Special Features for issues 25-26
BY EVA TOTH
Bell * Halliday
Rosser * Simmerman
Aizenberg * Shea
Carlson * Bateman
Olsen * Eimers
by John DuVal
"Blood" by William Olsen
A Reverie on What I Love :
William Matthews and the Question of Style
"In which utterance is there ever a face -- and not a mask?"
"A delicate touch," Bill almost whispered, with a sense of delight that made his mouth curl beneath that moustache into something like pure pleasure and joy, and tapping the table, itself a sort of delicate gesture instead of a loud clap. We had been talking about style in the taxi on the way over, and though I didn’t know then very much about jazz, and he knew it, he always treated me as if I knew something. But here we were, sitting in the first row, almost touching the piano, and there was Tommy Flannagan, playing at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park at 67th street, a rainy night, and we all could nearly float over the park on those delicate notes. Later, we’d cross Central park West, down a street past the Hotel Des Artistes (a few witty jokes there) and then over to a bar on Columbus where we talked about Flannagan and really all kinds of music from Dylan to opera, about the Knicks, poetry, Italy, food, Martial, in other words, the usual conversation with William Matthews that danced as quickly over the entire keyboard as Flannagan’s touch.
Music in one form or another, though, was always at the heart of things. During another visit I met a friend of mine, the English poet, Jo Shapcott, who had come to town just for the day to do some work for the British Arts Council, and music took over the trip even before we got to Bill’s apartment across from the Teacher’s College at Columbia - the driver of the cab we caught to his place was playing opera and singing along loudly all the way. Once there, Bill played us all those versions of 'My Funny Valentine' - Gezt and and I don’t know how many others, just like in his poem - and we ended up at a Branford Marsalis concert at Columbia that was a little too mellow for our raucous spirits that night. The result? We all went back up to the apartment afterwards and finished off a few bottles of wine, talked about travel, art, opera, and all the while listened to more music: "truth, tact, and democratic friends," he translated his "beloved Martial," "good simple food, clear-hearted guests; / nights carefree but not drenched by wine." And that poem ends, by the way: "let us wish to be none but who we are / and neither dread the end nor lean to it." Style was a way of life, then, not just something we’d encountered in books. It was something he would continue to teach by example wherever he went-- life and art were different, but they had subtle interconnections that allowed you to happily fool yourself into thinking they were the same, for a while.
But that doesn’t mean that style was facile, so seamless with life as to be indistinguishable. For someone like Gustave Flaubert, style is elegiac; it is, he writes, an "irrevocable farewell to life." He says early in his career: "One achieves style only by atrocious labor, a fanatic and dedicated stubborness." The process of writing, for Flaubert, is essentially a process of connecting, of cutting excess words, of substituting other words, of altering phrases and perceptions -- a negative process of continual worry. That always seemed something counter to Bill’s process which seemed to entail the same joy as a writer he had as a listener to music. In fact, he once mentioned that sometimes when a poem wasn’t working he’d just toss it, let it metamorphose later in some other form, and for that reason he was always working on two or three poems at a time.We often call these sorts of 'adjustments' stylistic changes, orienting our thinking according to the classical model proposed by Aristotle where style is what we add to content for "clarity" and "dignity," or according to the renaissance model where style is considered as "clothing" or "costume" for the essential body of thoughts underneath. However, for Flaubert, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, and we might say, too, for Bill Matthews, "These corrections are not in any way rhetorical accidents; they affect the primary code, that of the language; they commit the writer to experiencing the structure of the language as a passion." The Flaubert goal -- fluidity of style -- is not only a surface that seems to project the reader along smoothly, thus masking the tortuous process of writing, but is more importantly a triumphant, philosophical victory over those negative forces. In the end, style is an elegy to an elegiac mode of thought--it is a celebration. Style ultimately has to do with vision, not grammar.
Aesthetic distance, for Flaubert, is style, the ability to keep locating the self in new contexts of language. It is the essence of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a "carnivalistic style"-- in his book on Dostoevski's Poetics he writes that the point of writing is not the presence of a specific linguistic style but the counterpointing of different styles. Style is the way the poem moves, almost beyond the words themselves. In "By Heart" William Matthews asks, "Which came first, style or content?" What the poem suggests is that the masses of things we live among are nothing until they are stylized, as the Jazz musician knows in putting down one instrument for another, one mood and vision for another. In the end, the narrator muses, "Content is what style's failed." Content is style.
