Modern Life by Matthea Harvey.  Saint Paul, Minnesota:  Graywolf Press, 2007. 


Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling


Modern Life, the highly anticipated third collection by poet Matthea Harvey, explores such diverse subjects as robots, spatial puzzles, and romance.  While the book treats a wide range of ideas, Harvey’s pairing of the absurd with the everyday unifies the collection, using these juxtapositions to critique the rhetoric of terror prevalent in modern political life.  Often adhering to the form of the poem sequence, Harvey’s book creates its own worlds from Martians and “Wac-A-Mol Realism,” presenting apocalyptic dreamscapes in which readers frequently recognizes their own cultural surroundings. 


In two poem sequences entitled “Terror of the Future” and “The Future of Terror,” for example, Harvey offers an astute commentary on contemporary American diplomacy, invoking oil wells, gumdrops, and oscillations throughout.  By juxtaposing the violent with the frivolous, Harvey’s poems suggest that the fear inspired by war proves pervasive, infiltrating aspects of life that once remained unrelated to the political arena.  She writes in “The Future of Terror/1”, for example: 


…We tried to pull ourselves

together by practicing quarterback sneaks

along the pylons, but the race to the ravine

was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.’s

and roses carves into rock.  Suddenly the sight

of a schoolbag could send us scrambling. (11)


Presenting quarterbacks and schoolbags alongside “R.I.P.’s”, Harvey implies that such contradictions remain prevalent in American existence, the commonplace side of life having become increasingly politicized. Also invoking a whimsical tone through alliteration, assonance, and consonance, the poems in Modern Life create discontinuities between form and content, suggesting that a disconnection exists between things like “schoolbags” and the meanings they hold for modern citizens. 


Also impressive in her use of familiar imagery in depicting such contradictions, Harvey prompts readers to recognize their own existence in the futuristic dreamscapes that she describes.  Exemplified by her series of poems depicting the childhood of “Robo-Boy,” the poems in Modern Life often invoke the everyday alongside the Orwellian, a combination that proves increasingly thought-provoking as the sequence progresses.  Harvey writes in “Moving Day,” for instance:


Robo-Boy has five emotions, HAPPY, SAD, ANGRY, CONFUSED, CONTENT.  When he switches from one to another his body makes the same sound his dad’s Acura makes when shifting into second gear, second into third.  He’s learned to clear his throat to mask the grinding sound. (45)


In this passage, Robo-Boy becomes an emblem for the depersonalization of traditionally poignant aspects of life—childhood, moving away from home, and alienation being merely a few examples.  By pairing a robot’s mechanization of emotions with recognizable brand-names, Harvey suggests that Robo-Boy’s life remains a possible successor to modern American culture, an idea that she communicates gracefully through extended metaphor. 


Modern Life is a finely-crafted follow-up to the author’s previous two collections.  A novel treatment of timely subject matter, Harvey’s book addresses political questions while remaining lyrical and lighthearted throughout.