Freedom Neither Public nor Private: A Conversation

by Hilary Plum and Zach Savich

The Real Horse, by Farid Matuk. University of Arizona Press, 104 pp., $16.95.

Hilary Plum:
A hero’s pretty feet on her legs white hose skin exposed in sumptuous folds bound
as freight on the back of this real horse running into its own outline.

This couplet repeats throughout “A Daughter the Real Horse,” one of six long poems that make up Farid Matuk’s wondrous second book. Except the couplet doesn’t look like that: instead the words are printed right to left, syntax reversed, though each word intact (… feet pretty hero’s A). In the midst of the poem you’re reading, the poet asks you to read differently.

Could this gesture in formatting evoke Arabic, readers wonder—a language that reads right to left, and which is vital in this book’s work of framing American imperial violence and addressing family, addressing the poet’s young daughter. (Matuk’s mother is from Syria, as we learn from the paratext, and as evoked in references to Aleppo, “an Aleppo ballerina,” “an Aleppo daughter.”) A phrase in Arabic appears prominently before the title page. Those who don’t read Arabic learn from the notes that this is the phrase translated as “Homeland is racist,” which artists painted as graffiti on the set of the TV show Homeland when hired to “lend a sense of authenticity to its set of a Syrian refugee camp.” Language is and is not what it seems. The show’s production team evidently could not read the graffiti and it aired, real graffiti in a fake setting, speaking authentically from a co-opted stage, inscribing real protest into this colonizing simulacrum.

These questions of authenticity, representation (whose, of whom?), and legibility (to whom? saying what?) are the weighty and beautiful burden of this book, entangled ever with the cruel realities and constructions of race (the phrase “white enough” accumulates in devastating refrain). The couplet quoted above describes the stage actor Adah Menken (1835–1868), whose racial identity was a source of speculation and her own self-invention. Matuk considers her famous role as the “Cossack hero, Ivan Mazeppa”: “Each night on stage she covered her skin, though not her shape, in a pinkish white body stocking to play the culminating scene in which Mazeppa is stripped nude and bound, against a scrolling panorama, to a runaway horse.” There’s a real horse and fake nudity and flamboyantly performed race, of unknown “authenticity”; there’s a fake land in real motion. There are flesh and presence and life in their quickness, elusive amid inescapable representation and discursive force. Performances (Menken’s act; Homeland’s truest graffiti) may overflow the constraints of their stages, may claim sites of resistance, of “freedom… neither public nor private,” at least for a scrolling moment.

“Where does opposition go after it frames our beautiful camaraderie?” Matuk asks in a letter to his daughter that prefaces the book. “You show me that even if the outlines of our circumstance burn without consequence, we can tend at once to the plain moment and to material things and to the projections they bear.” Both things and the “projections they bear”; both the real horse and its outline. This book forms hope somewhere between reality and representation, in the quick movement of that opposition’s going, the horizon it’s heading toward. I want to consider where this movement is and goes, how those outlines work. I’m curious what you think.

Zach Savich:

The “quick movement of that opposition’s going” reminds me of a passage from Julie Carr’s critical book Surface Tension. Carr, writing about Hopkins, says he “sought to articulate a process whereby the redemptive might be found, not by turning away from the experienced world, but by aestheticizing objects and events to such a degree that they no longer point to that world, but to another (better) one. As Ruskin put it, the artist sharpens the ‘glare’ of the observed world in order to apprehend the ‘awful lines’ of that object’s eternal futurity.” What glare does Matuk sharpen? What process does he articulate? In that opening letter, he suggests that “maybe the best thing to do outside is to litter the panorama, interrupting the idea of roaming an expanse without end.” The “real graffiti in a fake setting” does that—and, to adopt Carr’s terms, it no longer points to the “experienced world” of Homeland but (littering the panorama, “interrupting the idea” of simple fictional continuity) to another one. The projection bears us there.

Is that a “better” world? Whereby the redemptive might be found? And if we’re talking about “the best thing to do outside,” what’s “outside”? Matuk wonders if, among intimates, we can fashion “a space where we come together as one another’s occasions, not in relation, but in service with a little s, in service of the little things you say to twist or wipe away the track of the next minute.” So, the outside is what’s outside a space made by service. This process is creative—“aesthetic,” he calls it. But creation isn’t its end; rather, because the little things are littering things, we can turn from them, to wipe away “the track of the next minute”—not the track of a previous minute, but a future track. You see why I thought of Carr’s passage: she says “turning away,” he says “twist or wipe away”; she refers to the lines of an “object’s eternal futurity,” he swerves from the future’s tracks.

It takes layers within layers, to show us a frame and invite us to turn from it. You see that in the poem’s opening paragraph:

We really did sit in the playground at your school this summer listening to cicadas drone loopy and sly. In my head they sounded like professionals narrating their work into online performance reviews, like lovers or sex workers narrating their sex into phone cameras. Out loud we wondered if their noise might fold the distance in the background into something that would reach us.