For Matthews the aesthetic distance comes through irony. Even as early as Flood we find him confronting the issues of the invisible, the hidden in language, the otherness that controls a good deal of what we think and feel. "On this page no breath / will write. The text is already / there, restless, revising itself," he says in one poem. Style for him is the glossy surface of the water that "compiles // the erasure of its parts / and takes to itself the local / until all but sky is water." In a recent interview he says: "what is crucial is the surface tension; once you stick your hand into the water and break the surface, once you enter into language, each disappears. And water itself is in some way made out of the word "water," a word that changes from language to language." In a sense the world becomes language, language the world, and each an elegy to what the other misses. In this style, time --as well as timing (and Matthews work is filled with references to music)becomes the question of poetry itself, suggesting that style and elegy, poetry and the elegiac, are naturally linked. He opens "An Elegy For Bob Marley" from A Happy Childhood by self-consciously asking:
In an elegy for a musician,
one talks a lot about music,
which is a way to think about time
instead of death or Marley,
and isn't poetry itself about time?
The strategy of Matthews' poem is to deflect the talk, as he suggests, introducing Marley in the subordinate part of a prepositional phrase, then immediately shifting to a larger topic. As it goes on, the poem builds by qualifications -- "and not," "however," "though," "only," and a suppositional mood guide the rest of the poem. There is a casual but deft manner riding the surface of the lines, skillful enough to protect against dwelling upon the fear of death, and mature enough to acknowledge that his protection is about as useful as an insurance policy is in extending our lives -- not so much a consolation as a coming to terms. The poem ends--
the dead bury the dead if we could pay
them to. This is something else we can't
control, another loss, which is, as someone
said in hope of consolation,
only temporary, though the same phrase
could be used of our lives and bodies
and all we hope survives them.
What is so stunning here is the way the elegiac becomes part of a larger knowledge, a style of thinking and living that is analytically cool, a way of living and hoping. One of the central ways this is accomplished is by the same askew movement as the opening lines, a refusal to use the categories of speaking and thinking we might expect. For example, "let the dead bury the dead" is extended to "nor could / the dead bury the dead if we could pay / them to," the last phrase seemingly inappropriate, almost disrespectful in its insistence on money, -- yet entirely right in the way it matter of factly places the elegiac in an everyday context. What this askew perspective calls for is constant balancing, and indeed the whole book is best read as a long poem whose titles suggest the sort of compensations it attempts: good and bad, right and wrong, sad and happy, sentimental and prurient. And within a poem the same sort of compensation is done by linking phrases. "Bad," for instance, modulates "bad luck," "bad budgeting," "bad debt," "those gone to rage / and madness, gone bad."
Here is a section from the title poem, "A Happy Childhood"-
It turns out you are the story of your childhood
and you're under constant revision,
like a lonely folktale whose invisible folks
are all the selves you've been, lifelong,
shadows in fog, grey glimmers at dusk.
And each of these selves had a childhood
it traded for love and grudged to give away,
now lost irretrievably, in storage
like a set of dishes from which no food,
no Cream of Wheat, no rabbit in mustard
sauce, nor even a single raspberry,
can be eaten until the afterlife,
which is only childhood in its last
disguise, all radiance of all humiliation,
and so it is forfeit a final time.
In fact, it was awful, you think, or why
should the piecework of grief be endless?
Only because death is, and likewise loss,
which is not awful, but only breathtaking.
There's no truth about your childhood,
though there's a story, yours to tend,
like a fire or garden. Make it a good one,
since you'll have to live it out, and all
its revisions, so long as you shall live,
for they shall be gathered to your deathbed,
and they'll have known to what you and they
would come, and this one time they'll weep for you.
It begins with a conclusion,--"It turns out," but a conclusion that everything is "revision," and not just of the present either, but of the past, or the present perspective on the past which alters the poet's past future, the present. Things get complicated fast here. The address to the "you" is crucial-- at first it seems a bit general, but then the things he mentions are general enough for us to fit our own experiences as details into the lines, and he even helps us with the nostalgic details of the fourth stanza. The neatly balanced sentences, the meditative three line stanza, the parallelisms (ex: "they shall be gathered"/ "they'll have known"; "because death is, and likewise loss") just slightly out of skew (in the first by the contraction, in the second by the oddly reductive addition of "loss"), the ability to speak large abstractions easily, the care and attention to nuances of language, all contribute to an authoritative voice we can trust and whose imagination, as we just saw, we can easily enter. Perhaps, in the final analysis it is this trust in the voice that is the great contribution of rhetoric in poetry. So the last couple of stanzas both console and warn us; if there is no single, right story, we can at least tend what we have, care for it, make it our own. The final consolation is that the world here becomes ours, the ultimate projection of our own possibilities right to the moment of our own death. Notice how the poem not only talks about this but enacts it, shifting again at the end to abstraction--personified abstraction at that. In a few stanzas we have been moved from childhood to deathbed, from distance to the "gathered" intimacy of a last scene.
