Monday, January 4, 2010

Destruction Myth

For a handful of years, Mathias Svalina has been an important voice in the collective and disjointed chorus of 21th century American poetry--through individually published (and sometimes anthologized) poems with a surrealist bent, and through the publication of chapbooks either individually or collectively written. Now comes his first full-length collection, a handsomely-designed book worthy of celebration, merit, and envy.

On the surface, Destruction Myth feels simple. Consider its title page: forty-four poems called “Creation Myth” followed by one concluding, longer work, “Destruction Myth.” (The vast majority of poems here are prose constructions). In addition, Svalina’s language is monosyllabic, his vocabulary accessible. Yet, simplicity exists on the surface alone. In fact, simplicity ends once you flip past the title page. The book’s opening lines illustrate this, and more:

In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird
but everyone did not have the name Larry Bird
& this was confusing. Everyone had a headache.

The response to Svalina’s work, especially lines like these, is laughter, and certainly comedy defines his voice on occasion. (How else do you read lines like, “After the beginning of everything the suicide rate increased dramatically,” or “In the beginning there was a void. A tuba”?) However, somewhere behind the closed doors of these poems a smoke alarm blares, and not because everyone has forgotten to change the batteries. No, in a dark corner of the apartment, maybe a closet we didn’t know existed, a small conflagration burns, fueled by objects and artifacts not usually flammable, and ones we didn’t even know we owned.

To achieve its end, surrealism requires a bevy of rhetorical special effects. Reversal, for example (though, not in the sense of peripeteia), is one of the tricks Svalina uses. In many of this volume’s sometimes comic, sometimes tragic post-post-modern myths, the creation of mankind is a kind of afterthought, as though humanity was born into a world already created, its streets paved, its traffic lights flashing from red to yellow to green. Only, perhaps, its bureaucratic impulses aren’t preemptively churning:

In the beginning there were only streets.
There were streets that led to cliff,
Streets that led to patches of dandelions....

There was, however, no Department of Transportation
& over the millennia the streets dissolved into cracks & weeds.
Eventually the living things arrived....

In other places, nonsense governs, and Svalina’s poems echo, therefore, the world we live in now by strange compliment rather than contrast: “In the beginning there was nothing. But the nothing smelled like bacon. No one could figure out how nothing could: a) have smell & b) smell like bacon.”

I could go on. Beyond the tricks, though, what these poems articulate has more to do with the stories we tell ourselves (how we interpret them, how we let them influence our lives and beliefs) rather than the details of the stories themselves. No reader will read the poems of Destruction Myth literally, or even be tempted to. No reader will confuse the voice of Mathias Svalina for a god. (No reader I know, anyway). Yet, the question this book poses places us before the mirrors of our own existence: If we can’t take these myths literally, how dangerous is it, then, not to treat the mythology of our own life in the same way, especially in terms of our past and how it helps to understand our present while also directing our future? Where, then, do we draw the line? Or, can we? Perhaps, as Svalina himself might suggest, we ought stop drawing the line, because the lines have already been drawn for us. Instead, we ought to start drawing outside of them. As soon as we can. It’s the only way to create a new and lasting mythology

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