's overwork led to a homicidal breakdown. She killed her mother with a carving knife and stabbed her father. She was briefly confined to an asylum, adjudged temporarily insane. At the age of twenty-two, Charles took full legal responsibility for Mary, securing her release from the asylum.    

Harvey's choice of the Lamb biography was random; it was the first book she could find for three dollars. From this random starting point, Harvey hatched a rigorous erasure of the text. The poet is quite transparent in her method, presenting slides of the erasure itself during public readings of the book. From each page of the original text, Harvey retained only a handful of words, whiting out the rest. In the book's closing pages, there are images of Harvey's erasure opposite Cecil's original text. From page 146 of Cecil's text, Harvey retained only 16 words from a page that discusses and potential engagement of Charles Lamb and how Mary Lamb may have felt about the same. These are the words that remain in Harvey's text: "What did Mary think / of children? Lamb / a father of a dark-haired / little girl-lamb?" In such pages, Harvey reveals that the act of erasure is a constructive destruction, a radical reconstruction of an existing text.

Erasure, as a technique, is undeniably enjoyable. When teaching poetry to college and high school-aged students, I invariably employ erasure as an exercise. Young bibliophiles derive rebellious glee from the act of erasure, from "destroying" an object they otherwise revere. This act of remaking is both the delight and controversy of erasure. For the so-called serious poet, erasure could arguably undercut the act of making. The oracular element of poetry is a very austere and faithfully guarded tradition, and rightly so. The notion of the poet as conduit rather than constructor of the poem has ancient roots, but it is very much alive in the work of such well regarded contemporary poets like Michael Earl Craig. Against such a tradition, erasure can be critically assessed as frivolous or a fad.

However, erasure and collage have similarly austere roots. Within the tradition of high modernism, the act of remaking is a heady one. Ezra Pound's Cantos employ allusion elaborately, using multiple sources as the materials of collage. T.S. Eliot's Wasteland dramatically displays this technique in section five, "What the Thunder Said." Using lines from a variety of sources and languages, Eliot jostles, taunts and vexes the reader toward a physical experience of the text. He employs collage as an epistemological grappling tool that both confounds and clarifies the capacity of what a poem can know and accomplish. Joel Brouwer offers this insight:

Any poet working in any kind of form, whether classical, modernist, or anything in-between, is working in a historical context, whether s/he knows it or not. It's most advantageous, I think, for her/him to know it, since an understanding of that context will help the poet to be able to enlarge and complicate it more beautifully.

Harvey's intentions are not as lofty as Pound's or Eliot's. She does, however, have a serious challenge embedded in this book. She asks us whether or not we can have fun with poetry, whether poetry itself can be funny and lighthearted and still be taken seriously. Amidst a series of pages about melancholy, Harvey drops humorous bits: "Should I tell you / I watched her eating / a bit of cold mutton / in our kitchen?" In such moments, the reader is in on the joke while likewise being asked to consider something serious and sad. In this challenge, she is likewise in good company. Contemporary American poetry is preoccupied with the mechanisms and epistemological modes of comedy. Comedy, too, tests poetry's ability to know and express. Among the comedic's proponents is former Poet Laureate Charles Simic. "We ordinarily anticipate good literature to be solemn, boring, and therefore edifying," Simic states in "Cut the Comedy." He goes on to relate an anecdote from his years in New York. During an early scene of Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape," the old man sits at his desk, struggling to open its drawer. In an elongated moment typical of Beckett, tension rises around the contents of the drawer. Finally, the old man produces a tiny banana, thrilled with his find. The moment is undeniably comic, and a man behind Simic "cackled." Several people hissed at the man and his seeming ignorance that there is no "side-splitting hilarity allowed in the presence of high art."

Simic and his poetic cohorts James Tate and Russell Edson disagree with this idea, forwarding the notion that comedy has as many meaningful things to say as tragedy. Simic calls comedy subversive, a rejection of and open challenge to oppressive institutions, be they political, religious or poetic. Harvey seems to agree with this. Through juxtapositions of more comedic micro-poems such as: "Lamb and Mary / were alike. / Unbalanced. / Flat-footed. / High-strung." against lush, image laden lines like "He moved among / the rouged illusions / of dawn." Harvey successfully establishes a narrative at once insightful and endlessly playful. Because this is the story of a love affair between a young woman and a lamb, lines like, "They pin'd and hungr'd / after bod - ily joy." are both inevitable and unsettling to the reader. As Simic has argued, in order for poetry to be relevant in contemporary culture, it must be as strange as cable TV. Harvey succeeds is this strangeness, forwarding a comedic invective reminiscent of Tate and Edson. In the two pages following the "bod - ily joy," Harvey and Porter's collaboration hits a high-point, as two young, naked children are shown dancing arm in arm, the text stating: "Lamb and Mary / met in what-ever room / happened to be closest. / Who / would not / be curious to / see the / pictures / ?"  The strangeness of the romance between Mary and Lamb is both advanced in the text and withheld. The reader is left to chuckle at the images presented as well as those withheld.

Like Tate and Edson, Harvey's comedic invective is purposive. It is an engagement of tradition as well as a calculated deviation from the same. As with metrical verse, it is in a poem's deviations from its established meter and rhyme that it calls attention to its intent. In Of Lamb, Harvey suggests that the poetic project and tradition are not delicate and fragile, and unremitting seriousness in poetry can thwart innovation and beautiful complication of the same.