Revision, in a life or a poem, is also playing with what is given, gathering the possibilities. In some ways an act of memory. Memories-- there were plenty of them, sitting out at Bread Loaf and talking till dawn, for instance, and in the city--there was an exhibit in the city that featured more than you ever wanted to see and know about Rodin, poking into a computer shop way down on Broadway, or even the store around the corner-- and there was always that limp turning into a hobble. One time at Bread Loaf we walked out behind the barn where a group of people were watching the northern lights ribbon their way across the sky. Such awe and wonder. In a short while we had them convinced that the cloud bank off to the left was part of the lesser known and obviously less spectacular northern shadows, a myth that I hope is still propogated somewhere. Now there was revision on a cosmic scale. Some things couldn’t be easily revised. The last several times we walked around New York he had to stop at every corner and rest the hip, the pain. Still, one time in Chattanooga he and I were playing doubles against Carol Frost, quite a good player from college, and the poet Jim Harms, also a good player, on the university courts. They didn’t know how bad Bill’s hip was, or that I had a bone bruise on my heel. So there we were two immobile freaks holding tennis raquets like question marks, but also realizing we had undeserved reputations from earlier about our tennis prowess. We couldn’t fairly beat them on our best day. Between games, Bill would amble slowly to the side, put his hand on his hip, look around, make a little time for the hip to come back into its own while I stood on my other foot trying to kep the pressure off the heel. "It’s a good thing they think we’re better than we are," he quipped, and they did-- unforced errors were the key to our winning. "What luck-- or consideration-- to have the ball hit right at you when you are a cripple!" he said later. Why did we do it? Irony and paradox-- the fact we really could when we really couldn’t. They went along with what Martial called in Bill’s version "the things that make life happier" including "what we didn’t earn, but get given" (X, xlvii).
I think we moved around on that court like out of shape opera singers the audience somehow accepts for what they are not. In our case the scenery, plot and orchestra were making up for our loss of talent. Certainly our gestures must have been as exaggerated. Opera was another of Bill’s loves, and another thing he introduced into my life. He loved the way you could have several voices simultaneously, sometimes in thematic conflict, yet still in musical harmony. And the emotion in the art form, so restrained and stylized, could be overwhelming. In an essay for an anthology, What Will Suffice, he wrote about Cavaradossi’s aria ("E lucevan le stelle..." --"and the stars were shining") the hour before he dies in Tosca : "Next, according to the stage directions, Cavaradossi bursts into tears; the aria has reliably had the same effect on me for thirty years." Then he quickly takes it back: if he were to break out into tears in the middle of New York, he’d seen as a "street crazy." No. You have to have "some distance from the poignancy of the poem’s argument," he writes. "Maybe that’s one of the functions of art, to give us access to emotions so powerful that to consider them all the time would be a mistake: the effort would supplant our routine enjoyment of the world.... But to defer the enjoyment of them -- think what pleasure "E lucevan le stelle" can give -- until we are, like Cavaradossi, in the literal hour of our death, would be a terrible deprivation." No, you have to create the opportunities to enjoy that pleasure, you have to create a story.
Inherent in Bill Matthews’ style, then, is the creation of narrative. I don't mean by this the plot of events as you get in fiction, but rather something like the curve of distances from that plot that the rhetoric creates, what Pavese called the "image narrative" and what we might call here the "tone narrative." At one point we might be asked to nudge up close: "Oh when you were young, you think, // and that's a kind of elegy in itself, / especially if you leave the sentence/ and thought incomplete, and the emotion." Notice how the second line distances you by its detached analysis right after the first pulls you in close, even calling "you"; notice how the third line, like an aside, invites you partly back, sharing its "especially"; notice how the last line seems to do all of these at once,and buttonholes you one last time with its afterthought, "and the emotion." We might call this sort of complex movement a "narrative of rhetoric." Take the following example from "good," the opening poem.It is the last section of the poem that has gone from a self-effacing view of the speaker's childhood ("I've seen wallpaper-- I had buckaroos all over my bedroom") to a Donne-like address to a lover complete with parody (referring to " the map by which we'll part, and love others") to analytic and satiric commentaries, bad taste puns exactly appropriate for a good poem ("I shouldn't pick on myself, but I do: pimples and scabs and wens, and warts, pustules") and several other tonal modulations. Here it is--
Hi mom, as athletes say on TV,
and here's a grateful hello to my mild
and courageous father. While I'm at it
I'd like to thank my teachers (though
not some--they know who they are) and
my friends, who by loving me freed
my poems from seeking love. Instead
they go their own strange ways
to peculiar moments like this one, when
the heart's good manners are their guide.
