Matt Tuner, Not Moving, Broken Sleep Books, 2019. 48 pgs.
I really wish there weren’t that many Matt Turners on Google. No, not Dr. Matt Turner from University of Leicester, professor of control engineering. No, not Matt Turner, the soccer player from New England Revolution, but Matt Turner, the poet and translator who spends his time between New York and Beijing, according to Cha. He’s has done work on Lu Xun, and published, among others, Not Moving, a collection of poems. It’s a shame (or a blessing?), because Not Moving is a worthwhile and rewarding read, and I hope, through this review, to explain why.
Not Moving is a 2019 collection of poems published by Broken Sleep Books. It includes works that have appeared elsewhere, most notably on The Zahir Review. Taken as a whole, Not Moving is a peculiar book that sneaks up on you. The cover, a plain green with only the name, the title and the publishing house in yellow doesn’t say much. There’s no easing in, there’s no introduction, it just begins. “In Smog,” the first poem, sets the tone for what’s to come: urban, decaying environments, religious and supernatural imagery brought into contemporary contexts and a pervasive sense of inability, impotence, impossibility.
“In Smog” opens with: “A bruised lip over the countenance / A pin in the eye of fidelity / A banister of exhaust / A verbal scarf wrapping the throat.” The repetition and juxtaposition makes for an unsettling image—Turner’s world appears off. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it dystopian, though it seems to be at times; rather, one gets the feeling that something negative is bound to happen at any moment, and that negativity is presented in a matter-of-fact kind of way: “The archer dies, like a deer, in the snow / Shot in the heel with an arrow.” The mythological reference is not lost here; the archer dies with an escaping half laugh that bends like styrofoam and it is “preserved in the smog.” This instance of eco-criticism, melded with mythological aspects, reads like a metaphor for progress and economic development taken to the extreme, as well as the inevitable downfall that comes with it. This negative, pervasive feeling that haunts Turner’s poems undermines the rest of the apparent heroic actions. The lyrical presence “opens the brochure / For adventure,” he or she climbs the “mistaken” quarry pit, hikes “the appearances,” splits apart the “thorn-bush” and so on. Again, there is that instance of doing something that is positive, beneficial even; however, the impression persists that everything that is done is sabotaged, subverted, even futile.
This sense of futility translates well into the second poem “A Monk.” In what appears to be a direct continuation of the first one, “A Monk” is much more direct in establishing its premises. The lyrical presence is “middle-aged / With a deformed hand for grip,” and tries to write something with a brush that was “Hidden in plain sight for years.” However, the act of writing feels disingenuous: “The hand pushes across the page / Tho the ink and the hand are dry … The authority of the saints gone / The authority of the saints gone / With the large brush I’m frozen / A false word and my wrists lock.” The repetition of the latter verses emphasises the impossibility of writing. At the same time, Turner makes a statement for the unreliability of language, and the impossibility of representation. In the context of the monk, the words transcribed are sacred, yet here, as he or she tries to copy them, they lose their meaning. And so, this inability to continue is mocked in its last verses: “I laugh again at the wish to continue.”
The breaking down of language, the blemished urban environments, strands of eco-criticism, themes that are urgent, contemporary (even trendy?) appear once more in “Constellation” and “Corpse-Flower.” “Constellation” brings together the cosmos with the city; however, yet again, there is something that’s off, disjointed, unsettling in what is probably my favourite line: “Untie Orion’s Belt of Orion.” “Corpse-Flower” takes the lyrical presence out on a walk in a park that “I knew it like my face” to witness the blooming of a flower that at draws the attention of onlookers: “all grimaced, and some laughed.”
However, in terms of the “negative” things (I say this, but it’s not really negative, it’s more of a discussion point), I’d like to draw attention to the usage of Chinese in “旧江湖” and “哇!” but for the sake of this review, I’d like to focus more on the first one. Now, as someone who doesn’t speak the language or understands the cultural implications or references (Pandavas? Ledas?), it’s at least peculiar. Naturally, there are French notes (en arriviste), pinyin (dajie, ren), but the characters themselves offer a striking visual distinction that is obviously intended. But why? Certainly, read in the context of the breaking down of language, then perhaps the different look and meaning of the Chinese characters capture that je ne sais quoi (and to some extent even exotified by Western readers such as myself) that are equivalent to what is trying to be transmitted. The structure of the poem, and the continuous repetition in the first stanza of “you’re” point in that regard. This is further emphasised later in “旧江湖,” where entire lines are replaced with onomatopoeia “woo woo woo kwreeeen chuka chuka chuka” to capture the din of the city, and perhaps make an implicit point on communication in the hyper-capitalist city.
However, returning—did Turner use Chinese to put a little bit of himself and his work as a Chinese translator? Did he use it as a small nod to his Chinese audience? Did he use it to better contextualise the time he spent both in New York and Beijing? Did he do it to flex on us? Surely Turner is not alone here, as there is an entire tradition of poets and writers flexing (T S Eliot comes to mind almost instantly), and to some extent he can get away with it because it works. The pocket-size, unassuming Not Moving has lots of tricks in its pages.
Dragoș Ilca was born and raised in Romania. He studied literature in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. He taught creative writing and literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, among other places. His debut novel HK Hollow is available now.