Written by Thea Matthews
Review by Sarah Bethe Nelson
The natural world of botany creates a scientific boundary around these deeply confessional poems. Thea Matthews’s debut collection, Unearth [The Flowers], uses the Latin names for plant life to root the reader in lifespans that persist. The Latin names provide a musicality that establishes an earthbound rhythm of growth, destruction, and regeneration. In the first lines of “Prelude | Praeludium” Matthews says:
UNEARTH the abuse : repetition of bruising the spirit
the silence two o’clock in the morning
the mother in silence
the memories of a child
the child / mother stolen
the generations like weeds ossified
the apathy of those already dead with a pulse
the time said once more ssshhh… don’t tell no body
They alert us to the battle that will be fought. Here the rhythm is no nonsense, staccato, a call to arms. We hear the pulse. Unearth, is to dis-cover. Excavation, with its suggestion of the morbid, tells us to dig up the buried truths, to set the record straight. The “no body” teaches us to feel the invisibility of the abused, and places us inside her voiceless-ness. The no bodies also represent our dead, our ghosts, and our memories. Demons are dragged into the light of day, and even though they are terrible to look at, they are eventually rendered powerless. The fight is over and Matthews has won.
Growth and regeneration weigh heavy throughout the collection. The interplay between our physical bodies, the “boundaries” of our flesh, the shore, and the ethereal development of heart and mind crawl like vines among the battle to regain power after what feels like irreparable damage. Memories are as vicious as cacti thorns and as deadly as poisonous flowers. But in this world there are remedies to be found, a salve for wounds, leaves that comfort, and healing nutrients in the damp soil and warm sunlight.
In “Iris”, Matthews performs an autopsy of memory and emotion while delivering a scathing comment on the hypocrisy of religion in a country that values wealth and fame over all else. A place where children are the innocent victims and “will/ starve over-/ weight” while “others/ will die in/ denial/ more will die/ next to stran-/ gers respons-/ ible for/ excavat-/ ing little/ organs”. You can hear the drums crack in these fragmented lines.
The language, while stark and at times brutal, retains a lyrical quality, the imagery both horrifying and beautiful, the textures tangible. You feel and see the story vividly. The petals unfold into an unknown world, propelled by the laws of nature, laws that lie outside of the body’s power. The use of space on the page literally makes the reader breathe and prevents crowding the growing thing before their eyes. The spaces slow the tempo and build the tension.
In this collection the bull is called she, the flesh a boundary to the outside world like the shore stops the sea. It’s beneath the surface that salvation grows. The inner mirrors the outer: “as above so below/ as without so within” we are told in the opening lines of “Nopal Cactus.” It reads like an incantation, you almost hear the chorus singing it throughout the poems, reminding us how to fix our gaze, and how to steel ourselves for what is to be endured. It sets us up to grow anew, stronger and more resilient with every revolution.
We come to see that our trials and fears are the perennials. Are we replanting and cultivating our pain over and over, year after year? Our lives, our stories, what we create, are the annuals. There are seasons for our pain but seasons do end. Our bodies and souls regrow with the passing of time. This truth, Matthews seems to be saying, is an eternal one.
When we reach the annuals the rhythm shifts noticeably. The pace steadies and breathes, no longer fighting. In the midst of the eternally recurring we register the pulse of Matthews’s voice. Somehow “kill” rhymes with “healed” and we have reached momentum. The scars show but the battle and the mourning are over. In all of their quiet power and glory, the leaves unfurl.
There are moments during reading Unearth [The Flowers] when you feel how tightly Matthews holds these poems, her cards still very close to her chest. You wonder if what seems to be strict sequencing in order to control the reader’s emotional response could have been loosened to allow the poems to fully blaze and stun. Could they have grown more wild if not contained so closely? It’s possible, but for now I choose to trust Matthews’s vision, her tremendous strength, her devastating honesty, and the beauty of her words, each one a living thing reaching far into the Earth and stretching ever upward to the clear and healing light.
Unearth [The Flowers] is available for pre-order now through Red Light Lit.
Sarah Bethe Nelson is a poet, songwriter, and musician living in San Francisco. You can read her poetry collection, Illuminate The Ruins, which is available on Amazon. Or listen to her three albums Fast-Moving Clouds, Oh, Evolution, and Weird Glow (released by Burger Records) on Spotify, iTunes, or Bandcamp. Her book and music are also available at sarahbethenelson.com.