What's amazing here is the range of emotion-- from the comic outburst to the gradually more serious and endearing recital to the final, graceful and touching last lines. You might have noticed that these are hardly deep image lines, hardly confessional, either, though at times very personal. It's the pulsating rhetoric, like a zoom lens pulling us in and out throughout the whole book that is the story here.
In Forseeable Futures the language becomes more clipped, the speed at which a wide range of references and compensations emerge becomes quite faster, and the apparent discrepancy between surface speech and what Mikhail Bakhtin calls inner speech becomes greater. "Caddie's day, the Country Club, a Small Town in Ohio," for instance, opens with a description of the Mondays when caddies played for free until the poem suddenly yet matter of factly announces --"That's any Monday but / the one Bruce Ransome came up / from the bottom of the pool / like a negative rising in a tank." The image, though justly accurate, emphasizes the unreality of the scene, and almost seems inappropriate. A little later the speaker says:
So this is the first death.
And there I was, green as the sick
and dying elephant in the babar
book I thought I had outgrown.
That elephant was so wrinkled
he might have drowned over and over,
like a character in a story
whom the author had made unlucky.
What the reference to the naive and always puzzled Babar does is at once diminish the realm of death, consigning it to an item in a child's book, and remind us, by its bizarre inappropriateness of our lack of understanding -- "Our ignorance lay all around us / like a landscape, " he says. As the poem develops, it is only luck, as in the seemingly random references, that explains death by revealing how much we wish to avoid its presence. The poem ends:
Do you want my premature stroke?
Do I want your retarded child?
Do you want Bruce Ransome green
in your dowsing arms you can't link
anymore with mine, they're so full
of death-rinsed Bruce, or do you want
to lay him down forever,
one long Monday to the next
And to the next one after that,
and let the long week adhere
to your fingers like grime, like matter's
fingerprints, like manual labor,
like an entire life's work?
Memory, finally, must pass things on, like luck, which is not at all to pass on feeling. The reference to "death-rinsed Bruce" at first seems callous, but in these last few lines the insistent detail about death, the use of parallelisms and suspensions culminating in one sentence, the direct address to the reader, and the fact of recalling the death once again, all intensify the feeling, deny what they want to say on the surface. Death rises anyway, as it did for Bill, like the negative, awkward, inappropriate, always premature, always as wrongly present as our words for it. And this, in a paradoxical way, makes the style impressively appropriate. In art’s quipping fight against life’s tragedy, we always knew the battle would be lost, but we also knew surrender could be put off, for now, indefinitely.
When the talk did go to death-- our fathers, mine first then his, friends, even relationships, there was always the sense that the talk was keeping the person alive so that elegy really didn’t need to rear its head. That consolation, delivered so personally and yet made so universally, with as much care as "aesthetic distance," became for me a source of great strength, and something I will always be grateful for. What was often raised in place of elegy was a toast, a glass of wine held up to the light that stood for what light someone had brought into either or both of our lives. The key was to enjoy, to take pleasure not in some hedonistic way, but in the way of the Roman Epicureans-- wasn’t it Epicurus who conducted his classes outside in gardens to better understand the larger rhythms of one’s life and world. To take pleasure was to understand, to know, to cherish. And so when the actual talk would go to wine-- Bill knew, it seemed, all there was to know. The first time I met him, nearly 20 years ago at Bread Loaf, he introduced me to wine that made me forget in a hurry all the bad wine I had been drinking. I remember sitting in a restaurant several years later in Middlebury, Vermont, a place called Woody’s overlooking the small river there, and the few of us at the table, Phil Levine, Carol Frost, Chris Buckley, seemed pretty content that we knew nearly all the labels. But it was a knowledge which paled next to Bill’s facts about what the weather was like in a particular year on that particular side of the valley where they grew that particular vintage and why it would be a better choice. In all of this there was a good , almost self embarassed humor, a yes that delight in being able to take such precise pleasure in what was one of the nicer things about living-- an idea that Horace would have approved.
