Destruction Myth by Mathias Svalina
Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2009
Review by Marcus Myers
Mathias Svalina’s first full-length book Destruction Myth spins cosmology around on his index finger, like a kid playing around with a dismantled globe, like a Globetrotter show-boating the ball around the dazed, ruddy face of a lanky Nebraskan, like a conceptual artist goofing on our post-postmodern world until dizzy and a little sick. Yet Svalina challenges as he dazzles us by subverting expected tropes, image sets and narratives with feats of humor and imagination. And, poem after poem, he lifts our eyebrows by throwing additional big ideas into the book’s florescent air, already filled with clubs and chainsaws. Taking considerable intellectual and aesthetic risks, the book greets the reader with a monolith of absurdist beginnings. Within the expanse of forty-four poems titled “Creation Myth,” Svalina’s speaker maps out a fabulist planet Earth—one somehow complete prior to human inhabitation—before waving goodbye to it with a single long poem titled “Destruction Myth.”
As in the Judeo-Christian creation story, Svalina’s speaker begins most of the “Creation Myth” poems (in both lineated verse and prose blocks) with “In the beginning…,” and follows with a series of declarative statements describing a deformed representation of reality. Aesthetically, these moves lay down the project’s expanses of ground separating the waters, populating this mythic sphere with ground creatures already driven to eat, sleep, wonder, speak, desire, joke, spend, consume, govern, demarcate, self-reflect, fight, and reproduce. “In the beginning there was a wall. On one side of the wall there was a city of tall iron buildings and enormous aquariums, the streets clotted & septic with pedestrians,” the speaker says in the second poem. These beginnings accumulate over the first three-fourths of the book and interlock nicely: “In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird,” “In the beginning there was nothing,” “In the beginning everything I said exploded,” “In the beginning the registrar / took a left hook to the jaw…”, “In the beginning the birds grew wings out of their chests,” “In the beginning there was a pen that drew itself into existence.” By taking such delight in the delicate mechanisms of these smart little fables, Svalina deconstructs the mythic mode of story-telling by undercutting its didactic function with hyperbole and outright falsehood.
Svalina, an experimental poet of considerable imaginative depth and talent, so often pushes against what the typical poetry reader expects to find in a poem. Sublimated unto abjection, truth and beauty are not revealed in moments of epiphany, but emerge as an afterimage over the course of the entire book. With mostly comic textures, the poems’ speaker masks our collective fear and sadness, like every great comedian, with ironic or glib generalizations about human nature. In light of our culture’s 21st century fears, based as they are on our world’s greed and hatred, most readers would agree: Sometimes, all a body can do is laugh. Comedy, for Svalina, seems the best approach for writing poems these days. The writers most troubled by the world have often written in one comedic mode or another. And as Joyce said, “Comedy is the greatest of arts because the joy of comedy is freest from desire and loathing.” That said, at times the reader might hear the zen of Twain, Kafka or Vonnegut in the speaker’s voice:
Even the babies were the size and shape of Larry Bird.
Since everyone looked like Larry Bird they avoided
extravagant events. All the clubs shut down, no one
could watch a Larry Bird dance without understanding
that they danced like this, pursed lips, flagellum legs,
arms like wild fire hoses. The real Larry Bird retired
to his basement. He wore magnifying goggles
and built watches of smaller and smaller dimension.
Svalina’s refashioning humanity in the image of Larry Bird, a hard-working yet mediocre professional athlete now retired, parodies the myth and fable genres’ didactic potential.
Speaking of didacticism, at first this book tempts the reader to invoke the heavy-browed specter of the social critic. Unlike recent dystopic and apocalyptic fictions, however, which often earn the readers’ pathos by rendering our flawed-though-beloved reality hours prior to its edifying dissolution, Mathias’ creation myths construct a parody of our world just for the sheer joy of it. And the beautifully unsettling “Destruction Myth” poem razes it afterward just for the utter hell of it. If anything, the poems disabuse the reader of the stories our culture tells about beginnings and endings without offering explicit criticism. Each mythic poem reduces the material world to fantastically doomed spaces of capitalist drives and desires. Such a reduction frees Svalina to generalize and joke about the relationship between the current, culturally accepted worldview, namely scientific materialism, and humanity’s most extreme and least palatable characteristic, namely, the need to consume, possess and dominate as much of the material world as possible. These myths, moreover, derive their power from the tension Svalina generates by orbiting his absurd symbolic realm within the gravitational field of the real planet Earth it represents. While reading, I smirked (and laughed out loud on the inside) at sentences such as
Everything is too fixed. So she bought a humungous papershredder & shredded the oceans & shredded the mountains & the people & shredded their pets & shredded the wind & shredded the grogginess of morning & shredded the grogginess of drunkenness & shredded the joy of watching one’s brother get married & shredded the joy of watching one’s abusive boyfriend get his knuckles shattered with a ball peen hammer.
Though by the time the speaker mentions the tortured abusive boyfriend, an uneasiness bubbled up through the core of my enjoyment. This sour feeling, I realized, was not necessarily generated by what the speaker expresses, but instead by the capital “R” real pushing back against the joke. In Lacanian terms, since the real rejects complete symbolization, we can only see it in gestures and guises, only sense it lurking around down there beneath the surface of a joke. Destruction Myth effectively trades on the awareness that comedy depends on painful energies, supplied by our being grounded in the real.
Svalina utilizes the prose poem’s tendency to give equal valence to both momentous and mundane situation. Consider the at-first-glance equivalent tonal registers of these sentences: “In the beginning I wrecked my dad’s Volvo into a tree, driving out of a park at 2 AM with the cops chasing after us. In the beginning I could not stop reading all night. How hot the covers. How cold the night air through the screened in windows.” The speaker’s even prose almost equates the two situations, decreasing the weight behind the memory of totaling his dad’s car by juxtaposing it with another, perhaps more pleasant memory of compulsively reading through the night. This strategy delays and mutes the emotional impact the situation has on the reader, and Svalina uses it like a champ throughout the book.
In all but a handful of poems, the identity of Svalina’s speaker remains hidden within the sickly light of these fables. At the end of a poem about suburban sprawl, for example, the speaker steps out from behind the glare of his projector to turn the “you” in on himself. “Your car does not love you. Your car knows / what it is to be a car & that cars belong / to the streets. Just as every bird / belongs to the bird feeder. Just as lead / belongs to the pencil. That’s how I felt / when I was eight years old / & my home broke apart.” In the beginning I found myself wanting Svalina to capitalize on these narrative intrusions and disclose a little more of the speaker’s identity, but by the end, I understood he is making a statement about identity as a social construct. The speaker seems well aware that his narrative perspective is contingent upon his culture’s most central beliefs, concerns and desires. If his identity, like most other seven billion identities, is a tiny voice that is difficult to hear amid the narrative clamor, and if the pleasant noise the poems make comes from these absurdly representative meta-narratives, each vying to account for our existence, then we can understand that Svalina sees the narrative I as yet another social construction. For the most part, the speaker keeps quiet about himself and lets the diverging ontic confusion tell the strangest story we can imagine.
Svalinas’ poems dazzle the reader with chains of brilliant ideas. Throughout Destruction Myth, he pushes the modern and postmodern adages “Make it new” and “Is it strange enough?” close to the limits of the reader’s tolerance for subversion. Dazed, I sometimes wanted the poems to slow themselves down with a poetry resembling standard image sets, tropes and diction, but of course, as the strongest real poems will do, they refused.