Your Attraction to Sharp Machines by Matthew Mahaney
Your Attraction to Sharp Machines by Matthew Mahaney
Hardcover, 53 pages
The first edition of Matthew Mahaney’s Your Attraction to Sharp Machines, is a labor of love for the author and for the publisher. The first thing I noticed about the book is that it is hand-bound as a trifold, with left, center, and right flaps. The outside cover is adorned with a metal cover plate and handmade seeming shapes and lines in glitter ink, giving the whole volume the feel of a scrapbook. Opening the first fold I found that this book isn’t bound like conventional poetry collections. The outside right flap contains a pocket that holds a small booklet of the table of contents and author’s notes and acknowledgments. The book as a whole is a novella of prose poems separated into three distinct sections, each affixed to a different interior flap, and the book is written as well as bound to evoke the feeling that the reader is holding a very personal album.
The left interior flap titled “Pages from My Sister’s Diary” holds a beautiful vellum bound booklet with actual torn pages of copy held together with string. The frayed and jagged edges of the pages add a visceral verisimilitude to the conceit that you are holding actual pages from someone’s diary, reading voyeuristically. The line poems can be read individually or as consecutive pages of a narrative that plays out among two sisters and a boy named Jonah Bell. The sister recording the pages provides playful and increasingly troubling images of herself and Elizabeth exploring the woods and expressing themselves in song and make believe. The appearance of Jonah Bell from behind a tree, like a Pan figure, tempts them and complicates their interaction.
The middle interior flap titled “The Institution” finds a miniature tablet of printed pages bound shut by the same string and wheel mechanism found on interoffice envelopes one still sees circulated in colleges and hospitals. The story of the two sisters continues here, but rather than take the form of this young woman’s fanciful lines of poetry, there are bold faced prompts at the top of most pages, written in the style of a hospital administrator describing a patient and cataloging her verbal observations. Interspersed among these administrator notes and record keeping are inserts of more poetry, presumably culled from the patient. The significance of this section cannot be overstated as 1) we learn that Elizabeth and her sister are actually one in the same person, and 2) the middle flap and its contents provide a bridge and barrier both between the sister’s diary and Jonah Bell’s letters to her. The revelation of Elizabeth as herself and her imagined sister is subtle and unsettling, a dominant tone throughout the whole collection. I resist considering this a spoiler because the subtlety is such that I may actually be inventing my revelation rather than identifying an actual one. However, Elizabeth’s sister is never named by any of the three narrators in the book (the author of the diary, the hospital administrator penning his observations, and Jonah Bell in his letters) and, in one particular instance of “The Institution,” the observer remarks that while the patient is speaking of Elizabeth, she is in fact “(referring to herself).” All of which is complicated by the fact that the patient (or “the sister”) could be identifying with her sister rather than actually being her due to thematic recurrences of shifting identity and mask imagery.
The right interior flap titled “Letters from Jonah Bell” provides a pocket that holds perfect square pages bound in a vellum sleeve. The sequenced letters each start with the words “Dear Elizabeth,” and while some mentions are made of her sister, Jonah is singularly obsessed with the dear of his writing. Speaking almost entirely in metaphors and similes to describe Elizabeth, himself, the outside, his senses, and more, Jonah covers periods of interaction with her both in the woods and when she’s later hospitalized. His letters are rich prose poems that are desperate to get at the truth of things that he believes Elizabeth understands whether she does or not. My own reading was dizzying trying to glean something solid and tangible from the bountiful limitless imagery at work.
Ultimately, the novella is less a mystery. The sister, the administrator at the institute, and Jonah all are trying to understand someone, to communicate with that person in a way that will connect and mean something. Various barriers are in place: the mask Elizabeth wears and that makes her different, the administrator’s distant and clinical gaze always observing but never engaging, and Jonah’s frenetic descriptions always on the image of the thing rather than the thing itself, and these barriers are never overcome. It’s no mistake that each section is both lovingly crafted and yet kept separate and autonomous from the other parts of the book. Each is a complete collection in its own right, and while we may travel among them freely in any order we wish and see the way they point to one another, they are all ultimately different and dedicated to its own voice. The desire for connection whether for identity or for integration into society, or for love cannot overcome the barriers that we place between ourselves. At the end of the book, the labor of love falls to the reader. Like the keeper of a scrapbook, it’s up to us now to put the disparate pieces together, collect the shards of fragmented memory, and answer the questions of who these people are, what their story is, and why they matter.