A Perceptive Debut



Goodnight Architecture, Gretchen Mattox. New Issues Press, 2002. 73 pp., $14.



The poems in Gretchen Mattox’s debut collection are thoroughly informed by the final line of the first poem: “Here, console yourself, look back and tell.” Like Joan Didion’s famous remark that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, Gretchen Mattox tells herself stories in order to live with what has happened. Clearly influenced by the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Mattox rests on the wobbly margin between autobiography and myth, locating her poems in the wilderness of the self-remembered and self-invented. “O mythical father / I have been on my own too long,” she writes, testifying to the almost-spiritual loneliness of this book. Departed fathers, departed mothers, departed husbands and boyfriends are all recurring figures here – when Mattox writes, “Whatever I touch turns to grief,” she seems to comment not only on her life, but on her work. The book is punctuated by a series of elegies, whose elegant language and lyrical voice transform the burdens of loss into the beauty of art.


One of Mattox’s most acute poetic gifts lies in her skill for figurative language: rotating dryers are compared to mandalas, a litter of opened telephone books on the freeway to a flock of birds, twilight is “as sensual as an exposed thigh.” Mattox has learned from Plath not only the gift of transforming the personal into the poetic, but also the ability to render the ordinary into the ecstatic: “I have stood in the doorway to some other world made luminous by grief / and have been brought to this moment.” What further distinguishes these moments of illumination is the tremendous attention to the detail of the visual world: from a cat’s tail moving like a fin over a wall to the make-up smudged on a coat collar, everything is seen and noted.


Though the poems participate in the therapeutic journey from loss to understanding, the understandings are often mysterious: “happiness is a parable lettered in ropes and shadows.” That happiness is hard to come by, and perhaps unreadable, seems to be a foregone conclusion of the collection. The book’s final poem, “Revelatory Borders,” expresses the truth that self-exploration so often culminates in: “here love remains not who you have but what you are // lesson: other from that understanding.”