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The poems in this collection represent the best of William Matthews’s ten original books of poetry, almost thirty years’ worth, beginning in 1970 and including the posthumous After All, 1998. There are some hundred and sixty- five poems here, twenty-six of which are from work previously unpublished in a book. In the course of his remarkable career, Matthews placed in various magazines—from the ephemeral to The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker—more than eight hundred poems. He was prolific, but he was also selective. When it came time to assemble a new volume, he was severe. Either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or it didn’t. Fewer than half the poems he wrote made it into books.
With the help of Michael Collier, Houghton Mifflin’s poetry consultant, and Peter Davison, Matthews’s longtime friend and editor, Sebastian Matthews and I have followed the author’s model in producing a collection we feel he would be proud of, a selection he himself might have made. Matthews died on November 12, 1997, the day after his fifty-fifth birthday. He had, just days before, sent off the completed manuscript of After All, in accordance with a creative schedule that presented a new book of poetry every three years. Added to this calendar were any number of critical essays, commentaries, memoir pieces, reviews, and interviews, many of which have been gathered into Curiosities (1989) and The Poetry Blues (2001).
Matthews’s marvelous letters make up yet another category. His correspondence with the world, through his masterly poems and graceful prose, was rich and varied; his correspondence with his friends and acquaintances was loving, engaging, and always on point. All of Matthews’s writing, regardless of genre, reveals the man, both the persona he wished to disclose and the person he almost successfully kept to himself. His brilliance and volubility are inseparable from his reserve—the tension between them is the core dynamic of his kinetic mind and demanding language. His announced self and secret self parley not only the precision of his diction and imagination but the spoken music of his sentence. His poetry, like his prose, can seem impromptu, when in fact it is written in astute, rehearsed internal conversation within a form itself being addressed. Matthews’s buoyant feel for analysis, his restless curiosity, his refreshing range of knowledge, his quirky, often sardonic take on memory, his insistence on the invisibility of his craft—these elements and more set him apart as a maker.
To paraphrase, however, is only to suggest Matthews’s depth and resonance as a poet. The implicit chronology of this careful selection of his poems conjures a narrative of work that moves from the imagistic, aphoristic seventies to the more directly autobiographical eighties to the more meditative, introspective nineties. All the while the poems grow in size, texture, complexity, darkness, and acceptance of the given situation—or, at the least, a reluctant reconciliation. The full heart behind the poems becomes more and more available to the luminous mind making them. Too often honored for his wit alone, the Matthews throughout these pages is a poet of emotional resolve, enormous linguistic and poetic resources, and, most especially, a clarifying wisdom. Here he is reinforced as a writer of responsibility to form and tradition as well as irony and idiom, whether that heritage refers to literature, jazz, and epicurean delight or elegiac testimonies for those he has loved.
Reading Matthews you get the impression that his insights and images and the syntax created by his inevitable ear have traveled great distances to the page. They have. They arrive distilled from a metaphysics in which thought is not only feeling but a coherent language, a language that must be mastered before it can be made. “Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo,” from the seventies, is an early example.
Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo
There are only a hundred or so snow leopards alive, and three of them here. Hours I watch them jump down and jump up, water being poured. Though if you fill a glass fast with water, it rings high to the top, noise of a nail driven true. Snow leopards land without sound, as if they were already extinct.
If I could, I’d sift them from hand to hand, like a fire, like a debt I can count but can’t pay.
I’m glad I can’t. If I tried to take loss for a wife, and I do, and keep her all the days of my life, I’d have nothing to leave my children.
I save them whatever I can keep and I pour it from hand to hand.
The connections in this poem easily surpass discrete metaphor to become the total medium—submersion——through which they move: from the snow leopards to water to snow to fire to consuming debt to loss; from jumping to pouring to filling to counting to pouring . . . the concentric circles derive from and return directly to their common center of gravity in a flow and speed almost preternatural. Then there is the touch of the “nail driven true,” the exquisite understatement of the soundlessness of the leopards, landing “as if they were already extinct,” and the reality of taking “loss for a wife.” The fragility of the poem is also its subject, the balance of saving “whatever I can keep” against the perishability of losing it all. Behind the poem is the certain knowledge—which is a theme in Matthews’s poetry—that it will all, always, slip through our hands. This genius for turning the most familiar materials into something extraordinary—both smart and moving at once—comes from his gift for making connections and exploiting them to the limit their language will bear.
For all the normal changes in his writing, as Matthews matured he never surrendered his talent for the fragile, mortal moment that quickens the feel of things. At times his tone may have sharpened—he loved Byron as much as he loved Martial—but he never gave in to the fragmentary, the broken, the piecemeal hard emotion. He was continually a writer of the controlled but complete embrace. I think the soul of his work is closer to the toughness and sweetness of Horace, to the passions of mind of Coleridge, and to the nocturnal blues melancholy of all those jazzmen he revered. He grew up in Ohio, within the margins of both country and small city, pastoral and postwar urban. His father worked for the Soil Conservation Service. He rode a bike, had a newspaper route (the Dayton Daily News), went to the county fair, played baseball and basketball, moved back to Cincinnati (his birthplace), then later to a larger, eastern, Ivy League world. A not uncommon midwestern American story. Yet he never lost his sense of humor about himself nor forgot where he came from. His complexity combined the Ohioan and the New Yorker, the boy and the man, beautifully in his poetry.
