The Poetry of John Matthias
The Poetry of John Matthias
A generous selection, with commentary and biographical background, for those coming newly to Matthias’s work.
Last year I spent the month of April reading everything I could lay my hands on by or about John Matthias, a wholly deadline-driven fact which is significant in my thinking only because April is the month chosen by the American Academy of Poets and the poetry publishing apparatus to be designated “National Poetry Month.” For these thirty days of the year merchants will, it is hoped, put books of poems in their windows and sponsor events for poets both famous and local, all with the intention of attracting notice to the continued existence of poetry in the United States, to the fact that it is indeed still being written, in a serious fashion.
All of this has a less oblique connection to the work of John Matthias than at first it might appear: for as I grew ever more impressed with the consistent quality of his poems, the question of how such a poet could be virtually unknown in America increasingly came to loom. Wasn’t National Poetry Month supposed to be about putting thoughtful and accomplished artists like Matthias forward? Matthias’s obscurity illustrates the contradictory truths that poetry is in many respects alive and well in the United States, and that there seem to be tremendous obstacles to making this known.
Consider these lines from Matthias’s “A Note on Barber’s Adagio “:
…Back in Autumn 1963
Samuel Barber was alone and driving through
November rain in Iowa or Kansas.
When he turned on his radio he heard
them playing his Adagio for Strings.
Sick to death of his most famous composition,
he turned the dial through the static
until once again, and clearly -
The Adagio for Strings. When a third station, too,
and then a fourth, were playing it, he thought
he must be going mad. He turned off the radio
and stopped the car and got out by a fence
staring at the endless open space in front of him
where someone on a tractor plowed
on slowly in the rain…
A well-known figure’s very personal bewilderment is here probed to amplify a national turning point, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath. The simple image of an old man standing in a harvested wheat or corn field (the inverse of the “amber waves of grain” promised by “America the Beautiful”) is made by Matthias into a complex symbol of Samuel Barber’s achievement and failure, and of our own. By examining the way in which Samuel Barber’s great composition came to overshadow the rest of his career, marking him forever as the composer Americans turn to when they wish to signify profound sorrow, Matthias manages to “make strange” this now-remote yet signal event. Barber, at once an individual and a choral reflection of ourselves, stands bewildered at this change in his life. Beneath the poem’s intimate, lyrical tone, Matthias both conveys a national transit from innocence to experience and laments the ways that a corporatized national monoculture has dissolved even our deepest mourning into a kind of kitsch - packaging tragedy into ritual keening. At the poem’s end Matthias notes with earned irony: “He only knew he didn’t know/ why he should be responsible for an ecstasy of grief.”
This poem is typical of the work of Matthias - sly, historical, unpretentiously meditative and deadly serious. In his thirty-five year career, Matthias has assembled what is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic poetic bodies of work of his day, with subjects ranging from his own family to the exiled White Russian leader Kerensky to Nelson Mandela. Yet this variegated oeuvre is unified by a profoundly humble, and humane, vision of the fragility of human life. A scholar of place, Matthias writes of the ways in which landscape and geography can overwhelm human aspiration and achievement; a committed husband and father, he writes of how intimacy complicates individual action and belief; a student of language, he details the limitations inherent in communication; a historian of ideas, he conveys the futility of privileging any form of scientific or humanistic knowledge over any other in a world that constantly defies our illusions of control.
In “Spokesman to Bailiff, 1349: Plague,” from his 1975 volume, Turns, Matthias presents his vision of the gap between man’s will and his experience through an act of historical reconstruction, imagination, and ventriloquism of the sort that has been a mainstay of his career:
We leave you payment.
In a cup of vinegar
Beside the well, the
Coins that you require.
Let no one approach us.
Here we make an end
Of ceremony, custom. In
Our wreckage all of
Europe’s racked, your
Kindness unrequited in
Its kind. And yet our death’s
A birth of avarice and
Powers oblique, unfathomed.
Leave us bread and ointments.
Free from obligations, we
Leave the world to its wealth.
In these sixteen lines we see the aristocracy of 14th century Europe in weakness, brought level on the playing field of biology. And through this imagined moment we see a wider change, the ending of a world, the existing structures of power demolished by the plague and giving way to something more like the political and economic matrix we now inhabit (“Powers oblique, unfathomed…”), which will in its own turn be overwhelmed.
