Introducing the Poetry of Airea D. Matthews
"Linearity is overrated," writes Airea D. Matthews, a poet who seldom takes the direct path. But didn't Dante stray from the straight path in order to discover new worlds? Conversant with all manner of compact soliloquy, from Bible verse to text message, Matthews inhabits worlds within worlds, small moments of clarity and composure that push against the chaos of a busy existence. A mother of four who worked for eight years in the corporate world while pursuing degrees in public policy and in poetry (and why are those separate realms?), Matthews has grown used to firing on multiple burners. "I've known some degree of chaos my entire life," she says. "There were never any zones in my childhood and adolescence that were free of perturbations, turbulence, or risk." As a consequence, "perhaps, this type of environment becomes embedded in the memory and marrow."
In her poem "Dead of Winter Non-Sequitur" Matthews takes us through a marvelously non-linear meditation on the line and its limitations: "Lines are anemic. They think. They shrink. Boring perfect geometry." The sterile conventions of poetry are intercut with quotations, prose lineations, and a growing row of demarcations to show how a line is the reminder of life gaining on us while the mind moves circularly around ideas that form relation through their very repitition. The poem accretes details into an unresolvable fugue, a space of simultaneous energies held in balance by the mind in winter's stasis.
Matthews loves trying new voices, lately inhabiting the personas of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Anne Sexton. "Sexton Texts from a Bird Conservatory" is but one in a series of poems inspired by the poet. Initially they began as a way of communicating with the monumental and dark-edged figure of American poetry. "I wanted to write her to figure out about her life," says Matthews. That desire to connect led to the idea of communicating through the compressed and expedient form of the text message, and the poems employ text language and conventions along with concise, luminous hokku-like utterances. "Ah, the birds wanted them then." It is a form distinctly contemporary and yet ancient, a hearkening back to the intense and incandescent fragments of Sappho. But in this century the breakage is a dropped signal, a sudden silence that resonates with all kinds of energies—dark, comic, and terrifying.
This convention of confession is filled with imaginative acts, and we are never meant to be sure in Matthew's poems whether what we're reading is imagined or remembered. "Imagination," writes Matthews, "boundless and willful, is memory's proxy. Both are often as discontinuous as the world they attempt to depict and reconstruct. But in their tandem deployment, they do something remarkable; they may undo assumptions and unearth the nature of knowing and the importance of not knowing."
The short poem "Longing 4:2" is part of yet another series, The Book of Us, a set of epigrammatic entries biblically versicular, ostensibly taken from a holly text entitled The Book of Us, a sacred and profane volume that contains such "books within the book" as Prophets, Epiphany, Longing, Jealous, and Bitch. The verses aren't orthodox, they are pantheistic and promiscuous in their concerns, and they tonally run the gamut from... well that's just it, isn't it? It isn't a single line of thinking that these poems inhabit. They are everywhere at once. Timely: "Darkness was here first. Light is a gentrifier." Knowing: "Men seek their mothers anywhere they can." Audacious: "In the beginning was pussy and it was good."
Somewhere in the blurred boundaries of order and chaos, the real and the imagined, Matthews finds a space that feels urgent, timely, bountiful. These are, after all, the quiet moments in a busy universe, the meditation of a life lived int he midst of providing. Here is poetry that haunts us and sustains us in a time of endless reawakening.
This essay originally appeared in the spring-summer 2015 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2015 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.