REVIEW: Terror Matrix by Zoe Tuck


(This is the fourth in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)

by Christine Holm

In her Poetry Foundation interview with Sara Wintz, poet Zoe Tuck discussed that as she worked on her chapbook Terror Matrix, she

was reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain which is about how the experience of pain is this universal experience but it remains very undescribed and she talks about a lot of really heavy stuff like torture and war and what those do and then she moves to creativity and poetry and what that can do. I was reading that, I was reading a lot of Beckett and thinking about being a U.S. citizen and being complicit in a lot of nasty governmental extracurriculars. I knew that in part that story wasn’t my story to tell, but I was trying to talk about being complicit in that. But it only fails. In a way that’s interesting. It’s poetry.

Complicity is a notion I seemed to return to time and again when I sat down with Tuck’s new release from Oakland’s Timeless, Infinite Light Press. Nearing the end of the collection is “[pretend some business],” a piece filled with prefixes of negation, un– this and no that, don’t and isn’t and without. In the margins, I scribbled: such refusal, such not-quite-understanding of what is ‘un’natural; things out of proportion, out of expectation and the questions, really, become – why, and, why must these things be done?

Not yet an answer, but a complication from the poem which follows, the poem which begins:

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The build here amounted to more marginalia – the thinking through of what struck me so about Tuck’s poetry. For now: how stealthily these poems work, relying so much on preconceived notions many of us, however thoughtful we might like to see ourselves, don’t sit down and examine. With that, Tuck weaves her poems which are at once felt full of a sense of the automatic, winding, moving observantly at a steady pace. At the same time, we are reminded Tuck doesn’t spill herself on the page and walk away, leaving readers to make sense of the arcs and lines of written language. Moments when we can glimpse some of her craft’s structure are where we feel most invited in, perhaps not to struggle with her, but enough to make sure we remember we’re reading someone bare here, and that the access we are being offered – goodness, what a privilege.

This synergy is felt wonderfully with the closing of “[i have one job]” –

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The focus of our collective gaze turns from mystery of the invited intruder to love, to love, to action. By letting our focus shift, we were made complicit in the crime, and not so unhappily, with Tuck as our guide, our binoculars.

With this language of kinds of torture, of war, of, at the very least, wounds or what wounds do, complicit was an easy and ready word which felt full, captivated, in my synapses as they sparked against the sounds of Tuck’s poems.

Until I realized how perfectly wrong the term was.

A quiet part of the project with Terror Matrix is sussing out a feeling of how to be a citizen in a war-time country where we often feel neither responsible nor terribly involved in choices our government is making. This difficulty is paralleled in how Tuck dealt with understanding Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and the larger project of how Tuck deals with understanding her own body in her own society.

“Complicit,” of course, is all wrong because there is no crime, despite what we’ve been told. When we question our physical structures, the bruises made or the scars our bodies refuse to hold, we’ve done nothing wrong. What Terror Matrix praises is the questioning, binary or otherwise, and the opening of ourselves to uncertainty, to the admittance of unknowing. In her opening poem “[i am compelled to accept your jabs],” Tuck lays out much of the work we will wander around, in and through:

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What does it mean to be – feminine? Injured? Privileged? What does it mean? These poems don’t even have to resist a lofty eagerness to keep the reader at bay with philosophical wonderings, they do so with ease. Tuck uses language ranging from technical to colloquial, makes each poem compact in a justified column, and in doing so creates a kind of newspaper clipping. These are broadcasts from the edge of unknowns, but not unreachables.

As Tuck told Wintz in her interview, “sometimes when I’m reading a poem or writing a poem, it solves a problem that I didn’t know existed while rearranging the inside of my body.” These edges, these unknowns – these are the spaces where Tuck calls out to us from – simply, beautifully, to say this is where she is right now.

Terror Matrix is available from Timeless, Infinite Light

Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.

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