Nothing in Matthias’s poetry is immune from the fragility that defines our world and our experience; even a stone wall is not a solid object but rather a complicated nexus of personal, historical, and religious purpose. “The Silence of Stone,” first published in 1995’s Swimming At Midnight, illuminates the tragedy of the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, in which a traditional way of life with its accepted rituals and pleasures was savagely violated:
In Bosnia, in Herzegovina nearby: enigmatic
standing stones proclaim
some mode of life that lost its way
upon the very field of light
where men and women danced the kolo once
and called to vine and lily…
“Epilogue From a New Home,” from Turns, strikes a more directly personal note of quiet awe before life’s vicissitudes that is also a staple of Matthias’s work, as the poet writes of attending a concert with his two daughters:
In a hall at Aldeburgh an attentive audience is
momentarily distracted by the jet (American -
The base hasn’t moved very far) which flies above them
as they listen to a song by Britten
Or by Gustav Holst. Where Thomas Hardy prayed
(dismaying Clodd, his scientific friend),
Where George Crabbe’s father preached,
is space, is history made soluble in art,
A good man’s life made durable? Cynouai is bored,
Laura is tired. As the plane approaches,
Both of them look up. If they could understand;
If I could let them know.
The easy learnedness of this poem is turned back on itself, as the poet conveys the futility of his hard-won knowledge in the face of the indifferent realities of the technological security-state, and also in the face of his love for his daughters. The more complex first two sentences of the stanza - with several clauses piled on end - give way in the ninth line to three simple sentences, divided by commas and a semi-colon into a more gentle, balanced rhythm which underscores the tenderness conveyed toward the poet’s daughters, and also, again, the humility implicit in the poet’s admitting what, for all his learnedness and love, he cannot give them in the world.
At the end of “Epilogue from a New Home,” Matthias makes an allusion to Seamus Heaney’s early poem “Digging” when he writes, “I’m but half oriented here. I’m digging down.” Digging, in Heaney’s poem, serves as a metaphor for the work of the artist, in delving beneath the surfaces of things, conducting a kind of archaeology of one’s own life and spirit and culture and thereby earning the right to speak to truths that extend beyond the moment. Matthias’s work as a whole represents an archaeology, or autobiography, of this kind - chronicling a life’s journey in which Matthias has always felt “half oriented,” in which he has always been “digging down.”
John Matthias was born in 1941 in Columbus, Ohio, to a family of powerful conservative Republicans of the party’s Taft wing; Matthias’s father was a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. After attending the private University School in Columbus, Matthias matriculated at Ohio State, encountering teachers and mentors as talented and diverse as Peter Taylor, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. He wrote both poetry and fiction throughout his college career and committed himself to the life of the literary artist. He also, around this time, began a friendship with John Berryman that would endure with varying intensity until the older man’s death.
On leaving OSU, Matthias entered graduate school at Stanford University, where he studied under Yvor Winters, among others, and with such future poetic luminaries as Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, John Peck, and James McMichael. In 1966, Matthias received a Fulbright and moved to London to study the poets of the Auden generation; here also he met Diana Adams, who was to become his wife and a recurring presence in his work.
This trip to London, while an enormous boon to Matthias personally and professionally, initiated the complicated bifurcation of his poetic project which has contributed somewhat to his limited visibility on the American poetry scene. Matthias was to accept the position as professor which he still holds at the University of Notre Dame in 1968, but would also commence splitting the year between South Bend and his wife’s native village in East Anglia. Not simply in geography, but also in poetic sensibility is Matthias a poet divided and difficult to categorize: he could be thought of as the descendant or peer of W.H. Auden, David Jones, and Geoffrey Hill; or of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Michael Harper.
But this division, while not helping him to become better known, has helped Matthias’ poetry itself. In some ways self-marginalized in both of his chosen contexts, Matthias has used this distance to probe the various personal, social, historical, and spiritual dimensions of these contexts - the presence of the past, the wreckage and circumscription of human hope and ambition - a distanced view he extends even to his home region, even to himself.
Matthias’ first book, Bucyrus, was published in 1970, and while it now stands as an “apprentice” project it contains, among the obvious struggles to find his way of a poet in his mid-twenties, several gems like this poem, “Swimming At Midnight”:
Under a pine and confusion:
ah! Tangles of clothes: (come
on silly, nobody’s here:) and
naked as a fish, a boy and a girl.
(Nobody comes here: nobody looks:
nobody watches us watching us
watch.) Except the police.
Thighs slide into the moon.
Humbly, into the stars: Mirrored,
flashes a father’s red eye, a
blue-bitten mother’s red lip: No
Swimming Allowed in the Quarry
At Night. (Anyway, nevertheless
moreover: feel how warm!) here,
among the reflections. (Feel the
water’s mouth and its hands, feel
them imitate mine: can there truly
be any danger?) danger allowed in
the quarry at night? can people
really have drowned? (Now my body
is only water alive, and aeons
ago you were a fish growing
legs -) well, dust to dust, a
curious notion. But quarry water on
dust green with seed! Quarry water
forbidden on land after dark! What
young forms of vegetation emerge.
What new colors of light.
