Write the word “Dear” and what comes next? An epistle suggests a located life, a name, a “you” at the receiving end of it. Written during the pandemic years that over-located so many of us in our homes, Alex Mattraw’s Raw Anyone (The Cultural Society, 2022) unthreads the decidedness of location in a captivating series of epistles investigating the physical/virtual/mental spaces and pressurized cerebral rooms where intricacies of experience play out. There is a sense of bodily (often neural) intimacy in Mattraw’s epistles, which are addressed to the mysterious firing nodes where we may be most located, with titles such “Dear cell” (punning biological cell and cell phone), and “Dear Thought Climate” (suggesting the unstill permeations of brain and environment), and others.
Raw Anyone’s interplay of forms—“errant epistles,” erasures drawn from Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley, erasures of erasures, sonnets, dreams, undreams, and myriad other experimentations arising from constraints—catapult us into charged, cellular seepages of experience in a world webbed with catastrophe. These forms start in the “strange attention” of time during the pandemic. They start in the carriage of linguistic wit and syntactical contingency that “whips its own / echo.” They start in the carriage of the body that swims in neural fibres and environmental toxins and commerce-driven internet fiber-optics and pandemic confine time-spin, a “prismatic” sense of interrelation: “where living means / you must become / prismatic : cellular.” The opening sonnet of Raw Anyone begins with the question of location:
Where are we?
Hinge close : lose
rock : paper : Pfizer
leans diurnal dreams.
A sequence of three-word neural lightning bolts spills from the poem’s opening question. Mattraw’s verbs and syntax are un-static, resulting in a continual sense of pressurized action that addresses the opening question over and over anew. We “hinge close” or are told to “hinge close,” and out of the word “close” leaks “lose,” a frightening leak. The children’s schoolyard game of rock paper scissors, a game in which someone arbitrarily wins, someone loses, sonically shifts scissor to Pfizer, exposing the arbitrariness of harm and the gaming-sense of vaccine access during the pandemic. This malleability awakens and alarms.
The language casts us into a sense of the porousness of virtual and sensory realities ranging from bodily toxins (“Toxicologic / sweat”), to the signs of climate disaster (“White heat melts roofs to jelly. Pills. Turns / coral skeletal.”), to electronic obsessions (“the Call back / ricochet”), to pandemic parenting (“‘Can we trick / or treat?’ Hepa / masks”), to metaphysical precision (“clock step-wounds”). These pressures are almost never discrete; the forms and sonic play elicit a sense of their contingency and wildly firing interplay. A series of poems titled with a varied “if only” phrase (titles such as “If only metaphor it is that I will,” and “If only gravity it is that I will”) play out unsettled logic, the language bleeding into the walls of symmetrical margins in a dynamic of precarious slippage. Every poem has a feeling of multiple active narratives, an unsettledness that is an adventure to read and reread. In one of the “Dear Thought Climate” epistles, the prismatic existence holds the power of connection and confine:
a sea-prism. Where prison isn’t? Water
keeps age, attaching your cells to mine.
Prism contests prison. The immune system is no one single person’s prism where we share environmental and disease hazards. The book is full of nouns that slip out of each other or serve as both subject and object, verbs that slip between action and command, and so we are called into or called out by our own slippage.
In erasures titled “A Room” (drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own) and in subsequent shard-like erasures of Mattraw’s own erasures inspired by Susan Howe’s Sappho translations, Mattraw recasts Woolf’s challenge to forge an imaginative space against or of or in the pressures and confines that have whittled away at that space. Erasures can be a way to listen to a hidden heartbeat in a text—in this case, to Woolf’s attention to the conditions that have confined imaginative “room” for women, her challenge to consider “the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.” Mattraw’s erasures feel like they are taking a needle to draw out the skewed threads of Woolf’s language, eliciting a new text that draws our attention to current conditions and confines in the pandemic and global-political space we live in. Raw Anyone explores what it is to have room in the pressures of climate disaster, market forces, and other confines that find their ways into our small personal pandemic-enclosed bedrooms and computer windows and cells and families and organs.
There is something vital in these shards of instruction, which play with the notion of room: “Let us look out of tin / rooms”; “Knock the head-room / I ask you to live.”; “if only room it is that I will”; “what we / could room / in terribly.” The “] [“ poems, which erase an erasure, elicit the smallest cellular touchpoint of mental perception and response; the barely-evidenced conjuration becomes the ferocity of inside-out in the dizzying social-personal fabric where talk is not just talk, where “our talk may have / money of / moon-snags.” These forms expose the nano-small, precise activities of our raw, pressurized un-closable “rooms” of experience, rooms that are pressed upon and that themselves press. Are we over-recorded or unrecorded? On an earth where we can be over-contained or acted upon, is our job to dream or undream?
This book is also full of sense work, exploring the visceral antenna of sensory experience, the combustive unstill space where we are hyper-receptive and so subject to the world’s harms but also may be most raw, most human. Where does our mental experience begin and end? In “Steps of Time,” experience is so visceral that:
you can feel
one grain stuck
in your back molar
you can feel tiny
bleached bones crunch.
In this physical and virtual milkshake of bodily pings, online purchasing, pandemic domesticity, and environmental toxicity, the sensory meld is frightening but also reads as a saving-point, perhaps a point of extreme living. In “if only nature it is that I will,” we find:
No safe room,
no bed sheets, no thread sewn 1000 baby
hit on my ear drum.
The poem concludes with a heart-wrenching epistle cry:
Dear spider spondaic. Dear
innervated legs. Cranial burrow I admit
please wed this flea to me.
In poems acutely focused on the brain as the combustive, concussive point of reality-making and reception, this brain is also a state of cellular rawness, and it is decidedly anyone’s. The biology of brainwork plays out in “Dear cell,” epistles which are erasures from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, drawing from Shelley’s dual fascination with creation/destruction, with the wayward, with the bodily, with the made, forsaken creature. If rawness is the point of genesis, at what point is it not raw but formed? These erasures draw on tones of rage and despair in Shelley’s text: “As creator, nature owes me.” They elicit a new text that suggests the strangeness of pandemic year realities and the environmental, capitalist, internalized disasters of our own making through revisiting this classic tale of flesh and creation gone awry, where “strange accident happens : nearly / surrounded by the sea-room.”
What are we to make of all this permeation? Mattraw’s poems are almost chemically fizzing in their particularity, but these are also decidedly collective compounds, casting quick angles on the destructive and also the vital acts humans are capable of. In the pressures of all that is catastrophic, something essential is quixotically affirmed out of this “carousel” of rooms. The sheer rawness of experience comes through, the yearning toward what it is to live, and to live in this paradox where hinge points of our scarcity and peril are also the very hinge points where emotions can make us. In “Steps in Time,” Mattraw writes:
terrible matter never
in the beak
grains that feel
nothing you can
raise nothing you
can fail nothing
in this carousel
that matters is
nothing that is
you can feel
About the Reviewer
Endi Bogue Hartigan’s recent book oh orchid o’clock (Omnidawn Publishing, 2023) explores clock measure, temporal presence in today’s realities, and sensory impacts of our obsession with time. She is author of two other full-length books of poetry—Pool [5 choruses] (Omnidawn, 2014) which was selected for the Omnidawn Open Prize and One Sun Storm (Center for Literary Publishing, 2008) which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry—as well as the chapbook the seaweed sd treble clef (Oxeye, 2021) and out of the flowering ribs (2012), work in journals, and collaborative work. More on her work is at endiboguehartigan.com.