I’m trying to view this moment “not in relation, but in service,” perhaps to the process of “displacing generation from genealogy,” so that the “really did” of literal reproduction meets a generative sounding, a generative wondering. Lots of frames in that paragraph: “in my head,” “out loud.” The comparison that’s located “in my head” goes to another level—to perception, to the swivel to “sex workers,” or the swivel of calling lovers “professionals,” depending. And there’s the perfected and insufficient metonymy of wanting the cicadas’ hum to become “something that would reach us.” Again, that “would” is in the future, hoping for something that’s already happening—the drone does reach these listeners, folding the distance into something that travels; and so it lets them imagine something further. We could hope something like this could happen. The wondering is key: “I’m learning from you that we can stay, unrushed in our figuring,” the poem tells us. This poem prefers the figuring.

So, as much as The Real Horse wonders back, to lineage and the horrors of historical panoramas, it also wonders forward, sometimes bringing a potential future back to the present:

toward my stepping off the strain of new thought if one day we’ll be in a state  in a lost place
in a tent city will you be left to talk for us     will you see the tree of yellow flowers
the vinyl sheet pitched for a roof     water in gasoline cans hurried across hands
but today along our row of cubicles a sun staff in the blue recycle bin shows its walls

This mode of hard prophecy is sometimes cast even more directly around the child (e.g., “some men in particular will think to fuck you”). If these poems seek “to tend at once to the plain moment and to material things and to the projections they bear,” this gaze toward a later date is one way they do it. But they’re aware that these projections are also artifice, artistry, artful, and their aspirations include suspicions of mannerism, since they’re well aware that spectacle can trade in suffering. “I wanted to carry that feeling into the critique of feeling,” Matuk writes. What do you make of the book’s lushness, its prettiness, its vivid artifice, its felt interest in aesthetics—next to its awareness of all art can mask and trample and elide?

Hilary Plum:

Yes—here I think of the poem “No Address,” for the nesting of frames and the sensuous interest in artifice you describe. The act of framing that is art; the suspicion of that aestheticizing process; and how that suspicion is itself part of art-making, or paradoxically a cause of it.

“No Address” begins with Henry Brown, who in 1849 “ship[ped] himself out of enslavement by hiding his body in a parcel crate,” an act of real liberation—body emerging from box into freedom—he then turned into performance via his “panorama show, Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery.” We’re told that Frederick Douglass critiqued this conversion (with whatever degree of seriousness), noting that other enslaved people might have used his method had Brown not made a spectacle out of it; or, as Matuk says, made “a value he could trade.”

The poem next turns—juxtaposing the two figures’ emergence and submergence, freedom and its total loss—to Rachel Corrie, the young American activist killed in Palestine in 2003, who “knelt her white body between the home of Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah and an Israel Defense Forces armored bulldozer.” Corrie transplanted herself into a setting of military occupation to perform an act of protest. In the backmatter, Matuk describes how the idea behind such international “human shield” activists amid “vulnerable populations” is that “fear of ‘first world’ state retribution” may interrupt a violent encounter, rebalance a conflict. When put in harm’s way, the body of an American threatens international consequences. “This logic offers bodies with Anglo phenotypes as signs of privileged national status,” as Matuk states—a logic that failed in Corrie’s case, when there were no consequences for her murder. So Corrie’s death exhibits a defeat of this logic alongside the destruction of human agency that state violence can relentlessly achieve. In her case “do I figure the end of value,” the poet wonders.

The poem’s next section returns to the lyrical mode you’ve noted, the insistence on the beautiful that suffuses the book and its lush, enjambed syntax. In the stanza below, I love the abruptness of the word “commercial,” which interrupts the phrasing both to point up the poem’s beauty and to illustrate the poet’s discomfort with that beauty:

I want you to see the leaves are gone and white like winter
you said let’s make like a girl mean something amazing commercial
flickered in that dead patch today is where I saw
the cardinal’s glow you wanted to see me go first

“You” here is the daughter. We’ve turned from the larger historical world of Brown and Corrie to the intimate daily life of family, landscape on the scale of a familiar walk—from one frame to another (“a box into which we can turn away”), the poet considering his daughter’s place in the world, and how to witness it. Throughout the book, this gesture of “turning away” often takes the form of address, again and anew, to the daughter. This address requires futurity, as you say, since it’s on behalf of one coming into adulthood: an outline the poem speaks toward. (This leads me to see, too, the emphasis on resemblance and artifice, on the contingency of meaning-making, in “let’s make like a girl mean something…”)

The Real Horse illuminates the place of “you,” the reader, as the poem moves, as we “move it welcomed // by the outline where you   could drop the word.” The poet finds hope, I think, in these momentary acts of “dropping the word”—where the verb “drop” offers both a sense of solution (to drop the word into the outline awaiting it, welcoming it) and of error, slippage, a word lost. Elsewhere he indicates (in fugitive phrasing, clauses gently colliding) means through which “marginalized writers” may enact “a site of self making for / bodies in the cultural imaginary singing an anthem of simultaneity in a continuous space / of renewal that repeats dissonance and lack of closure as a strategy…” To think of “dissonance” and “lack of closure” recalls us to this book’s sense of how “opposition go[es],” of littering, of a dropped word, an ill-fitting body stocking. The littered beauty the poet keeps locating in language is a state of possibility the poem outlines—perhaps, “a predicament bodies find themselves in / whose momentary solutions we call dance.”

