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Sad Little Breathing Machine

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  517 ratings  ·  40 reviews
Harvey, whose debut collection was praised by the New Yorker
as "intensely visual, mournfully comic and syntactically
inventive," offers her second stunning collection

Units are the engines
I understand best.

One betrayal, two.
Merrily, merrily, merrily.
-from "Introduction to the World"

In Sad Little Breathing Machine, Matthea Harvey explores the strange and intricate mechanics
Paperback, 80 pages
Published March 1st 2004 by Graywolf Press
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Jan 04, 2009 karen rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: robots
Shelves: pomes
overall i have to say blarg to this one. i liked her other 2 books well enough, and there are many things about this one i like, but overall i fear that i am not poetry-clever enough to appreciate what i assume must be calculated stylistic choices. to me it reads like disjointed and soulless wordmesses that leave me completely cold.
Funny touching and endearingly odd.
Matthea’s Harvey’s poetry is like going to a foreign country, and not knowing the language. Perhaps you stay a while. Eventually, words and phrases which pulled tantalizingly away from you at first, their sounds striking and bold, evocative and possessing an almost subconscious power, begin to coalesce.

Then, still with the breathtaking mystery of staying in a strange place, you may find you are able to gain some small entry into its true essence, while still maintaining the sense of wonder at s
Heather June Gibbons
It was definitely interesting to read this directly after reading her first collection and see how these poems engage and grapple with form in drastically different ways. This is a restless, wildly inventive voice and I found much to admire here. However, nothing really *moved* me-- lots of wonder and play and cleverness (wince, there I've said it), but on the whole, I missed the emotional torpor and crazy momentum of Bathtub. Still, to witness this kind of change/development in form from one co ...more
Laurel L. Perez
This second Matthea Harvey collection, is also the second collection I have read by her. InSad Little Breathing Machine, Harvey explores the strange and intricate mechanics of human systems, and the inexorable intricacies of the body and language. The is often described as an engine in this collection, and in the same way as wr are propelled forward in space, so are we in Harvey's play with language.

Some reviewers find the language to be foreign, but that seems to me to be the point, that as in
Surreal literature, especially surreal poetry, can be very tricky. You want to be surreal enough to push the envelope, but you still want it to be relatable on some level, so that you don't lose your reader. Not everyone can do it, in fact, very few people can pull it off.

Matthea Harvey, thankfully, is one of those people. It helps that mixed in with shorter experimental poems there are prose poems that offer surreal narratives on the art of writing. These are the true gems of this collection,
Philip Gordon
Here we have another instance of a book that is so showered in critical acclaim that I feel any dissent on my part will be seen as disingenuous. I greatly wanted to like Matthea Harvey's poems--even before studying one of her works in class, the titles of her collections and attitude of her overall voice seemed to speak to me, and this was the first book of hers I sat down and read in full.

Taking "You're Miss Reading" as my first window into her poetry, I was hoping not all of her poems would pr
This book of poems was constantly misleading… starting from the title. I expected I nice collection of melancholic poems about the human condition. Instead, the mood felt light hearted (although sometimes the playfulness would abruptly turn into something much darker); almost childlike at times.
There seemed to be three types of poems:
The prose poems were a little easier to digest. They even bordered on short stories.
There were also poems divided into couplets. I found these the most difficul
Sad Little Breathing Machine...what can I say that's different about this work of poetry than the last few that I have read? Not really anything. Yes, the language was beautiful, and yes, the form was cool. But did I "get it?" No not at all, at least not until someone told me what to look for. It is quite clever, actually. Matthea Harvey uses this book to retell a story that follows the classic archetype of a hero, but this time does it from a female perspective and in a less obvious way. She te ...more
On the first read, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine is incredibly dense and conceptual, an extremely difficult read that is often quite hard to understand. Yet, as I spent more time with the poems, they slowly began to open up. Often delightfully clever, the generally terse poems combined to form what felt like an exercise in social thought. Poems like ‘First Person Fabulous’ intelligently examined the social implications of the interplay between First Person and Third Person voices ...more
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Amanda Lucek
Mar 09, 2011 Amanda Lucek added it
Shelves: poetry

I don't know where my week went, so all I have right now are some preliminary notes on the book. Since we're going to be discussing it for 2 weeks hopefully it will be acceptable if I change this into an actual review before then. I may even be able to get this fleshed out a bit more tomorrow afternoon before class, we'll see.

Whimsy w/ language play:
"To Zanzibar by motorcar" (6)
"the ether wasn't working either" (8)

great phrases – unexpected and yet perfectly fitting:
"zebras fingerprint the plain
Rr Sigel
I really enjoyed reading Matthea Harvey’s collection “Sad Little Breathing Machine,” which seemed to successfully integrate ideas about modern mechanization with commentary on the intricacies of language and its limitations. Unlike the images in “Aim Straight at the Fountain...”, all of the images in “Sad Little Breathing Machine” seem important, not just vehicles to create an image collage. What was so impressive to me was how Harvey was able to bring both language play and real-world commentar ...more
Hannah  Antalek
Sad Little Breathing Machine is without a doubt one of my favorite titles for a book of poetry. When reading poetry I usually don’t give much thought to the title in relation to overall content of the book because a lot of the time I feel these titles are arbitrary and chosen only after a particularly good poem included in the book. While Sad Little Breathing Machine is also the title of one of the poems in the book I never felt that it was arbitrary, this title related to the book’s content as ...more
Mar 17, 2011 Mikey is currently reading it
Matthea Harvey arranges her poetry into six sections that each start with an introduction going from "Introduction to the World" to "Introduction to the End". The book moves through a path of life from birth to death. The book grasps a readers attention because there are so many ways to read it and so many paths that it follows. Perhaps one interpretation of the book is a movement through the discovery of self, but the book has other recurring themes that have a beginning and end and journey thr ...more
Sad Little Breathing Machine has multiple parts, yet there is a sense of a cohesive structure as each section starts out with an introduction poem. The poems vary in style and each section has roughly the same proportions of style variety. Like her previous book, the titles help somewhat in shaping the structure, although there are points it seems she intentionally avoids following the title she’s given the poem. There are still many lines that contain insightful observations. For example, the ...more
Apr 11, 2008 Maureen rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: John Berryman, Dr. Seuss
That Matthea Harvey is among my favorite living poets. Witty, inventive, endlessly imaginative.

