James Roderick Burns finds a way through the more unusual aspects of a collection by Elisa Matvejeva
Flowers I Should Have Thrown Away Yesterday Elisa Matvejeva Maida Vale Publishing, 2018 ISBN 9 781912 477593 £10.99
Flowers I Should Have Thrown Away Yesterday isn’t the usual sort of collection to come for review: each poem’s title is simply its first line in inverted commas; no capital letters are used; there are monochrome pen-and-ink drawings accompanying certain longer pieces; the acknowledgements section thanks the publishers, rather than listing publication credits; and there’s no evident structure or thematic development. In short, it is completely unlike every other collection likely to be reviewed in these pages.
But does this matter?
Well – that depends. Aside from the drawings, and a couple of twenty-something-in-a-beret photographs depicting “a young poet who is part of the ‘Instapoet’ revolution”, Flowers… works like any other poetry collection. We read the Table of Contents, note the odd late placement of the Acknowledgements, and dive in. It is immediately clear this is no soft-focus body of work. Despite the pink cover, and occasional illustrations of flowers, the book is far from dreamy or aspirational; rather, Matvejeva displays an over-riding concern with emotional, as well as actual, violence. To take poems almost at random, ‘wrapped in bubblegum hobbies’ states – almost in passing – “i’ve always wanted/to … leave a mark/on your concrete soul/fill my stomach/break my ribcage”; then on the following page (‘this obsession’) we find another harsh moment:
break your ties with the human world and dance among the flowers for this obsession will kill me unless i kill you first
A kinder (and less interesting) reading would put this sort of imagery down to a young person soured by new-love-gone-wrong, or at most a number of relationships which have hit the buffers and from which the poet has been slow to recover. But the overwhelming frequency and force of the book’s violence suggests otherwise – there is something fascinating at work. Take ‘i have problems with letting go’ (a suggestive title in itself): how are we to interpret the poem’s conclusion, its clinical language and deliberate scissoring-out of emotion:
on the train that night we locked eyes and i never wanted to forget your cold strong hands around my throat
Presumably not in any literal sense, and yet the surging emotion beneath the chilly surface feels real enough. Or the second stanza of ‘your starlit stormy eyes’, which shifts the rage into more abstract mode:
your mystical answers sink me dunk me into the icy waters between your ribcage
Perhaps it is simply as the poet admits in ‘i want to be’ (“I want to be/adored/craved/obsessed over”) and we should leave it at that: the force of feeling stamped into almost every poem springs from an excess of yearning, unfulfilled and caustic, rather than any darker well. But the darkness is so prevalent it lends the book a brooding, difficult air, one the reader can struggle to escape (yet which differentiates it sharply from other fluffy, kittenish online poetry).
Despite their slightly modish form, in a number of poems Matvejeva reaches heights of expression that break through the gloom and let us see a person of sharp insight and ‘traditional’ poetic skill underneath. In ‘your attention’, for instance, a plaintive, almost wistful note of introspection emerges, deftly underpinned with a few simple images:
i have trouble asking for help because it makes me feel weak like cracked glass or a sheet of ice over a springtime pond
Or ‘one day’, a short piece towards the end of the book worth quoting in its entirety, which takes a single image (bone into metal, life’s weariness into rust – a startling transformation) and delivers the reader into new and intriguing avenues of feeling:
one day i will rebuild and leave these smouldering bones to rest to mark the place where I built my strongholds one day I will pick up everything and carry my rusted skeleton to the next valley where the dust dances with the hope of a brand new day
It is a tender and moving poem, all the more powerful for treating the after-effects of the raw emotions which roll through the book in a new and elegiac way, finding in that quiet approach great hope and resonance.
Elsewhere one can find plenty of off-notes – words too rough, raw or compacted, ideas colliding in over-energetic profusion (“cursed jazz cacophonies”, “symphonic emergencies/and barely tangible intimacies”) – but these seem more a function of the poet’s bristling dark energy than flaws in themselves. When she pauses to wrestle with her furious thoughts, mull them over, perhaps distil them to their essence, Matvejeva can produce something extraordinary and thought-provoking:
you are no longer the door to my four walls you are no longer the blazing force to my dying fire you are no longer the moon to my tides you lit my lungs and spread love in me all things change someone else will do so now (‘in agreement with your absence’)
It will be interesting to see where she goes next.