In the transitional sixties, when he was a graduate student in Chapel Hill, Matthews met Russell Banks, also in graduate school and also starting out as a writer. They soon collaborated on what became one of the exceptional small literary magazines of its era, Lillabulero. The collaboration would fade but the friendship would last a lifetime. Matthews’s commitment to the small magazine would not fade. It says everything about him that a good portion of the poems in this collection first appeared in journals of often very short shelf lives. He became one of the premier poets of his generation, yet he remained faithful to the idea of where literature can find its first expression. His democratic instincts never failed him. Matthews was preeminently fair-minded, and this egalitarian spirit informed every part of his personality and permitted him to serve vital roles in American poetry culture at a vital time, from the Poetry Society of America to the National Endowment for the Arts. And his tireless support of younger writers, it goes without saying, began with his superb teaching.
It is still difficult, for many of his friends and admirers, to believe that he is gone. The poems represented here are alive in ways and at depths that most poetry can at best aspire to. The intimacy is never too familiar, the conversation never too friendly, the imagination never too busy, the wit never too sterling. The fault lines of heartbreak are everywhere, yet they map an intact emotion. Every gesture, every turn, every reverse is guided and governed by a classicism that values moderation, generosity, and, at just the right moment, an utter truth. Timing, indeed, is essential to Matthews’s internal music: he knows just when to smile, when to open the window, when to change the pace, and when the last line is the last line. And he knows he knows, without display. Reading this collection, front to back or intermittently at leisure, we love his mind, we celebrate the skill that lifts the quotidian to meaning. And we love, even more, the man whose life was so much at stake in the words.
Copyright © 2004 by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly. Introduction copyright © 2004 by Stanley Plumly. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
|The Search Party||3|
|Blues for John Coltrane, Dead at 41||6|
|Coleman Hawkins (d. 1969), RIP||7|
|Faith of Our Fathers||12|
|Why We Are Truly a Nation||13|
|On Cape Cod a Child Is Stolen||14|
|Driving All Night||15|
|What You Need||18|
|Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 1959||19|
|Driving Alongisde the Housatonic River Alone on a Rainy April Night||25|
|The Needle's Eye, the Lens||29|
|An Egg in the Corner of One Eye||30|
|La Tache 1962||35|
|Letter to Russell Banks||40|
|Mud Chokes No Eels||46|
|Beer after Tennis, 22 August 1972||47|
|Bring the War Home||48|
|The Waste Carpet||49|
|Sticks & Stones||54|
|Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo||62|
|Living Among the Dead||65|
|Left Hand Canyon||67|
|In Memory of the Utah Stars||69|
|Bud Powell, Paris, 1959||71|
|Listening to Lester Young||72|
|The Icehouse, Pointe au Baril, Ontario||73|
|Taking the Train Home||76|
|Waking at Dusk from a Nap||79|
|In Memory of W. H. Auden||81|
|Cows Grazing at Sunrise||90|
|Our Strange and Lovable Weather||96|
|Pissing off the Back of the Boat into the Nivernais Canal||104|
|The Penalty for Bigamy Is Two Wives||106|
|On the Porch at the Frost Place, Franconia, NH||111|
|Eternally Undismayed Are the Poolshooters||120|
|The Drunken Baker||122|
|Leaving the Cleveland Airport||123|
|Dancing to Reggae Music||124|
|Iowa City to Boulder||127|
|Lions in the Cincinnati Zoo||128|
|A Walk with John Logan 1973||129|
|Clearwater Beach, Florida, 1950||130|
|The Psychopathology of Everyday Life||147|
|A Happy Childhood||150|
|Civilization and Its Discontents||156|
|The Theme of the Three Caskets||163|
|An Elegy for Bob Marley||167|
|April in the Berkshires||176|
|Photo of the Author with a Favorite Pig||177|
|Herd of Buffalo Crossing the Missouri on Ice||180|
|Caddies' Day, the Country Club, a Small Town in Ohio||181|
|Homer's Seeing-Eye Dog||199|
|Moonlight in Vermont||203|
|Smoke Gets in Your Eyes||205|
|Little Blue Nude||208|
|The Wolf of Gubbio||222|
|Mingus at The Showplace||223|
|The Bear at the Dump||224|
|My Father's Body||226|
|President Reagan's Visit to New York, October 1984||232|
|Mingus at The Half Note||233|
|Men at My Father's Funeral||235|
|The Rookery at Hawthornden||236|
|Note Left for Gerald Stern in an Office I Borrowed, and He Would Next, at a Summer Writers' Conference||238|
|Cheap Seats, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959||240|
|The Rented House in Maine||241|
|Mingus in Diaspora||243|
|A Night at the Opera||254|
|Another Real Estate Deal on Oahu||259|
|E lucevan le stelle||262|
|Portrait of the Artist as a Young Clarinetist||263|
|Driving Through the Poconos, Route 80, 1:30 A.M., Snow||268|
|The Buddy Bolden Cylinder||269|
|Grandmother, Dead at 99 Years and 10 Months||272|
|I Let a Song Go out of My Heart||276|
|Mingus in Shadow||279|
|A Poetry Reading at West Point||297|
|People Like Us||299|
|The Bar at the Andover Inn||301|
|Bucket's Got a Hole in It||305|
|Index of Titles||309|
Posted February 6, 2012
No text was provided for this review.