In this poem the roots of Matthias’s mature aesthetic may clearly be seen. Danger and terror lurk just beneath the lovely surface of the moment; already the young poet presents a sense of human limitation and smallness before infinity - not before the intricately-layered historical and political context of his later poems, but in a more plainly existential way (“thighs slide into the moon/ Humbly, into the stars”; “dust to dust, a curious notion”) before nature and morality.
Matthias’s second book, Turns, represents a significant advance on Bucyrus, containing a range of forms and styles, among them lyrics like the delicate and dedicatory “For Diana:”
Look at these words.
What is there in them
You should tolerate
My absences, my silence.
As if they made a world
Where we could live, you
Offer me what I expect.
Should least. Last. And
Only look on circumspect.
Matthias has here crafted an unusual, yet powerful, love poem which offers gratitude for his wife’s constancy and patience, while at the same time acknowledging his own failings and the high costs of the art he continues to craft.
Turns also greatly expands the poet’s sphere of concern, containing poems like the previously-discussed “Spokesman to Bailiff, 1349: Plague,” and the far-ranging explorations of “East Anglian Poem,” with its sense of the poet plunging his arm into the muck of history:
Material of Bronze and of Iron -
linch-pins and chariot wheels, nave-bands
and terret-rings: harness mounts, fittings, and
bridle-bits: also a sword, an axe: also a
But the soils
are acid here
and it rains
Often there’s only the mark of a tool on a bone
Often there’s nothing at all
In this poem Matthias makes of an archaeological dig an imaginative journey through empires destroyed - focusing on the Romans and Celts who fought over the space that is now his home, a sedimental view which implies the equal tenuousness of the present. This consciousness of the simultaneity of history is one of the most attractive features of Matthias’s imaginative practice. As he wrote in an essay about the same locale, “A mile away from where I write runs the Roman road to Colchester, down which Boudicca traveled to sack the Empire’s British capital. On the same road, in the opposite direction, traveled the Christian religion out of Roman Jerusalem. Over my head fly the American jets from Bentwaters Air Base.”
Boudicca, the “dishonored queen” and “spectral bride” whose life is presumably being unearthed in “East Anglian Poem,” was the queen of the Iceni (a Celtic tribe inhabiting the region that is now Norfolk) who led a native revolt against the Romans in 60 AD, shortly before the Roman withdrawal, killing 70,000, sacking Colchester, St. Albans, and London. When Suetoniuns Paulinus returned from Rome with reinforcements, Boudicca was in turn defeated in London, raped, and killed.
The poem moves forward in time layer by layer through imaginings of daily life as it must have been lived by the inhabitants of Britain, from the pre-Roman era through the time of Christ, culminating in 60 AD with the parading Roman victors, unaware that their reign was also soon to end:
After the incantations and the libations
After the auguries in the grove of the dishonored queen
After the spectral bride at the mouth of the Thames
Did the tethered swans fly above him?
Did the deer follow behind?
And after the pounding of magic into the swords?
From the confiscated lands
From the Calendar of Rites
From the Forward Policy of Rome
From the open hands of
frightened and obsequious client-kings
From the pride of the Legatus
From the procurator’s greed
From the Divine House of Tiberius Claudius
His octastyle temple and His Name
From the hands of the Goddess of Death
The tethered swans flew above him
And the deer followed behind
To convey his sense of the geologic layering of history, Matthias builds on the technical innovations of two of his strongest influences, David Jones, and Geoffrey Hill, both grandmasters of the kind of strong modernism that has been out of favor in Britain since the Fifties. David Jones shaped dense pilings of “all I could find” into a unique and permanent poetic style, using legend and literary history, reportage, intricate patterning, the self-conscious mix of poetry and prose, lyric montage, the multiple identification of present-day personages with historical or mythological figures, and faint and not-so-faint echoes of liturgy and ritual. Geoffrey Hill, with even greater severity, has pursued his own diverse and intense interests to their farthest reach, building on that same style to stand as the true avatar of English modernism since World War II - and as such, to fly into the standard of English poetry set the last thirty years by the quiet ironies of Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and James Fenton.
In addition to his own great buildings on the English modernist aesthetic in works like “East Anglian Poem,” Matthias also introduces in Turns what will be a continued fascination throughout his career with the intricacies, uses and mis-uses of language, as in the word-play of “If Not a Technical Song American: Statement, Harangue, and Narrative,” the second section of which is quoted here:
Your tired evasions, euphemism-lies.
Civilized man and his word-hoard.
Will you be reliquant
Name and Title, Religion and Rank.
Put a check in the column.
Put a check in the bank.
If you’d be only a little bit clever.
If you’d be occasionally.
If you’d be forever.
If you’d be my government.
If you’d be my gal.
