This Isa Nice Neighborhood
Author: Farid Matuk
publisher: Letter Machine Editions
5.25 x 7.5 pb 160pp
Reviewed by Mary Austin Speaker
I was first introduced to Farid Matuk’s poetry when he gave a reading in the winter of 2010 at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York. The lines I carried away from Matuk’s reading, “I dress in the styles / of the rich / feel safe” appear in the final poem of his first book, This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine Editions 2010), and grew steadily to stand in for a performance of wealth that had troubled me as a barely-cognizant Texan teenager back in the mid-90s. I knew that Matuk and his partner, poet Susan Briante, had moved to Dallas and taught very close to where I went to high school, but I was not prepared to hear poems that codified so exactly the private experience of life amid the tricked-out convertibles and ranch houses of the North Dallas suburbs. Dallas has for generations been saturated by an idea of wealth that originated in the trade of oil— perhaps the country’s most fraught commodity—and the magical appearance of that substance in the unforgiving Texas ground lead to a stubborn sense of entitlement to wealth that has lasted longer than the land’s reserves of crude. Perhaps it’s easier to write about a place if you arrive as an outsider—and perhaps Matuk came to Dallas prepared to do just that. The poems of his first book make a point of trying on the performed entitlements of class, race and nationality like costumes, inhabiting the ethical space peculiar to the immigrant passing for native, the poor passing for rich, the dark passing for light, challenging the reader to occupy both spaces at once.
___Take a poem like the ironically titled, “But Richard, Will You Show Me an Ethic of Freedom?” which performs the awkward difference between what we entertain ourselves with, what beliefs our politicians espouse, and what we write into or expect to find in poetry.
____________My friends and I study R. Crumb’s cartoons of Angelfood McSpade
____________Doug says his people called her
____________Her nipples are five inches!
____________for our throats
____________—I can hardly stop saying it.
____________I can tell you my father is dark, dark, but dark!
____________He was born of Andean people and a Spaniard or two.
____________My mother was born of Semites.
____________but here’s a test, let’s do it—
____________you look at Kissy Darkums
____________and I’ll look at Kissy Darkums
____________and we’ll each of us see how we feel.
____________My dick got hard
____________so do I feel white?
____________I feel like a lily.
Matuk recognizes the importance of identity as it stems from family and culture, but must complicate that with an understanding of identity as it is established by how we react to others. The speaker of this poem perceives several signs simultaneously: his own darkness, the darkness of Angelfood McSpade, the explicitly named darkness of the pet name for Angelfood McSpade offered by his friend, and his own physical reaction to a hypersexualized image of female blackness. Each of these signs defines the speaker differently, depending on its own spectrum of concerns—to inhabit a racial identity is to look at others and to be looked at at once. The slippage between spectrums involves a kind of passing.
___What binds these various ways of passing is an often arbitrary combination of time and location. Where we appear on the spectrum of “native” “dark” “rich” is always relative to those around us, and relative to time, and who’s asking.
__________It’s a Saturday
__________the sun looks warmer than it is
__________I’ve rolled down my pinstripe oxford
__________to full sleeves
__________slipped into my cardigan
__________a macaroon in
__________flowers in our neighbors’ yard
__________about their plaster fountain
__________I dress in the styles
__________of the rich
__________but the slowness
__________is every body’ s—
_________________dye the earth,
________________I remember once, further west than here
__________what a great, big, purple mountain!
________________The stone of it screaming out
__________to the desert cracking ahead: “Generations forget each other!”
At once Matuk has made us aware that our costumed performances of wealth and security merely dampen the noise of our ancestors, and also that any disappearance into assimilation can act as an engine of social mobility. But so, he argues with poems like “Immigrants,” “Southside Free,” “Tallying Song” and “Talk,” does a kind of psychic bilingualism, which This Isa Nice Neighborhood overall prefers to forgetting. We must be able to speak two languages— that of where we came from, and that of where we’re going— but in each location we are haunted by the other.
