Books: Modern Life

Science has finally created the perfect child: Robo-Boy. His parents simply take him out of the box, switch him on, and fast-forward Robo-Boy from infancy straight to age 3.

Robo-Boy has been programmed with five emotions, but he discovers that he is very limited compared to other children. Any feeling more complicated than happy, sad, angry, confused, or content poses a real problem. Robo-Boy wants to be able to express a broader range of human sentiment, and actually experience complex emotions firsthand.

Naturally, a robotic solution to humanity's messy problems is not without complications. Robo-Boy is at least as confused as any living boy, and as he struggles to find his place among humans, he realizes that he has no precedents to follow and no role models to show him how to succeed.

Modern Life is a collection of short, free verse poems that are sectioned into several narrative series. Robo-Boy's story unfolds in one sequence; another brief group includes "The Invention of Love" and "The Invention of Film," which envision the beginnings of social interaction during the Stone Age. They feature a caveman and cavewoman trying to communicate before language has been invented, with less-than-perfect results.

The series of poems "The Future of Terror" and its companion series "Terror of the Future" are reflections on warfare of the past, present, and future. This sequence of poetry is both thought-provoking and insightful. One might read several pages of the series before realizing that a string of words beginning with G is followed by a string of words with H, I, J, etc. within each poem. The author's preoccupation with the alphabet adds a slight air of lightheartedness to the series, although their overall seriousness is best taken in small doses.

"Dinna' Pig" stands out as being the most irreverent account of family life in the collection. The children are named without pulling any punches (one is called "Mistake," another "Mistake 2"). Ma and Pa run their farm with cold efficiency, and so the pig that Pa buys for slaughter is called "Dinna' Pig." Against expectation, the innocent hog manages to remind his owners of what love is, but it may be too late for this cruel family to right itself.

The collection also includes daringly short poems of one or two lines. Matthea Harvey describes them as her experiments, which try to evoke the largest response in the reader from the least amount of print. This idea is reminiscent of the jarring, six-word story attributed to Hemingway: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Modern Life playfully explores the limitless possibilities of futuristic society. The imagery is inventive and fresh; no one envisions the future quite like Harvey does. She often throws in a detail that seems absurd on one level and like intuitive genius on another. Harvey is a pro at making quirky word associations, and she has a knack for finding a phrase that leaves an immediate impression, like her title "Minotaur, No Maze."

It is a gateway read for people who usually do not like poetry. Harvey breaks a lot of the conventions that typically bog down someone who prefers novels. She tells vivid, narrative stories with no loss of poetic artistry, and she is still able to touch on what makes individual people feel that they are part of a cohesive human experience.

Modern Life is hardly a collection of stuffy poetry — it is very reader-friendly. The poetry is experimental, rhyme-less, and sometimes written in paragraph form. Most of the poems are very brief, like the snappy attention-grabber "You Have My Eyes," which reads, "Give them back."

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