If you’d be my treason and my tongue.
If anything articulate remains.
Identify the numbers by the names.
Matthias here uses rhymes and pairings to question the betrayals of the American political system - and the intrusion of the resultant disillusionment into the private lives of America’s citizens - during the period of Vietnam and Watergate. The “you” of the poem, though never identified, is a poet (the first line of the poem’s first section, titled “Statement,” reads, “Just last night I read your poems to the President…”). Matthias is questioning the stance of all comfortable “bourgeois” poets and their lack of efficacy in the larger culture (“Your tired evasions, euphemism-lies”); and is turning this invective and challenge on himself as one such poet, interrogating his own commitments and integrity. The poem’s third section, “Narrative,” opens with medical terminology describing a weakened human body - moving his critique of “civilized” man’s obsessive desire to categorize with words beyond the realm of poetry and into that of biology, revealing the ultimate helplessness of all such efforts before time and morality:
Heart rate grossly irregular.
Jugular venous distention.
Systolic expansile pulse.
Right ventricular lift.
Left ventricular tap.
Murmur along the sternal borders.
The weakened body stands as a metaphor for the weakened nation he introduced in the first section, a subject that his own poetry was unable to redress. In the more conventional language of the conclusion, the poet finds one final metaphor for the national paralysis, a brief narrative of the possibility of love lost through inaction:
BUT IF I WAS IN LOVE WITH YOU?
I was in love with you, I think.
I think I didn’t have the heart.
No, I never even thought to move the earth.
Matthias’s third book, Crossing, published in 1979, presents a refining of the techniques and themes of his previous book, as in the layered complexity of “From a Visit to Dalmatia,” the first section of which is here quoted:
Korcula is oleander, cypresses & twisted
fig trees; Korcula is stones -
Lemon trees and stones. Quick mirages
above the stones & olive groves:
Shaky vineyard walls of broken stones and
Stones that must be gathered, piled up
before the shallow arbor roots will
take a tenuous hold
in sandy earth: And shallow stony graves
for Partisan or priest, invader.
Limestone & limestone rock in hills
around Lumbarda, limeface of Sveti Ilija
washed out roads, karst -
a landscape that will break you on its back
or make a sculptor of you -
Lozica, Krsinic, Ivan Jurjevic-Knez.
Matthias’s learnedness, again, blends easily here with his poetic language, creating a passage both simple and resonant in political, historical,and artistic complexities.
“Crossing” also girds thematically Matthias’s deepening understanding of what his twin lives in the United States and England are doing to him and his work, as indicated by this excerpt from the penultimate stanza of “Dunwich: Winter Visit Alone,” another love poem for his wife, Diana:
And knowing well the presences here
From the start, and of absence,
Of history alive, still, in so little,
We face the tides and erosions…
“Crossing” is composed of lyrics derived from British and continental subject matter; these poems signal Matthias’s growing attachment to England as a surrogate home. In a lecture given at the Chicago Historical Society in the spring of 1988, reprinted in his book of essays, Reading Old Friends, Matthias describes this process, which also changed how he approached his writing about America:
It took several years of summer visits - roughly from 1967 to 1970 - for Suffolk to begin to do its work on me, and it took Wordsworth in The Prelude, “Home at Grasmere,” “Poems on the Naming of Places,” and related works… to make me consciously aware of what I had begun unconsciously to feel - namely, that whatever I was and whatever I was going to write that might have any merit was bound up, for the present at least, with a place I had come to love, and that I was going to have to learn, somehow, to write from that place as well as about it… Predictably, once I found that I could “feel at home on the earth” in Suffolk, I also found that I could write with a good deal of sympathy about Ohio. But only in Suffolk!
Coming to feel at home on the earth, and the necessary, paradoxical impossibility of grappling with all the strands of experience such a comfort would seem to imply, is the larger theme of “Crossing.” In the elegy “On the Death of Benjamin Britten,” Matthias quotes the composer stating a credo, at once humble and wry, that could stand as a summary of the poet’s own work:
To be of use, you said
Directly and deliberately I write
For human beings. And not
Posterity - for which the general outlook
Isn’t very bright.
Perhaps Matthias’s single greatest accomplishment is a long series of linked lyrics from “Crossing,” “Poem For Cynouai.” Dedicated to one of his daughters, the poem deals with “perceptual problems,” a father enduring the dawning recognition that his daughter is becoming her own person and slipping away from him:
With urgency and passion you argue for the lot -
every one of thirty watercolors
ranged in retrospective
which I thought to choose among.
Circumspect, I sought
negotiations. You squint your lazy eye
and wave your arm in arcs
around our geocentric circle and insist:
“We’ll take them all!”