___The book’s title, for instance, lures the reader into a performance of otherness threaded throughout the book. “This is a nice neighborhood” is something one says about a neighborhood other than one’s own— “nice,” when ascribed to houses, having become shorthand for markedly more sophisticated architecture, larger homes, or tidier streets than the surrounding neighborhoods or the neighborhood from which the speaker has come. Eliding the “Is” and “a” of the book’s title offers a step further into the kind of otherness-inhabiting the book pries open for the reader. The written dialect of Isa implies an understanding of language in transition that invites the reader to perform the imagined non-native’s expression of English, a performance that reflects the original use of the book’s title.
____The phrase is a quote from installation artist Daniel Martinez, who placed “This Isa Nice Neighborhood” above the new Moscone Center in Los Angeles. It was quickly taken down amid cries of protest (as detailed in a note on the title in the book’s backmatter). Matuk has elaborated further on his choice of title in an article written for Cross Cultural Poetics entitled, “The Ungrammatical People: Minstrelsy, Love” in which he argues for the Martinez’s deliberately constructed phrase as an invitation to the reader to inhabit an imagined other’s inflected speech (e.g. the “minstrelsy” of the article’s title), and as site of inquiry into the role of the language teacher, a position occupied by an increasing number of poets.
____“Bilingualism,” Matuk notes, “or the ability to switch between the dominant discourse and whatever language or English dialect is used by one’s home community, has long been a survival strategy among disenfranchised groups in this country. . .We get paid to teach legitimacy,” he continues, but notes that he “find(s) nothing wrong with inducting the disenfranchised into power by teaching them (us) to speak the language of commerce, or the language of the masters. . . We come out on the other side not necessarily more or less ethnic, but better able to render ourselves legible and thereby negotiate relations of power.” Costumes, as it were, allow us not only to gain access to power, but also to become fully aware of our perceptions of others.
Despite this being one of the most heterogeneous countries in the world, its sheer size is large enough to erase differences, so there is no accepted mode of understanding them as such. There is a particular colloquialism in Texas that I’ve come to find remarkably resonant to that state’s understanding of otherness: “That’s different.” The phrase is often quipped about any kind of aberrant behavior: difference simply is, and it is a statement, not a question. Matuk demonstrates his acute awareness of this is-ness in his poem, “Do the Moth:”
_____________What should a stranger do at your city’s gate, your village’s
_____________outmost circle? What is the courtesy?
______________________________he just passes, we
____________________________________________________are a free people
_____________He passes as the train pulls its Pacer stack cars,
____________________its gasses, and sloshing liquids through the town.
What Matuk has identified here is not only the lack of an accepted practice for understanding otherness, but a very earnest bewilderment— a double-bind that most of us treat as an economy we can’t do much about: the plethora of imported goods, the lack of rituals for understanding strangers. Fanny Howe has identified this kind of bewilderment as a poetics and as an ethics— “a way of entering the day as much as the work,” which becomes, in Matuk’s hands, an admission of complicity, complacency, and difference that are, taken together, a radical opening up of the experience of otherness.
___Bewilderment is also the word chosen by Noah Eli Gordon (one of the book’s publishers) when he pointed out in the Boston Review that what makes Matuk’s poems valuable is their ability to illuminate moments of ethical confusion without reaching toward a definitive answer: “What he does,” Gordon writes, “is ease our fears of having to have it all figured out. This might be what Keats called ‘negative capability,’ but I think it’s also unconditional love.” I adore this statement by Gordon, and think it’s a great perspective from which to read Matuk’s work, where there is, undoubtedly, a great deal of love. But it may be Howe’s brand of bewilderment— a place we inhabit when we confront a disruption, when we make a difference happen, when we are alone, when we experience our own error but have nothing to put in its place, when we are read wrong or told we are something we do not recognize— that more powerfully forms the space that Matuk builds out, so that it’s not only in solitude that we contend with the displacement of bewilderment. To read poetry is, after all, a kind of togetherness. This Isa Nice Neighborhood is not exactly an argument for empathy, but it is a recognition that any kind of isolation is located in both time and place— empathy is, in a word, contingent.
