A Noun That Can Change the World
a review by Rachel Slotnick
Carlo Matos, “It’s Best Not To Interrupt Her Experiments”
Negative Capability Press
2016, 64 pages, paperback, $12.95
As I read Carlo Matos’ new collection of poetry, “It’s Best Not To Interrupt Her Experiments,” I found myself time traveling, not in some kitschy, knock your red shoes together and wish to go home kind of way. It was more like there were strikes of lightning in my veins resembling trees, which I learned from Matos are called Lichtenburg branches. My body evaporated into sea foam and I swam beside Roman mythological Graiai, sea hags who recur throughout the book commenting on the histories of man. I could see all of human progress from the stone age to Greek mythology to our egocentric popular culture icons, and they all stirred together, concocting a soup of scientific attempts that mistake logic for flavor. In “It’s Best Not To Interrupt Her Experiments,” Matos laments the human tragedy of misplaced energy. All the humans talk at each other. They’re too busy measuring angles and dissecting atoms to look at their own faces in the mirror. If they would, they might notice that they are disappearing. They are part of a whole history of animals trying to deny their own mammalian impulses by graphing and charting the wild and unforgiving planet. We’re all part of the experiment, and whether we want to admit it or not, we are trapped in the time warp of these unforgiving pages.
The book is essentially a scrambled timeline. It’s as though the pages were blown about in the wind or lost to the sea and our sad attempt to make logic from them results in a rolodex of human wishes. Rather than titles, the poems are assigned dates, and they range from 2100 BCE to 5/30/2014, pausing for glimpses in between female scientists or chimpanzee infanticide. In “06/28/1906,” Matos marvels at the audacity of the reportage encompassing the third woman to win the Nobel Prize for her research on the nuclear shell, who was dismissed by a San Diego newspaper as simply “S.D. Mother wins Nobel Prize.” More often than not, these poems break their own rules, referencing events yet to come beyond the scope of their concept of time. In “c. 1580 BCE,” Matos straddles the status quo of evolution as he nods at guns in a poem that would only know how to throw stones: “A man with a gun is always to be feared; / a gun is undiscerning, / but a woman with a bow / has gone out and come back, / has tested her purpose on the tension of a string.” As Matos leaps through wormholes and electric cables of a telltale narrative we already know but can’t quite remember, he also initiates a recurring motif of gender and identity as it ebbs and flows. Ladies’ journals gloss on the counter and social media allows faceless contributors to question Bigfoot or connect to the rhythms of hip hop pulsating like heartbeats. But gender predominates the undercurrent of each and every conversation. The collection features the lexical ambiguity of an unnamed “she” who materializes in various eras, masquerading through time and space as, “‘…a great man / whose only fault / was being a woman.’”(7). And consequently, gender operates on a slippery continuum. Through incest insults on social media, Matos reminds us that we are all our own mothers.
As language picks up speed around fast corners and then drags out phrases in places as though their batteries have run out, Matos casts existential longings into a scientifically ordered starry sky. The unnamed “she” sleeps with a math book under her pillow, and in a strange ziggurat filled dystopia anchored in “c. 2100 BCE,” the relics of the future sprinkle the past: “while she waited for the off chance / the waters would come / and float the relics of riverboat / casinos to her front lawn.” Again, the poetry defies order. Relics of our global warming, our corrupt society, and our own destruction litter the forward leaning inventions of a past coated with honey. Sporadically, poems are censored and the reader struggles to fill in the gaps. Whole phrases are blacked out, like tampered research into our own histories. At best we connect the dots between bone spurs and accidental encounters. Always, the lost she insists on rounding up. As she speculates about the “…restorative powers / of local bezoar stones,” rather than perceiving them as useless indigestible masses, or “The tongue-twister girl [who] knew the truth about extinctions,” it seems as though the poems are researching each other, chipping away at scientific diction and primitive hypotheses, awash in the swinging pendulum of time.
As curious humans turn pages, more curious poems turn the lens back on the reader. A woman with a telescope longs to see the stars, “but [she] never aimed it any higher / than her neighbor’s drawing-room window,” perhaps driven by voyeurism or perhaps driven by her own bestial impulses. Another woman cleans the solar system like she is cleaning the house: “Most nights she fine-dusts a few stars, as it suits her, / scrubs a quaff of nebulae like steel wool caught / fire in an empty building at the edge of the universe.” Put simply, we are adrift in time and space, and yet we insist on playing house.
At its core, this collection mourns our disconnection from each other and pinpoints that to overemphasize human intelligence is to create an obstacle that stands resolutely between ourselves and our love for one another. These women are so busy cleaning their instruments and recording fractions that they forget to steel their own hearts beating behind the very epidermal casing they are trying so hard to comprehend: “She might even say it was love, / but that required a whole new set of tests, / a recalibration of her instruments, / and a major paradigm shift.” Matos renders an army of marching scientists, tragic heroines searching for something in the skies, but they are doomed to fail because like ships passing in the night, what they’re looking for resides in their own bones. For me, the essence of the book is summed up in the poem entitled, “1/14/1972,” which longs for a reader to fill it in with tangible meaning: “While I –verb–on my–noun–. / I’ve been–verb[ing]–for a noun–like this / my whole life.” In such a simple game, Matos captures the longing that all authors feel: a drive to fill in the void of our existence with words to save the world.
Rachel Slotnick received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she is a professor at Malcolm X College and adjunct faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Mad Hat, Thrice Fiction, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere. Slotnick won Rhino Poetry’s Founder’s Prize and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2015. She is the author of “In Lieu of Flowers,” available through Tortoise Books.