What begins as a typical argument between parent and child over appropriate consumption soon reveals itself to be more profound and considerably darker. The daughter actually holds a different view of human existence and endeavor than does her father, a difference he had previously explained away as stemming from her literal vision problems: “How I stumbled after you with memories and books/ How far ahead you rode.” This sea change in the poet’s life as he begins to recognize in his daughter a stranger is conveyed with the deepest and most delicate humility, masking immense sadness:
First they patched your eye
and then I saw.
My problem was perceptual.
What the poet is perceiving is that his daughter cannot relive his life for him or heal his wounds; the balancing act between hope and terror which he has acknowledged in other realms of life applies equally here, in our relations with those who are most important to us:
What I had wanted to see was light
filtering through the trees
deep in a forest near the sea
where elves and children play together
and adults sip tea
by an enormous ornamented samovar
in solemn conversation
on the nature of the games
the elves and children play….
What I had wanted to write was
love, immortal, laughter, wings….
What I had wanted to do
was to walk forever into a vision
painted by my daughter.
I had wanted her to take me with her there.
I had wanted her
to close the door behind us…
The poet begins to find his way towards letting go, towards righting himself intellectually and emotionally, by reexamining his relationship with his own father (a topic Matthias has visited again and again over the years): “When my father finished playing dying/ I began.” Matthias’s recognition of his own Oedipal struggles leads him to realize that what is needed from him now is not self-pitying grief over the inevitable separation, but rather an acceptance if not embrace of his place in the cycle of life:
Made of blues and ochers, greens,
made of sunrise and of grass sky trees -
Which will be the day
that you remember, child,
when I am only soul-stuff
and can no more enjoy this awkward body
which, despite its ills,
manages to do extraordinary simple things
like walk through heaths of gorse
with you before the others are awake…
I remember a day: the rowboat rocked
in the reeds:
my father watched his line. All
the night before we had slept together
in a shack waiting for the dawn.
We didn’t talk for hours. He, for once,
was beautifully distracted from
what he always called “the difficult business
of living.” There was
no past, there was no future there
in those reeds…
we were adrift in time,
and no one said we must return -
nor did we sail over any edge of any earth.
Or again: near the house of my childhood
on a street called Glen Echo Drive
there was a tree, an oak,
where my father swung me in a swing -
his long thin fingers
and his firm damp palms on the small of my back
I feel still -
and my bare and grimy feet going up through the leaves!
Mosses grow between his fingers now
and along his palms.
Mosses grow in his mouth & under his arms…
This unflinching description and analysis is typical of Matthias at his best, as he confronts the most unpleasant facts of human existence, not to shock or titillate but rather, simply, to be truthful. This is, of course, our fate. The poet’s willingness to contemplate on an intimate level the issues he probes in his luxuriously-rendered archaeological digs and burial excavations lends unity to his body of work, as we are made acquainted with a vision that is consistent on all its levels, from the personal and the daily to the historical and universal.
“Poem for Cynouai” concludes with a section that alludes to William Wordsworth’s epigram to “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood”: “The child is father of the man;/ And I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety.” Over the course of the poem Matthias realizes “the child the poet meant” is not the young self he once was, but rather his own child, in his case the daughter who has forced him to face his own morality:
is the father of the man
The daughter on the Black Duke of Norfolk…
The one whose problem was perceptual
The one who rides away
The poem’s great range of thought and feeling, from self-interrogation and family sketches to the invocation of artists, philosophers, and scientists such as Blake, Lacan, and Piaget, is conveyed in a deceptively plain, conversational English. The regular use throughout of repetition, a favorite Matthias technique, lends a quietly-building, fugal majesty to the work. “How luminous their rendering/ of a world we both believe in,” which refers, in the second stanza, to the paintings his daughter wanted him to buy, appears again in a different form in the fifth stanza, with the poet lamenting the distance the intervening years have brought: “I wrote: `How luminous their rending/ of a world we both believe in’/ and then I think you stopped believing.” The poet states once more “How luminous their rendering” at the end of his remembering his relationship with his own father and his father’s death - to signify his new appreciation of those moments of connection he did have with his daughter. The daughter’s phrase “We’ll take them all,” which ends the first stanza, is echoed in the third stanza when the poet corrects the impression he has given that he followed along with that wish: “`We’ll take them all,’ you said,/ and I said / I am easily persuaded./ We took just one”; and is echoed again in the eighth stanza when the poet writes of his desperate attempts to reconnect with his daughter by learning her interests: “I wave my arms/ around in frantic circles and insist:/ ‘I’ll learn them all.’”
