“A Perch From Which to Be Kind:” Mikko Harvey’s Let the World Have You

Kylie Gellatly

In Let the World Have You, Mikko Harvey plays with a kind of surrealism to confront a quiet grief. It is ambiguous. It is daily. The book opens with a poem called “Spring,” in which the speaker encounters a sparrow sitting in the passenger seat. He greets the bird, “Howdy” and the bird replies, “Howdy.” In the following line, Harvey writes, “And I drove for eleven hours, through three states, attended the funeral, slept on the couch, heard the whispers, ate the brunch, folded the sheet, hugged, hugged, / and opened the car door and noticed / a sparrow sitting in the passenger seat.” The same greetings are exchanged again. The mention of the funeral in “Spring” may be the only corporeal death in the book, but it establishes a calm relationship between grief and the kind of humor that is imaginative and full of wonderment.

Harvey is unwilling to completely turn away from grief and anxiety—implying that the salve to it all is being present, open, and vulnerable—and cleverly uses one anxiety as a disguise for another, shapeshifting them interchangeably so as to neither confront the pain directly nor neglect it entirely; as if posturing comfort with one resolves the discomfort of the other. It is in this way that Harvey settles on tenderness and humor as a way to comfortably exist in these tableaus of certainty. The epiphany that beams from this book is stated in the aptly-titled poem “Spark,” in which the Harvey writes, “my life was nothing / more than a perch from which / to be kind.”

The subjects of grief and anxiety in this book mask one another—anxieties about intimacy are translated into episodes of ecocentrism that refuse to ignore human interaction, while grief for the natural world is rendered with the kind of closeness and tenderness found in a love poem. Harvey commits, in “Declaration,” to this kind of intimacy, saying, “I am here / to be your fall / guy,” yet his address is made to a “fragment / of sky that stays somehow nearby / always.”

Dear fragment
of sky that stays
somehow nearby
always, remember
this: I am here
to be your fall
guy. Your battle
cry. Your basket
of wild blueberries.

The intangibility of the addressee saves the speaker from such a concrete bond, while the “somehow” of the piece of sky’s positioning hints towards a kind of hope ascribed to the mysteries of the natural world. It is this yearning that marries anxiety and intimacy in Harvey’s poems. It is often all happening at once in dense lines that crumble the poems in which they reside. In “Wind-Related Ripple in the Wheatfield,” Harvey writes,

It is my intention to listen, but my hands
keep giggling while reminding me. I don’t get to be a human being
for very long, as if this were the punchline to a joke
whose first half I missed. I arrived too late.

The presence of tenderness is rich in this collection, particularly in the hushed voice of the speaker, which draws the reader in close to hear, whispering an exacting quietude over the book—one that casts a soft and knowing light on the scenarios.

It is with clarity that Harvey teases out the surrealism of a shared grief. The poet Mathias Svalina theorizes in a class on the subject of grief and surrealism that the two alter subjective experience in similar ways, finding that interior and exterior laws do not align, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. Harvey seems to be writing with this same belief as he navigates these simultaneous planes of closeness and distances, the small and the large, and the familiar and unfamiliar. In articulating an expression of grief for the natural world and anxieties of anthropocentrism, Harvey’s sense of humor and the absurd play out in the small scale—feeling like skits, dioramas, or whispered asides. There are talking bears selling medicine to joggers, a microscopic species of human found living in the frontal lobe of a woman’s brain, a lizard whose job it is to elect a town’s mayor, and a Notley-esque owl who lives in the mouth of a doctor. But while there is living as a human being on earth amongst animals and insects, there is also living as a human being on earth with other human beings.

This is where anxieties around intimacy and vulnerability are played out and where interior laws may not align with exterior ones. At the end of “Wind-Related Ripple in a Wheatfield”—a poem about the way a domestic space is occupied and shared with a loved one and the affection for the space itself, Harvey concludes with an epiphanic moment that finally unites the emotional interior with the outside world, nesting the speaker into an even deeper—and much more vulnerable—space:

Thank you
for serving me cups of lemon tea
with honey in it. Even though
such copious amounts of liquid
would surely drown the insect
I imagined myself to be, that was kind
of you.

The poems in this book work as invitations to consider and embrace the risks of intimacy—acknowledging that the closer one becomes with another human—or plant, animal, etc.—the more one is aware of the potential for loss. In “People Need Mountains,” Harvey suggests “we should reinvent gentleness, / all of the gates having shrunk overnight, leaving us trapped / inside of gardens we designed when we were children.” Harveyoffers many invitations into small moments of tenderness, as he is omnidirectional in his relationality. He draws together closeness and distance, small scales and large, tenderness and pain, as seen in his poem, “Intimacy,”

Wherever you are is a country. Touch it softly
to make it stand still. Your hair getting caught
in my mouth all the time, like a tiny piece
of you calling — like a tree trying to speak
to a rock by dropping a pinecone on it.

However, this book is not an omission or a minimizing of grief, for shivering throughout this book are poems like “Mean Butterfly,” which ask “how best to commemorate my role as witness of this moment?” and admit “there is not a single path forward / that’s painless.”