Sandwiched between two different poems titled, “Immigrants,” is “Southside Free,” a poem named after a group of children who huff paint in tunnels on the US/Mexico border, which weaves together the stories of the “tunnel rats” with that of Marco and Amedio, a boy and a monkey, respectively. The two characters are based, as I gleaned from the extensive notes in the book’s backmatter, on an animated series based on a novel by Edmondo de Amicis, released on Japanese television in 1976.
____________Aurora huffed the gold paint,
____________so leaving the curbside ranks of saleschildren
____________[sic] ____________Her laughs fell in
____________with the jackboots of pleasure marching through her lungs,
____________a call for the other children to take their breaks.
____________Manney still believed in every kind of gold,
_____________“Someday I’ll be rich,” he sang to various tunes
____________scraping flakes from the children’s faces.
_______________His thumbs, the only two dogs in a field of horses,
____________invented dances around each other. He said,
____________“I’m a little bit richer again.”
____________Aurora was the fallen legionnaire.
____________Around them the city in ruins was at its most familiar.
____________Overhead, Marco and Amedio upgraded to first class.
____________Fuselage pretty as day.
Each poem called “Immigrants” that bookends “Southside Free” offers the immigrant as newly arrived, bewildered subject (the first begins, “We were dusty, we were lovely, we were turned around”) whereas the inhabitants of the Southside feel very much at home. The border is theirs. Such displacement is almost absent from “Southside Free,” whereas the poem “An American in Dallas” (syntactically switching out Paris for Dallas, implying its subject’s expatriation) shares the disorientation of both versions of “Immigrants.”
____________“I feel so many impossible things
____________between here and Waco
____________cuz of that surging orchestration
____________still most mornings I wake up afraid
____________even with Eileen’s poems
____________that can turn me on to everything
____________somewhere in the house
____________This is my year as a racist”
___The second stanza listed here recalls Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem” from 1968’s Speed of Darkness, in which she writes, “I lived in the first century of world wars. / most mornings I would be more or less insane.” Rukeyser’s poem is a step into the bewildered space where one feels how many forces come to bear upon us at once. This Isa Nice Neighborhood demonstrates that safety arrives with its own risks, that the white picket fence keeps out more than it holds in.
___In a place like Dallas, the norm is so thickly applied as to obscure its own contingency, but for a poet who has moved there from elsewhere, the contingency of the customary is everywhere visible. Perhaps the notion of the contingent norm is especially resonant for a poet who comes from mixed ancestry who has been both dark and light in different contexts, and who can, understandably, see both sides of the conversation he creates with a poem like “Talk” voiced by two speakers in an intimate, matter-of-fact tone: “I am Moroccan today,” begins one; “I am Sicilian today,” begins the other, “when the skies / are gray with field smoke and I share a cigarette / with my friends, nothing is new to me.”
___Division is present throughout these poems, but so is the binding vulnerability to which division is subject because of its placement in time. It doesn’t take long for the Moroccan boy to pick up the mannerisms of the European:
___________I memorize their thirteen
___________variations of the latest haircut,
___________I learn everything about women
___________from Fendi handbags, from Puma pants
___________everything about men
And the Sicilian reflects on the Morrocan:
___________now there are Arab African boys everywhere.
___________Where have the Gypsies gone?
There is always a fresh immigrant and there is a limited amount of time before he fully assimilates or creates his own accepted norm. The fear of him lasts only that long. In Matuk’s poems, the other is observed, and the other looks back. The process of criminalization is brought into the light along with the process of self-recrimination. There is a rigorous attention at work here that acknowledges how our observations of one another have the power to illumine our larger endeavor— and that even if we can never agree on exactly what we’re trying to accomplish as a country, there is plenty of room for us to see each other more clearly, so long as we are not afraid to look at ourselves in the process.