An Interstate of Wordsby Christopher Michel
David Matlin, It Might Do Well With Strawberries (Marick Press, 2009)
It Might Do Well With Strawberries, a new book by David Matlin, sits at the blurry edges between diary, polemic, poetry, and essay collection. For the most part, Matlin, a West Coast poet who has previously written about the American prison system, constructs the book as a set of excerpts from his journals from early 2004 through the end of 2005. I say “for the most part” because it’s not always clear what is or isn’t from his journals, or when or how much Matlin went back to revise. Nor is the book specific about when the journal-writing begins (dates start on page 36, and before that it is much more heavily poetry) and the record-keeping seems loose at best (“Thursday February 17th 2005” is followed by “Saturday February 17th 2005,” which is followed by “Thursday March 1st 2005,” which was not a Thursday).
The subject matter ranges widely: from reflections on nuclear weapons, to California’s penal system, to the history of Indian tribes in the American West, to the weather, local flora, and musings on William Blake, Herman Melville, Adrienne Rich, the Iraq war, and “talk-poet” David Antin. Matlin also mixes essays and poetry into his journals. Parts are arranged on the page, or broken into lines, while other parts are mixed in without dates. Sometimes the spelling switches to the British (“colour” instead of “color”) and historical and fictional voices enter into the text with little introduction.
As you might expect, the overall experience is very disjunctive, though that’s not necessarily a problem. Matlin is at his best discussing the things that move him most personally—his description of a “thousand-mile expedition” to Scammon’s Lagoon in Baja, California is particularly striking, and there are many passages where he relates the stories his mother told him about early Western life, including the woes of Native Americans dealing with encroaching white settlers. These are among the most powerful and moving in the book. But all too often, it feels like Matlin is interested in riling the reader—with the terrors at Abu Ghraib or usable nukes, for instance—in a writing style that makes the frightening material come across as melodramatic.
Outrage and shock sometimes stand in for tension or argument in these sections. And frequently, run-on sentences stand in for experimental writing. This unfortunately happens when Matlin feels the need to make connections between the various subjects of his interest. In the middle of one amazing section, a study of Blake’s painting “Satan Exulting over Eve,” he examines the combination of indifference, trance, and sexuality in Eve’s posture, writing that she is “both tense and loosened in the rhythmic permissions of her breathing and her waiting as she tenderly lays for the Serpent who is wrapping his body tail first at her toes and heel knowing these extremities are also the erectile veil hovering at the border of her barely emergent dreams.” But then, alas, he adds this:
Is this Blake’s Imaginative Excess and innovative archaism as well as a commentary on a prehistoric stage of politics having to do with the secret adversary, the secret police at the roots of “intelligence” and “intelligence gathering” as if at first ravishing and spreading the toes, the dread of the pun coiling in prevention of sedition and rebellion?
I’m not quite sure what to make of a leap like that.
Matlin’s journals and essays are full of good material, and his thoughts—deep, and curious—are, more often than not, engaging. The conceptual idea for the book is great, and Matlin avoids the biggest potential pitfall of any printed journal, that of being overly self-involved. His ideas are often interesting, dark, and witty, and the book includes a range of subject matter and material that could potentially intersect in fruitful ways.
The sections where the book falters have more to do with the editing than the writing. A stronger version of this book would excise many of Matlin’s political tirades, expand upon the sections with real emotional risk, and would have a stronger sense of order (which, for all its disjunction and experimental leanings, is largely chronological). It remains an interesting, if uneven read, especially for those concerned with the emotional intersections between literature, politics, and history.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.