The Traps

By Louise Mathias


Four Way Books
April 2013


Reviewed by Caroline Goodwin


"It's a difficult place here, God."

                                    —Louise Mathias, "Form"

This plain statement is at the center of Louise Mathias' gorgeous collection, The Traps. These poems, at every turn, illuminate the specific difficulty of the 'place here'—namely the human body in its vulnerability and variety of desires, the human mind in its convolutions, and the ways in which we navigate the overwhelming puzzle of our presence on Planet Earth. We have nowhere else to go, the work seems to say, while simultaneously asking, how quickly can we get there?

Here is a book to read and re-read, for its music and its dissonance, its truly original and surprising imagery (the churlish heron, the perforated flowers, the velvet slug), and all the ways in which it explores Jon Anderson's assertion that "the secret of poetry is cruelty."

Yes. Cruelty and its many sources, cruelty and its aftermath, cruelty towards the female body. Here is the first line in the book, from the title poem: "Missy gets tied to the rafters." No ambiguity here. This comes, of course, right after the cover image: a stunning black-and-white photograph of a woman in a long white dress suspended in water, her face hidden above the surface. Mathias also touches on human cruelty towards flora and fauna and the physical landscape, cruelty in its simplest definition: callous indifference to or pleasure in causing pain and suffering. Here are bludgeons, slaughterhouses, pickaxes, nooses, and razors, right alongside the "swirling grace of London swans."

The work absolutely resists the predictable victim/perpetrator dichotomy, never crossing the line into gratuitous violence. This may be partly because the voice claims its complicity right away. "The Traps" continues:

Missy gets tied to the rafters.
She likes the lack of choices,

I'm afraid: one, solitary
per zip code.

I see an explicit link between containment and pleasure, along with something that doesn't quite make sense: a human system of boundaries applied to a bird (and not just any bird, but the crazy-flying, helicopter-like hummingbird). The effect is unsettling, and the message is clear. There is an important relationship between pleasure and pain, between containment and freedom, and this book is going to take us there.

Later, a poem entitled "Still," which I will include in its entirety:

Good to live
where the stars still work. A little
cirrus/nimbus floating by—

Confess: you wanted the world (and you)

to just shut up.
And what is there to say? He posed
me like a dead girl and I liked it.

Again, the specificity of the physical world (cirrus/nimbus) right alongside the human desire to contain or capture, as well as the expectation to "shut up and like it." We don't know who the speaker is, or to whom they are speaking, and it doesn't matter. What we have here is a "still"—a snapshot, a container holding the mystery of the relationship between pleasure and pain, life and death. And while none of the predictable gender struggles are explored, I can't help but find the book deeply political, deeply feminist. How does Mathias accomplish this? I believe it is partly through form and partly through sound.

The music of each poem is undeniably beautiful. Every one is a clear bell, the note struck in the title and maintained throughout. These notes do not waver, and the beauty resonates, complete with the other side of beauty, which is drawback. I am reminded of Joy Harjo's "I was born with eyes that can never close," as well as her plain statement of complicity: "I laid myself across the fire." Again, the poet-as-seer, poet-as-witness, but witness to all sides of the experience, without blame (I think too of Kurosawa's "never avert your eyes"). Mathias not only possesses the visionary capacity to look directly into the bright core, but also the ability to bring the reader with her, eyes held wide open through hypnotic sound, spare form, and always-surprising turns of phrase. And who hasn't been cruel to another living being? Who isn't curious about the results? If we are as honest as Mathias is asking us to be, I say none of us.

It also seems significant that the individual titles are as diverse as "Future Trees," "Snuff," and "Clavicle"—significant because of the variety of subject matter and the book's central argument about complexity. The poems are each contained on a single page, all making use of line breaks, and most of the lines are quite short. This use of spare form draws attention to the white space on the page, speaking directly to our current disaster, this "hissing starlight in the daytime." There is the panic of white space, the emptiness, and also the sense of the language being truly "trapped" and contained.

It is this kind of book—a collection of rare gems, spare and clean, each sparkling like cut glass—that strengthens my faith in contemporary poetry. Mathias shows me, through complexity of thought and that old friend of mine, mystery, how to continue my own trek through the desert. I can do it through poetry, through my own construction of meaning, through my very own music and sensibility. For are we not all in the same boat here, with the 'world's smallest boy' (or are we not, actually, every one of us, the 'world's smallest boy' ourselves?):

Somewhere, the world's smallest boy is rowing a boat.
His boat is too small and he is rowing too hard.
I try to imagine 

even starlings have a purpose.

Indeed, what else can we do but try to imagine the starling, that obnoxious bird and invasive species (with a lovely-sounding name), as a creature with a purpose? A purpose, perhaps, like us humans? So Mathias, in a roundabout and surprising way, ultimately becomes a spiritual presence to me, much like the Hopkins of the terrible sonnets:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Hopkins, despairing, never seems to doubt the existence of God. No, he simply cries out against his own disrupted relationship with Him. And here, now, in the midst of disaster and extended cruelty, the sharp voice of Louise Mathias echoes back and rings true. While it is, to be sure, and in a million new ways every moment, 'a difficult place here, God,' there is always poetry, the best of which will actually provoke us. I am heartened by the fact that this book exists, that Mathias continues to write from her home in Joshua Tree, and that The Traps has been so exposed in all of its complexity and danger.