As the repetitions continue to accrue they become a sort of stutter, conveying with almost unbearable force our human limitation, our helplessness against the world and the larger cycles to which we are tied. Matthias’s unrelenting devotion to the precepts of modernism thus pays surprising dividends, as he applies the conventions of Stein and Pound, of Beckett and Jones, with stunning success to what could be called an American confessional poem. “Poem For Cynouai” is, quite simply, one of the best American poems of the last twenty-five years, and demands to be more widely known and anthologized.
1984 marked the milestone of Northern Summer, Matthias’s first selected volume, which was greatly praised in particular in England. This volume contained such previously unpublished poems as the “Rostropovich at Aldeburgh,” which features these lines that could speak for the fragility of goodness acknowledged by Matthias’s poetic project as a whole: “What we applaud for is what/ In each us might, if we’re lucky,/ Survive.” The book also contains a new poem, about the poet’s daughter Laura, entitled “My Youngest Daughter: Running Toward an English Village Church”:
Sunday, then. In Trumpington. And nearby bells.
My daughter runs among the village graves
this foggy January morning of her early youth
as I lie late in bed
and watch her from my window.
I know she holds her breath.
Superstitious, she’ll hold it till she passes by
the final marker near the door & disappears inside.
If you breathe in cemeteries
you inhale evil spirits!
What do you inhale when you breathe in stony
churches or in bedrooms where you wake alone
and realize you cannot tell
your child’s superstition from her faith?
Beyond the church, a village green, a meadow,
the pleasures and the picnics
of next spring. I tell her
not to hold her breath in graveyards.
Watching her red coat become a gaudy blur
against the brilliant hoarfrost,
I realize I’m holding mine.
In these sorts of brief lyrics Matthias may seem on first glance to be a bourgeois, middle class poet of the house, garden and family. He starts this poem casually, almost flippantly, like a sketched notation in a journal, and then moves on to what seems a bemused contemplation of a childish rite. But on closer examination the poem’s many subtleties reveal themselves, as does its recognition, not just in the final line but throughout, of the terror undergirding our daily lives. This is not just any morning but a Sunday morning (already a large allusion) in an English village; the bells are church bells announcing the beginning or end of a service. The young girl running through a graveyard in winter is a further image that conjures a thousand associations, some simple and pat and others not so simple, all of them turned on their heads by the poem’s second half.
Watching her small figure receding, which could be considered a cliched image of running towards death, the poet suddenly takes the unexpected turns both of complicating our notion of childhood innocence and of implicating himself in what he sees. Has he taken enough care of his daughter’s spiritual well-being, or has he instead been lax, allowing her child’s affinity for folklore and superstition to cloud her faith? And in the final stanza the poet further implicates himself: it is his own innocence and faith, not hers, he realizes, that are compromised by what he sees: he is too aware of life’s contingency to trust in or feel that he can guarantee his daughter “the pleasures and the picnics/ of next spring.” The child’s superstitious rites against a looming incomprehensible world are perhaps not so childish. The power of this poem comes from its juxtaposition of idyll in the first half and terror in the second, from the lightning-quick surprise of the shift between the two, seeing the shadow in the brightest day, feeling the chill in a moment of intense warmth and longing.
In 1991 Matthias published another of the landmarks of his poetic career, A Gathering of Ways, a collection of three long poems composed in diptych, among them the majestic “Facts From An Apocryphal Midwest.” If the English portion of Matthias’s life has played an enormous role in his development as a poet, his time in the American Midwest, both as a professor at Notre Dame and well-travelled native son, has been equally significant. Consider these lines from Section 2 of that poem, “Five Maps, a Medicine Bag, and a Myth,” in which he brings the archaeological techniques of his ambitious British poems to bear on his home turf:
Rand McNally Atlas, 1985
The old Sauk trail, they say
still runs under U.S. 12
north from Niles to Detroit.
U.S. 20 takes it west through
Rolling Prairie to Chicago.
You can drive a car that’s named
for Cadillac up U.S. 12
to Ypsilanti, turning north
at 94 to a port named for the Hurons.
You can even drive
your Pontiac to Pontiac.
But only trickster Wiske’s brother
Chiyabos ever drove
in a Tecumseh to Tecumseh.
In his notes to the poem, Matthias relates his inspiration and some of his methods: “…[H]aving determined to write about rivers and trails which I often crossed but as yet knew little about, I found myself stimulated by exactly those things which from time to time I had thought might stimulate `another poet’ as I saw writing about things I knew and loved in East Anglia – LaSalle’s voyage through the great lakes and journey along the local paths and waterways, Algonquian (mostly Potawatami) history and mythology, the geological and geographical transformations which occurred during the last glacial recession, and the prose of Francis Parkman in the volume of France and England in North America called La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West.”
