Nimbly probing: Matthew Tierney’s The Hayflick Limit

by Katia Grubisic

Brief Review

Matthew Tierney. The Hayflick Limit. Toronto: Coach House, 2009.

Matthew Tierney’s The Hayflick Limit opens with an excerpt from Joseph Brodsky’s winter eclogue, which in its 13 words raises at least as many questions: if each body “falls prey” to the telescope, is distance the hunter? Is proximity? Discovery? Is being preyed upon a relief from the indifference of time, death an acknowledgment of existence? The brevity and the stab of those lines pries us open, leaving the reader far more vulnerable than the poet, though Brodsky evidently knew whereof he wrote. Even my grumpy expectations are not so high as to compare Tierney to his epigraphist, but what a lesson in how to offer poems to their readers. In this second collection, Tierney offers up our world, from the commonplace to the contemporary to the cosmic, with craft and cleverness, but he shies away from that Brodsky-esque eviscerating evocation. Tierney possesses a solid instinct for what constitutes a poetic moment or thing, from the bathetic “line graph” of an urban, industrial skyline to an eloquently contradictory “carpet like the Sahara.” His alternating fascination with technology, language, cosmology and pop culture, however, presents a danger. The thing itself makes the poeming lazy. That Saharan rug is followed by the alliterative but trifling “It’s the facts, bulleted, PowerPointed, poof.” “Heliotropism” jumbles “A flipper slices the surface glare” with constellations and some apparently random “gladioli” that “line the Colosseum.” Meant to elicit or evince awe by evoking the epistemological clutter of this world we claim to know, too much of the poetic talent evident in The Hayflick Limit stays mired in intertextual and cultural shorthand. Tierney lands on great lines, and some good poems. Consider “The two of us, / timeless bridesmaids of the sun,” as “The Eclipse Chaser” ends, its melancholic whimsy echoing after the poem; or the idea, in an Area 51 poem, that “Voltage marches through barbed wire, / holds back the sagebrush,” barely containing the incipient threat of an encounter between human and non-, between the barbarity of the wire and the can’t-help-being-there sagebrush. “The Rocket Scientist,” in which one recently jilted Charles finds “a bucket of antimatter in the basement,” most coherently deploys Tierney’s infatuation with indefatigable language and zoomed observations, and lets loose the questions–conversational, compassionate–to which they give rise. Tierney gets his micro/macroscopic way with Charles’s surroundings: “hydrogen atoms coalesced on the windowpane;” and the unearthed pile of positrons and antiprotons are enough to get him to Mars and “beyond the heliopause.” It works, however; the poem makes us care. Although Tierney toes an ironic sentimentality and toys with his trademarkish absurdisms, the language itself suggests a vulnerable underbelly. The antimatter is “storm-front grey, tagged with rust”; a “canopy of kinder stars” lies beyond that heliopause, and we don’t need to really get how baryogenesis works, nor the particular reference to the theoretical frontier where solar winds wane, to understand Charles’s simultaneous desolation and consolation. After all, as Leonard Hayflick discovered in the sixties, our cells only have so many divisions, far too few not to risk being glimpsed by a few predatory telescopes, or pried open by nimbly probing poems.


an Arc Brief Review [read more reviews]
Published in Arc 63: Winter 2010.
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