Review: Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews

Matthews,  Airea D. Simulacra. Foreword by Carl Phillips, Yale UP, 2017.

Airea Matthews’ Simulacra doubles then quadruples its mirroring. As the author teases in her Notes, “the [title] derives from the Latin… meaning ‘to make like’ or simulate. …[but], according to [Philosopher Jean] Baudrillard, the simulacrum was that which ‘hides truth’s nonexistence.’” It is clearly this secondary definition that she is playing with in her text: these poems seem to pull back the curtain, revealing a dark mirror or pond that in its brightest spots truly illuminates the show behind us.

The compelling majesty of these poems is that they somehow remain inviting; it would be easy for such complexities to lock out the casual reader. But Matthews draws on a vast literary store of familiar characters (from Ancient Greek mythology and celebrity poets), folding in a modern sensibility that manages to not feel gimmicky. She often uses epigrams from French philosophers and writers (Camus, Baudrillard, Barthes) to remind us of the depth of what she is trying to achieve, even as she drops her characters—some recurring, like Anne Sexton the nurse who has never heard of Anne Sexton the confessional poet—into familiar settings. Matthews uses the operetta and biblical-style verses as easily as she does some more quotidian forms of communication that hardly seem artful (like texting and tweeting), until, in her hands, they become so. The text messages delivered, significantly, out of order—so that the reader must rely on timestamps and numbering to read them in their intended sequence—between poet Anne Sexton and the doomed Arthur Miller character Tituba from The Crucible of “Sexton Texts Tituba From a Bird Sanctuary” could really be titled something along the lines of ‘desire, foreboding, and womanhood.’ Those ideas pulse throughout this collection.

The spine of hunger, longing and trauma runs as an undercurrent through all of these poems, voices, and shifting presentations. As Carl Phillips mentions in his foreword (detailing his decision to select Matthews’ manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets series), “she offers us nothing less than an extended meditation on the multifariousness of desire” (xv). The poet herself remains unknown, even though she uses several characters (like “The Mine Owner’s Wife,” “The Good Dentist’s Wife” and Anne Sexton the poet) as stand-ins for the “I” presence, so that it becomes clear that there is something she finds compelling about women who were limited in their ambition at the hands of their male counterparts. But these are far from “domestic poems,” as some of these titles would have you believe. Matthews’ heroines are powered by their self-awareness, even though they are trapped. Her voice vibrates with the power of the poet Ai, that great master of the dramatic monologue. Matthews seems to be saying that there is power in femaleness that rides the great tide of generations. As she writes in “Select Passages from the Holy Writ of Us,” “They called her morning.5 She misheard mourning.6” This collection is a tour de force in its breadth and depth.