Matthias’s ability in these poems to distance himself from his own experience and past assumptions about the landscape most familiar to him acknowledges the permanence of place, the largest impersonal forces of time and climate and change, and the insignificance, geologically speaking, of any single person. Roads and cars and other manifestations of white culture are not given hegemony, but rather treated as further ghosts in this landscape. In Section 5, “Making of the Rivers and the Prairies,” we see the fruition of his “stimulation,” as Matthias carefully fingers, even relishes, Indian place-names and the lost ways of life they signify, as well as the marks in the landscape of vast geologic transition:
Before that rhetoric, that epigraph,
gushing of the ancient, unheard waters all along
the terminal moraine. Before the melt,
Maumee ice flow inching toward a Wabash
where no water ran, a Saginaw
into a dry Dowagiac. Before an unbound Kankakee,
glacial borders pressing ice lobes out
to flood the valley where no valley was, to spread
the drift two hundred feet and more above
Corniferous, Devonion and Trenton rock.
Before the flood, copper manitous locked up in stone
on distant islands not enisled
before the miners who would dig for them
where no mines were and build the pregnant mounds
by forest trails that were not blazed.
Before the forest trails, before the oak & ash,
path of the moraine: sand & boulders,
quartzite, clay and till…
Before the Potawatomies. Before the French.
Before the Studebaker &
the Bendix and the Burger Chef….
Maumee, Wabash, Saginaw, Dowagiac, Kankakee - Native American names of tribes, names of rivers and names of towns which Matthias probes and connects with the present, revealing the range of vision and skill of an American poet who can get the Maumee ice flow and Burger Chef into the same poem.
The notion that cornfields and silos, empty county roads, big cloudless summer skies, and rectitudinous but melancholy towns and hamlets could be material for the grave tools of Jones and Hill is strange enough; Matthias’s skillful naming of the space beneath these Midwestern commonplaces, the Native American tribes, the Catholic missionaries, the “map before the map” of rivers and forests, and the prehistoric geology of the prairies and lakes, makes such an approach seem natural, even obvious, until you wonder why no one has done it before. This is a quietly brilliant idea; for all the thousands of poems written about “the Midwest,” among them many masterpieces by poets such as Edgar Lee Masters, James Wright, Donald Justice, Robert Bly, and Mary Oliver, this is the first instance in which I am aware of these sorts of techniques being applied to that particular landscape and history.
In 1995 came the volumes of reassessment and recapitulation, the career-spanning Swimming at Midnight: Selected Shorter Poems, and Beltane At Aphelion: Longer Poems. Swimming at Midnight, which also introduced several new poems, is organized as a new manuscript, thematically rather than chronologically. Along with A Gathering of Ways, this volume is the book with which to begin any perusal of Matthias’s career and accomplishment. Beltane collects the eight “longer” (some of them of significant length) poems from Bucyrus to A Gathering of Ways. The two 1995 volumes when taken together show the virtual impossibility of categorizing the poet: that the author of the simple lyric “My Youngest Daughter, Running…” is also the author of the multi-layered “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest” concretely illustrates the bifurcation that is Matthias’s strength as a poet, but which also puts him beyond easy categorization.
In the fall of 2000, Matthias published his first new book in eight years, Pages. It is, again, a mixture of high modernist poetics and the lyric, the book opening with his most substantial group of new lyrics (sprinkled with translations) in twenty years, including the poem with which this essay opened, “A Note on Barber’s Adagio,” and “On Rereading a Friend’s First Book.” In the latter poem, Matthias writes to Robert Hass and reminisces about their student days:
I see my poet in parodic costume
mumming Marshal Ky
or maybe General Westmoreland
as all of us around the burning microphone
give the finger to the war
and Stanford’s Hoover Institute.
Everything was art and politics and Eros.
Everything was Eros.
Here the poet, nearing sixty, has come back nearly to the beginning, and can view the contentiousness of that earlier period with wry maturity, admitting that he and his friend, now a celebrated national artist, were not, perhaps, as estranged from American society as they might have fancied themselves to be, echoing and inverting one of Hass’s lines: “The world looks almost to have invited us.”
The book’s title poem, “Pages,” is an experimental sequence triggered by the poet’s discovery of a cache of Time-Life yearbooks on a wide variety of topics in his parents’ home while cleaning out the house after his father’s death, and being forced to move his mother to an Alzheimer’s unit in a nursing home. In an unsettling coincidence, on top of the pile was Matthias’s own high school yearbook, from 1959. As he digs through the pile (another geological/ archaeological metaphor, here brought to bear on the poet’s life) each yearbook calls up a set of memories which Matthias renders in a mixture of poetry and prose, often using juxtaposition to create meaning. As he writes, “in time you do forget well almost all of it the whole damn thing goes almost blank/ goes wholly blank in time.” Though memory could be said to be the stock in trade of the poet, who seems to remember everything, it is always ringed in his work with this sense of falling away.