We readers inhabit the position of the daughter, the “you” to whom all this is offered, even as we/she are on the verge of turning away into the future:

… I want to say is the word      and its voice run ahead
to where we can do what we want      not bound even to that
the nation wanes       I’m not afraid you’ll turn back

These poems show us what she or we might “run ahead” from and the freedom we may find to keep moving, not even looking back. Thus the book asks the reader into an active role, both addressed (“dear daughter”) and exiting beyond the frame (“no address”). Matuk’s style here—his lack of punctuation and propulsive, precisely blurring syntax—call the reader into this position-in-motion. I wonder, then, in a basic way: how would you talk about the experience of reading this book?

Zach Savich:

I might stay with the ways in which turning away becomes address—that’s different from, simply, turning toward address, turning into address, or turning away from an address. There’s a poem that ends “fog turn away the night // night turn away the moon // moon turn away so we can see it.” What’s the “it” that’s within (or: within the turning of) these frames? What’s left to us?

Or I might stay with where you started, with that reversed refrain. Yes, that seems to allude to Arabic, and thus to the Arabic that appears early in the edition, and also to specific and implied worlds around its reference, but the refrain also asks you to stick with the phrase, with its recurring burden. It insists on the word by word apprehension of lines that, although they repeat steadily, remain different from the text around them. They remain code, though it’s a code you can read dependably. That has a way of preserving the phrase, perhaps, as though to keep it safe, like a spell? Keeping safe, preserving—but at a moment that is also most exposed? That reminds me of the effect of refrain in other works—John Taggart’s, for instance. But while Taggart sometimes shows lines mutating through iterations, Matuk’s refrain is insistently repetitive—yet, its “reversed” sequence suggests other potential recombinings. Here’s Nathaniel Mackey on anagrammatic titles in jazz: “Such titles appear to reiterate or reinforce a point made by the music, improvisation’s insistence that the given is only the beginning, that arrangements as we find them are subject to change, rearrangement—variable in ways analogous to bebop’s reinvention of popular tunes by way of a return to the pebbles that chord changes can be said to be.” Mackey doesn’t say the notes of a chord are pebbles; the changes are.

Can that apply to this book, over all? A sense of arrangements that seem “subject to change” even though they’re also noticeably steady, across iterations? I think so. In The Real Horse, the movement among particulars can be more akin to changes in chords than in isolated notes—a way of sharpening a glare. That might be most apparent in pages laid out in columns, lots of space around. Picture these strophes as tones, sounded around notes variously rooting and suspended and minor in what could prove a chord:

a daughter Juan Flores curled onto my chest
a daughter plein air
a mother archive erasure
a daughter durable good durable history
a daughter over the throwing
a father blacken the hills
a father high and tight
a father reservoir of poses

A narrative accrues? Or a mood? I’m back to that sense of “littering” I mentioned before—these listed items seem both oppositional and embedded, on the page and in a potential scene. Jack Spicer says in one of his lectures, “If you’re really on the right path, you can strew all sorts of rubbish on the way and it will be picked up by the animals of the forest.” That “really” is a retrospective real: you learn if it’s the right path later, if the shit you leave behind gets incorporated. That’s relevant for this book, for how it shows the difficulty of such incorporation.

I mean “incorporation” in the bodily sense, which takes me back to the beginning: “I started these poems as a way to see you even before you arrived, anxious about how the body we gave you would bear power’s projections.” The bearing in here goes a lot of ways. The question, then, may be one of complex “naturalization”—of a lineage in which certain aspects may consequential at moments, or latent, or distant, or diffuse. “The base maintains these planes ready for deployment,” Matuk writes of the “air assets” at a local base. Are they coming this way? Are they turning for us? “but the sky behaves itself / with just enough war over us as a family feast photographed frames time in our house.” To have “just enough war over us” is a chillingly casual phrase, with “over us” meaning “overhead” and “hanging over us” and “getting over us,” which could mean it’s gotten used to us by now. In the face of this, a photograph “frames time,” and I remember that a frame is also a set-up, as when one is framed for a crime, or by the set-ups (the sets, up) of language and history and birth, and so this framing of time itself, in the “family feast photographed”—we could say this poem becomes such a house.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields (2018), winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose; the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016), winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013).

Zach Savich is the author of six books of poetry, including Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018) and two books of prose, including Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue Press, 2016). He directs the Creative Writing BFA program at University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.