A sample:


The moat simmers at 210. From his tower the king watches, pleased, as a swallow tries to land on the water, squawks & flies off. He believes in setting a good example. O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, you’ll be alone when you are old, his favorite country song—on repeat—is being piped through the palace. Downstairs in the dining room, the princesses gaze o
Brent Legault
Apr 11, 2008 Brent Legault rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: tiptoeing tightrope walkers, dirty-faced clowns
For me, it all began on page four, and it began with this:

Unfasten the crows & the clouds come crashing down.

And from there it continued, good and favorite lines, multiplying like fetal tissue, like tadpoles in a pond or puddle, this Sad Little Breathing Machine, until it grew into a baby in the shape of a hatbox or a cake.

It has a taste for sugar and scallops and fallen soufles. And lemons, too, but not for lemonade. It has also a charming wit and a witty charm. It likes play, especially wo
I get the sense that Matthea Harvey has a devoted fan base, but, based on reading this one book of hers, I'm not itching to jump on her bandwagon just yet. Harvey certainly comes across as intelligent, but she is frustratingly stingy when it comes to sharing the fruits of her intelligence with her readers: her poems strike me as coy and emotionally cold, hiding their meanings behind clipped phrasings and constipated silences. Outcome: the reader feels alienated, as if he had been invited to a mu ...more
Matthea Harvey plays with words and poetic syntax in a fashion that often surprises and delights. For me, there is always a layer of irony or sarcasm that seems like a distancing filter, leaving the balance between the emotional and the cerebral strongly, very strongly, in favor of the latter. Which is only a problem for those of us who prefer the former. From "Meat Ravioli VS. Spaghetti Bolognese":
"Each film mentioned at the dinner party/ was a sinkhole we skirted so as not to fall/
into story.
Mary McMyne
Jun 22, 2014 Mary McMyne rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fans of literary poetry, dark humor, the absurd
Absurd, delicious poems, some so wonderfully dark and humorous as to make me laugh aloud on first read. Others are a bit more obscure, but still a pleasure to puzzle out. I prefer her prose poems to her verse but there are so many wonderful experiments in this collection, so many poems unlike any I've ever read, it's hard to complain. Incredibly inventive: from tiny ponies that teach people how to be happy, to a princess who lives in a castle shaped like a heart with ventricles, this book is ful ...more
Siel Ju
An (anti)hero's journey from birth to death, told in 6 sections. Some poems -- esp. the prose poems -- are a lot of fun and wryly funny. Others seem to be playing some constraint-based game I don't understand. Best section is "Introduction to Narrative" and its play with storytelling. Favorite poem -- "Address to an Absent Flea," in which a reader misses the flea that acted as a moveable punctuation mark --
Helen S.
I thought this was a great book--very honest, right to the surface. Matthea Harvey's language was very blunt. In "Introduction to the End", she writes, "When he sees the second train coming/towards you, the hero will save himself." This is a very blunt description of the selfishness of human nature. This is a raw account of the aspects of life.
Nov 09, 2008 Susan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like strange poetry
Her poetry confuses me, overwhelms me, and amazes me. I wish I could understand it better. I think the last half of the book is more interesting overall. The "Engine" parts still make no sense to me, but her prose pieces that deal with more "meta" themes interest me the most.

Grade: B+
To be honest, I don't understand many poems in this manuscript. Harvey tries to top her wittiness with each piece. After awhile, the tones run flat. However, I do appreciate her playfulness. "Once Upon a Time: A Genre Fable" is one poem that will stick with me for a long time.
I made the note of "best poem" on several poems. Matthea Harvey has a wonderful sense of humor, sense of life, sense of ...well, just sense. Her mind must shimmer like the fireflies about which she writes. Read "Once Upon a Time: A Genre Fable."
I really like Matthea, but I don't think this represents her at her best. The form seemed to stifle rather than open up possibilities in the poetry. An interesting experiment for the writer, but I don't think a very interesting finished product.
Jul 18, 2007 Claire rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those who like clever, slightly inexplicable poetry
There's a child-like quality to Harvey's poems, I think it's in her phrasing and word choice—slightly off-beat, almost the correct language ("meat flowers," anyone?) and grammar, but not quite. I love these poems. Read them.
The prose poems in this book rocked my world. They are maximally enchanting. When I pick this book up, I almost only flip through the prose poems (which I feel slightly sheepish about), but they are truly magical.

Kristen Hoggatt
I'm not able to tell you yet what all the epigram symbols mean, but Harvey's idiosycrasies in no way overshadow the fact that she is a master of language.
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  • Cocktails
  • Interior with Sudden Joy: Poems
  • Mosquito
  • Sleeping With the Dictionary
  • Fragment of the Head of a Queen: Poems
  • Awe
  • Some Ether
  • Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk: A Poem in Fragments
  • Wind in a Box
  • The Difficult Farm
  • Lampblack & Ash: Poems
  • This Clumsy Living
  • I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems
  • Ghost Girl
  • The Babies
  • Song
  • The Man Suit
  • Dancing in Odessa
Matthea Harvey is the author of three books of poetry--Modern Life, Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, and one children's book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.
More about Matthea Harvey...

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