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A Very Earnest Bewilderment in Farid Matuk’s This Isa Nice Neighborhood
Mary Austin Speaker reviews Farid Matuk’s acclaimed collection, This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine Editions 2011), for Painted Bride Quarterly. “I dress in the styles / of the rich / feel safe” are the lines that Speaker first took away from a Matuk reading at The Poetry Project in 2010, and which open the book. “The poems of his first book make a point of trying on the performed entitlements of class, race and nationality like costumes, inhabiting the ethical space peculiar to the immigrant passing for native, the poor passing for rich, the dark passing for light, challenging the reader to occupy both spaces at once.” Speaker does some close reading:
At once Matuk has made us aware that our costumed performances of wealth and security merely dampen the noise of our ancestors, and also that any disappearance into assimilation can act as an engine of social mobility. But so, he argues with poems like “Immigrants,” “Southside Free,” “Tallying Song” and “Talk,” does a kind of psychic bilingualism, which This Isa Nice Neighborhood overall prefers to forgetting. We must be able to speak two languages–that of where we came from, and that of where we’re going— but in each location we are haunted by the other.
The book’s title, for instance, lures the reader into a performance of otherness threaded throughout the book. “This is a nice neighborhood” is something one says about a neighborhood other than one’s own— “nice,” when ascribed to houses, having become shorthand for markedly more sophisticated architecture, larger homes, or tidier streets than the surrounding neighborhoods or the neighborhood from which the speaker has come. Eliding the “Is” and “a” of the book’s title offers a step further into the kind of otherness-inhabiting the book pries open for the reader. The written dialect of Isa implies an understanding of language in transition that invites the reader to perform the imagined non-native’s expression of English, a performance that reflects the original use of the book’s title.
The phrase is a quote from installation artist Daniel Martinez, who placed “This Isa Nice Neighborhood” above the new Moscone Center in Los Angeles. It was quickly taken down amid cries of protest (as detailed in a note on the title in the book’s backmatter). Matuk has elaborated further on his choice of title in an article written for Cross Cultural Poetics entitled, “The Ungrammatical People: Minstrelsy, Love” in which he argues for the Martinez’s deliberately constructed phrase as an invitation to the reader to inhabit an imagined other’s inflected speech (e.g. the “minstrelsy” of the article’s title), and as site of inquiry into the role of the language teacher, a position occupied by an increasing number of poets.
Further on, she also brings Fanny Howe into it!
What Matuk has identified … is not only the lack of an accepted practice for understanding otherness, but a very earnest bewilderment— a double-bind that most of us treat as an economy we can’t do much about: the plethora of imported goods, the lack of rituals for understanding strangers. Fanny Howe has identified this kind of bewilderment as a poetics and as an ethics–“a way of entering the day as much as the work,” which becomes, in Matuk’s hands, an admission of complicity, complacency, and difference that are, taken together, a radical opening up of the experience of otherness.