Michelle Matthees’ latest book of poetry—Complicated Warding—is ambitious in its form and message, a captivating examination of history through a contemporary lens. As described by Matthees, it’s an “inmate case file stuffed with assorted poems, images, and historical texts about institutionalization at the turn of the last century.” Old photographs and state records are interspersed between Matthees’ poignant poems, which shine as imaginings of what the people in the pictures might have been thinking, altered records, and current musings. These pictures are on semi-transparent vellum, the words visible through the faces.
Matthees’ poetry in this collection is elusive, bizarre, and almost uncertain. It leaves out unnecessary words and lets the reader do the work of connecting, which makes it all the more rewarding when meaning begins to form. During the “State Hospital” section, her lines flow into one another with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style: “…my antlers, / my fin, my jaundiced claw / (I need this for killing) / but not in a way that should scare you / though it might if you’re smart.”
In contrast, her “State Reformatory for Men” section removes itself from the minds of the documented. Instead, Matthees examines the records from a modern place, grounding her readers: “I work through the archived noise / of one hundred years in a box. / I drop my pencil and reach / into your corner. You retreat / with your odd geometry of eyes. / How must I touch you?”
With an excellent eye for detail, Matthees’ poems and use of photography, records, and paintings create a unique texture. Even in its abstractions, however, her words spark delightfully in both the past, the present, and the ties between the two. She contemplates life, violence, and death with the precision of a surgeon: “…you’ve just begun to pick at the scab of / your very own demise.”
To purchase Complicated Warding, go here.
Michelle Matthees is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She has received grants and awards from The Jerome Foundation, The Minnesota State Arts Board, The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, AWP, and other arts organizations. Her work has appeared in Memorious, PANK, The Prose Poem Project, The Bellingham Review, J Journal, 22 Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poems, Flucht, was published in 2016. To learn more, visit her website.
Two of Matthees’ poems—”Distinguishing Marks” and “Skeleton #1018. 1903. Lake Como.”—were published in Issue 20 of Superstition Review.
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