Hi again, Harriet! By the way, I’m the media assistant here at the Poetry Foundation. I’ll be posting until the end of the summer, when I’ll leave to begin a PhD program in Comp Lit at Northwestern, where I’ll work on classical and contemporary poetry.

When I began taking poetry workshops in college and forming an inkling of what contemporary poetry was up to, one of the books that most excited me was Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form: not only because I loved its surreal lyric landscapes, but I was dazzled by its use of zeugma, a “yoking” (the Greek translation) of two words modified or governed by one word, although that governing word only makes logical sense with one of the two at a time. Picture a cart with oxen hitched up and pulling on both sides, and compare with how the lines break here, from the beginning of “Paint Your Steps Blue”:

It is spring & people are out repainting their front steps
Glacier blue because this village is closer to the glacier than
The volcano emits a tiny rumble & drools lava once every few
Years go by & its followers grow fat with having nothing to
Fear here is of the icy-&-slowly-approaching variety

Zeugma, besides being fun to say, delightfully interrupts any smoothly rhythmical reading of the poem, and reminds me of loosening threads in fabric with a stitch remover. A common image in Pity the Bathtub is glass, and Harvey’s poems equate the formation of glass with the poetic process itself—raw material must soar to a certain degree before it forms to perfection, or at least completion, in a mold. From section two of the title poem:

. . . it is because he works with glass
That he thinks things are clear (he loves) and adjustable
(she does not love) he knows how to take something
Small and hard and hot and make room for
His breath quickens at night

So I was very excited to read, see, and listen to Harvey’s latest project; in collaboration with the Miró Quartet, she composed a poem to be read with Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5. The poem hauntingly describes girls in a glass factory, making thermometers, portholes, and, most interesting, a glass girl. Listen to the performance, recorded at the White Pine Festival as part of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Radio Project, and read the poem, including five original photographs that serve as titles to the movements of the collaboration.

Coincidence or consequence, you might wonder, about the Glass/glass connection? When asked about beginning the process of collaboration, Harvey says, “I listened to the CD of the music over and over again and started writing down random images. The first thing that came to me was an image of floodwater going over the banks, and then I started picturing these girls dancing around and pouring liquid from one thing into another and that sort of turned into a glass factory, I think because of the name of Philip Glass.”


This initial association blossoms into a meditation on boundaries and creation; the strains of the music correspond to rising temperatures, the high heat of melting, and the low notes of formation. And the images provide an intriguing mental backdrop on the stage shared by poem and music. In a Bookslut interview, Harvey says, “My poems are friends with paintings,” and this poem is further proof of the weight images and words bear on each other.

Like great poetry, glass both magnifies and reflects objects and subjects. Or, as Harvey writes in “Self-Portrait with Glass Ball, 1936” (in a series of poems about Max Beckmann paintings):

If only I had looked
into that third eye—for though it had no ties to visions
it knew my heart, was my heart.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2009

Born and raised around Youngstown, Ohio, Katie Hartsock earned a BA from the University of Cincinnati, an MFA from the University of Michigan, and a PhD from Northwestern University. She is the author of two chapbooks, Hotels, Motels, and Extended Stays (Toadlily Press, 2014) and Veritas Caput (Passim Editions, 2015)...

  1. July 4, 2009
     Michael James

    Interesting post.\r

    I would enjoy reading your dissection of Sad Little Breathing Machine, which I personally find more conceptually juicy.

  2. July 4, 2009
     Michael James

    So funny thing happened. I check my email and there's an Oxford word of the day for zeugma. The first time I ever encountered the word was through you, and for this to occur is highly strange.

  3. July 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    Hi Katie,\r

    Matthea Harvey's poetry gives me no pleasure. \r

    When I have to stop and re-read a text for meaning, I just don't find it "delightfully interrupts any smoothly rhythmical reading..." Rhythm is never 'smooth;' the term 'smooth,' as in 'smoothly rhythmical,' is counter to the essence of rhythm; any rhythm may be consistent, but it is never, by definition, smooth. Smooth implies no rhythm at all. Any rhythm which becomes more interesting becomes less monotonous, but this is a truism. Puzzling over prose-meaning is not rhyhmic and can never be defined as such. An 'interruption' of a rhythm 'interrupts what already interrupts;' such an idea has no force; it's a nullity. "Delightfully interrupts any smoothly rhythmical reading of the poem" is a phrase of no meaning.\r

    I am ready to play any game. I am ready to try anything new. I am ready to look at something in advance of thinking on it, or to think before I look, if such a thing is necessary. Matthea Harvey's poetry leaves me smooth. Very smooth.\r

    Human existence depends on obligation, expediency, or pleasure. None of these exist in writing speech in lines.\r
    Why then do we hear so much of the 'poetic line?’ We traditionally paragraph our speech as a simple aid to comprehend the prose meaning; paragraphing is not necessary for comprehension; the framing of paragraphing doesn’t change the meaning; it is merely a helpful break for the eye in its purely mechanical job as information-gatherer. The art of paragraphing would hardly win an artist a major award. Even less important than paragraphing, when we are reading prose, is where lines happen to end. \r

    If periods (sentences) caused line-breaks to occur, we wouldn’t have line-breaks. We would have very short paragraphs. \r

    For instance:\r

    Human existence depends on obgn., expediency, or pleasure.\r
    None of these exist in writing speech in lines.\r
    Why then do we hear so much of the 'poetic line?’\r

    Is really this:\r
    Human existence depends on obgn., expediency, or pleasure. \r

    None of these exist in writing speech in lines.\r

    Why then do we hear so much of the 'poetic line?’\r

    These are 3 paragraphs. They are not 3 lines. \r


    Now, we may ask, 'what of prose poetry? Do lines exist in prose poetry?’\r

    They do not.\r

    Let us demonstrate. Let us assume the text above is prose poetry and we break it up thusly:\r

    Human existence \r
    depends on obligation, expediency, or pleasure. \r
    None of these exist in \r
    writing speech \r
    in lines. Why then do we hear \r
    so much of the 'poetic line?’\r

    If we break up prose into sentences, we are paragraphing. If we break up prose into fractured sentences, we are still paragraphing. Let us simply add space between the paragraphs. Thus, we have six small paragraphs:\r

    Human existence \r

    depends on obligation, expediency, or pleasure. \r

    None of these exist in \r

    writing speech \r

    in lines. Why then do we hear \r

    so much of the 'poetic line?’\r

    Strange paragraphs they are, but they are paragraphs, NOT lines.\r
    Just as in our first example: merely by adding empty space, it becomes apparent that we are making paragraphs, not lines. \r


    Prose is divided into sentences and paragraphs. \r

    The line shares no role in this speech-division. \r

    Sentences and paragraphs exist in prose; lines do not. \r

    Punctuation can change meaning, and if the line-break does, it does so ONLY IN TERMS OF PUNCTUATION. There is no magic to a line-break, except perhaps to the extremely superstitious, who like to pretend they are being "poetic."\r

    I know of no contemporary poets who swoon over periods, or colons, or commas. Why then do we die with sighs upon the line-break?\r


  4. July 6, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Mathhea Harvey's line-breaks remind me of the interesting permutations that sometimes happen to syntax in an exquisite corpse. The ability to let go of the dead hand of the last idea so that the spontaneous can occur, fishing gold out of the depths.

  5. July 8, 2009
     michael robbins

    I hate to be the one to point this out (I really do), but the rhetorical figure Harvey uses in the examples here is syllepsis, not, strictly speaking, zeugma. Syllepsis governs cases where there is disparity in how the parallel parts of the sentence relate to the governing word, as for comic effect.