“Pages” is a five-part poem, with each part itself composed of five parts, or “pages.” Each “page” acts as a prosodic unit, working in a fugal manner as the poet cycles through history, politics, art, popular culture and intensely personal memories, his pages riffing off of chance encounters with pages from the past:
This year Raymond Chandler died and so did Abbott’s friend Costello. It’s hard to think of Abbott all alone his eyes upon Costello’s derby hanging on the hatrack in the hall. For days you keened in grief for Errol Flynn your only child’s Robin. General Marshall, Admiral William Halsey also on the list. And Ike in tears. Who’d say weep my love for
John Foster Dulles
Amy’s mother Florence Smith
For every day there’s death you’ve got to chronicle
and someone writes the years in yearbooks puts eventually the volumes in a right and
goodly order on the shelf
The poem regularly cycles back to images of Matthias’s mother in the nursing home, and of the poet walking the empty - emptying - halls of his childhood, his past. And such has been the poetic journey of John Matthias; across the sea, into history, almost, but not quite, home. As he wrote in the early “Double Derivation…,” “making in the summertime a world against all odds…”
A world against all odds. The last poem I will consider is one of the high points of the new book, Pages. “Persistent Elegy” eulogizes a student of Matthias’s, Clare Stewart, who was murdered by gunmen in South Africa just before the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. Matthias recognizes the importance of this grand turn in human history, but also counts what it cost:
And now at last Nelson Mandela’s elected
But what of my student Clare?
Would she have danced as she had expected?
They don’t even number the dead in Rwanda.
She raises her hand in the air.
What did she do in KwaZulu to anger Inkatha?
This is a poem in which the polarities of Matthias’s career, the lyric and the modernist/experimental, come gloriously together as the classical form of the elegy is given a twist via Stein and Beckett. Note the skewed use of rhyme and repetition, as well as the disruptions of chronology, as the poem continues:
She sits in my class long ago taking notes.
This is my student, Clare.
Volunteers have busily counted the votes.
She wakes to the voices of children.
Her daughter’s among them there.
What did she do in KwaZulu to anger Inkatha?
This modified pantoum or deranged sestina structure acts out the sound and the fury, the lunacy and redundancy, of global crises and transitions; and at the same time has an almost otherworldly, keening, edge, its insistent end-stops, scattered rhymes and repetitions giving it something of the feel of a nursery rhyme:
No volunteers can describe what nobody sees.
She leaves a note in the mission.
She walks by the lake, the flowering trees.
Observers say the election is fair.
She gets in a pick-up, drives from the village.
She raises her hand in the air.
She tries to answer the question.
What did you do in KwaZulu to anger Inkatha?
What is the answer, Clare?
They don’t even number the dead in Rwanda.
Nobody’s counting there.
But what did she do in KwaZulu to anger Inkatha?
The poem’s repetitions amplify and foreground at once both the individual (in this case, Clare, but also the grieving poet) and context (the Zulu group Inkatha; the political matrix of South Africa and of the African continent.) Matthias here denies neither the urgency and awfulness of the world as it is, nor the loveliness and striving of the individual. And this, again, is my reading of Matthias’s overarching aesthetic: a naming of the terror and plangency of the fragile individual set against and buried by context. These two things placed together produce something akin to the feeling we get at the end of tragedy when we see the individual bowed down before the mass and inevitability of events she cannot control, and recognize our fragility in hers:
She raises her hand in the air.
And now at last Nelson Mandela’s elected.
What of my student, Clare?
She never arrives where she is expected.
Everyone’s weeping there.
What did she do in KwaZulu to anger Inkatha?
What of my student, what of my student, Clare?
The final solitary line at once stands against, and reflects the impossibility of standing against, the fury of the political world as it is constituted today. The innocent young dreamer is slaughtered at the moment her dream reaches fruition; her survivor, her teacher, presumably one of the ones who taught her to dream, is left to fight off grief and incoherence.
This battle against our illusions, be they experiential, psychological, linguistic or artistic, is, in the end, the human condition. Which is another way of considering John Matthias’s poetic project, and the courageous worldview which undergirds it, making summertime while being fully aware of the winter. The second-to-last stanza of Matthias’s poem “Clarifications for Robert Jacoby” allows the poet, in conclusion, to speak for himself:
Of whom I would be worthy now, of whom I think
about again as just outside my window
A child plays with a stick. And jumps on both feet
imitating, since she sees it in the field
(With a stick in its beak), a wren. She enters
the poem as she enters the field. I will
Not see her again. She goes to her world of stick
and field and wren; I go to my world
Of poem. She does not know it, and yet she is here:
here in the poem as surely as there
In the field, in the dull evening light, in the world
of her imagining, where, as the mist descends,
She is a wren.