The poet Matthea Harvey has a Frozen Charlotte doll—a china doll popular in the late 19th century—encased in ice in her freezer.
The fact that she has a doll in her freezer won’t come as a great surprise to those who have read Harvey’s latest book, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (Graywolf), a collection of poetry and visual art, filled with photographs of miniature items frozen into ice cubes, and of tiny, tiny buckets filled with ice or snow. There are also photographs of embroideries, patent diagrams both real and imagined, silhouettes of mermaids with hammers and guns instead of fish tails, and pin-pointed constellations on a black sky.
Harvey, 40, is an accomplished poet, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s been working on this latest collection, which will mark the first publication of her visual work, for seven years. A constant maker, Harvey plays and creates in her studio daily, and she began this project after imagining a series of poems with pictures as titles. Although a handful of these made their way into If the Tabloids, the text and images began to flow together differently over time, with Harvey building a large black binder of experiments. Some were inspired first by photographs or images, some through texts, and some found their pairings only later.
In the completed book, it’s hard to imagine Harvey’s words divested of the accompanying images. When writing about the 19th-century Italian inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci, for instance, Harvey decided that Meucci’s wife, Esterre, would have embroidered him handkerchiefs. Harvey then began learning to embroider in order to write about the process (Graywolf’s logo is embroidered by the poet on the cover of the collection). Soon enough, Harvey was tracking down a 1,500-page biography of Meucci—an unpublished English translation—and stitching diagrams of his ideas onto handkerchiefs.
“I have no idea how to embroider,” Harvey says, and, in fact, she has little formal training in the visual arts in general. But the images, crafted with as much care as her lines, convey a befitting beauty and depth of thinking. In the book, for instance, across from a gorgeous embroidery of a process for bleaching red coral pink (one of Meucci’s unfiled patents), Harvey has a mermaid chorus declare, “Perhaps you should not/ have told him that we use/ electric eels to shock away/ our headaches.” To encounter either this picture or these lines alone would diminish them.
Mermaids and dolls, miniature furniture, embroidered handkerchiefs—to list the materials used in the images in If the Tabloids runs the risk of giving a false impression of the collection, suggesting only the decorative and the fanciful. Harvey says, “There is the danger of people thinking, ‘You’re taking pictures of miniatures—how sweet.’ But what I love about photographing miniatures is the way something seems off about them. I sigh when I see the words ‘whimsical’ or ‘quirky’ in my reviews, because they’re so frequently used to describe the work of women or gay men in a dismissive way.”
But Harvey directs these images and modes into something much more complex, even insidious at times. Speaking of the doll in her freezer, she explains, “Making a frozen Frozen Charlotte seemed like a funny idea, but, at the same time, those dolls are named for a ballad about a girl who is too vain to be wrapped in blankets while sledding, so she freezes to death. Even when there’s humor or play on the surface, my work tends to have a dark undertone.” Harvey can find that dark undertone almost anywhere. The sequence of mermaid poems, for instance, led her to a mermaid conference, a fount of joy for the teenage girls who attended it. She points to a photograph above her desk of a dour girl in a mermaid costume beside the pool. “That’s a sad teenage mermaid,” she says.
This combination of surface play and premonitory substance is present in Harvey’s earlier work as well, perhaps most obviously in the 2007 collection Modern Life (Graywolf). Critics took note, in particular, of “The Future of Terror” and “The Terror of Future,” abecedarian poems that decorate themselves with alliteration in order to explore political tensions firmly rooted in American culture post-9/11. Like the flourishes of alliteration, the miniatures of If the Tabloids allow Harvey to explore darker material—in the poet’s words, “distracting my brain to allow it to say the thing it really wants to say.”
It’s the kind of poetic impulse that drives the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory,” in which a group of girls spend their entire lives in a factory, working conveyor belts and kilns. One day, they make a glass girl, who comes alive and leads them into an outside world that is so overwhelming and foreign that they retreat to the familiar safety of their factory home. “In her dreams, the girl who/ has begun building a glass owl/ from the inside-out, starting with/ its morning meal of mouse, will invent/ a formula for flight.”
To accompany this sequence, Harvey took photographs of very small glass bottles, one of which, she decided, was the glass girl herself. When she shows the bottles to me, they’re even tinier than I imagined, barely able to cover the pad of my finger. That particular glass—the one that she decided was the glass girl—broke. It broke even before the poem was finished, and, as a result, the girl also disappeared, leaving her makers to their factory. “There’s something a little bit ominous when it comes to miniatures, because you’re the god, you can do anything,” Harvey says, adding, “You can accidentally kill your glass girl.” As she speaks, she stands before a large cabinet, its very small drawers filled with very small things. There are whole worlds in there—worlds only she knows, but that she shares. They are very beautiful and they might be destroyed, but we get to read about them.