One of the first Horace translations he showed me was Ser. I, viii, closer in tone to the Martial he had been doing than any of Horace’s other letter poems. Though Bill had been doing the Marial for a while, and though its urbanity was perfectly suited to Bill’s humorous look at our foibles, I thought that Horace was in some ways closer to Bill’s own manner. "Which, satires or letters?" he wondered, "certainly not the odes-- too many people have done the odes well." "The letters, " I said, "their conversational quality is right in keeping with the way you talk," and then we discussed it for a while. "Later," he said, when I’m done with Martial, but it turned out sooner and he sent the Letter poem along. In it, a tree-god speaks, a priapus who scares away some hags because a "fart that starts / deep in fig-heartwood’s like a bomb when it blows free." the reference to the bomb, in fact all the references to contemporary things in his translations were made in an effort to bring the poet alive in our own age, "to make him sound like he would if he were here sitting at our table and tasting our wine." The Horace translations move along with an easy tone, something that captures perfectly the movement of the original, and captures also their balance of reserve and wit, their gentile floating across the surface of society and their opening up the unsavory parts of that society in surprisingly blunt terms. We talked a good deal about David Slavitt’s wonderful translations of Virgil’s Eclogues that I showed him, poems with a loose interpretive style, a sense of self parody that other translations rarely showed about Virgil. "Here was a guy, "Bill said of Virgil, "who loved the city, and yet the emperor commissions a bunch of nature poems. Slavitt’s got it down perfectly. " And that’s the way Matthews’ Horace works, too-- taking hints here and there, quirky bits of tone, terse and sometimes shocking little asides, and letting them flower out for today’s audience in a way that stays hidden in other versions of Horace, but were surely present in the minds of Horace’s original readers.
For Horace a good poem maintained a certain aesthetic distance, and yet that was something Bill saw Horace fumbling with in every poem, reading himself in and through the lines just as Horace did in the originals, losing the so called aesthetic distance as quickly as he could describe it. One way to gain distance is to have someone else read and critique your work, and so for my Alive All Day manuscript and his Selected Poems, we submitted to each other’s scalpels with the rule that we’d cut 10%, a rule he was able to follow with far more accuracy than I was able, for while I in fact suggested he take out more of the earlier poems, I also suggested he add a longish poem he was keeping out, advice I guess I was surprised to see him take. Humility and distance went together: to stay too close to a poem was also an act of egocentrism that he always guarded against. For instance, at the end of I,i, Matthews has Horace, after complaining how everyone complains about their lot, how they go on and on to others with their complaints, suddenly pull up, ironically seeing how he is consuming a similar brand of bitters-- "Enough wisdom. I’ll prattle on but one more line, / lest you mistake me for Crispinus, that verbose prig." Indeed, the question of style as we have been exploring it turns eventually into a question of "Aesthetic Distance," as Bill suggests in a poem by that title. The poet in the poem writes only to his craft while outside the poem he is writing various tragedies occur. Yet the narrator of the poem is aware of this double perspective, and, in fact, draws the reader in as a "you" who undercuts aesthetic distance by his intimacy with the poem's problems and underscores distance by his ironic overview. The poem opens with the poet writing, and then we learn:
In the meantime, as the puns and toasts disperse
in the August air, as the poet stalls and knots
at the brown desk,
someone is crumpled in a motorcycle crash,
another is shot in the Greyhound station and her
brother is named
Man of the Year. The poet has bills to pay and can't
concentrate on poetry until they're paid.
Some days the muse
is at your shoulder like a scolding crow
and some days not. All afternoon the secrecy
of matter seems
to shine from the shrubs outside the poet's
window, the same popet who can no more forget their steady
flare than the poet
can name it.
In a way, the poet's situation is reflected by the narrator's as the narrator goes on rather cooly analyzing all the ironies available, including what the mothers of the dead might do. But at least the narrator is conscious of the situation: "Our mother is drinking / mediocre sherry and we're making fine distinctions." As it turns out, the poet's and narrator's concerns about style, transforming and changing words, has a great deal to do with what goes on in the outside world:
The afternoon was beautiful and the whole
of grief enough to convert a fern to diamond
in the three hours our poet writes and cancels
and writes some more.
The poem ends with the several strands not tied together but rather arranged in a sort of parallel structure:
How far must our mother run to escape her grief?
That's aesthetic distance. The poet looks up.
The light on the lawn
is blurred. The bluefish are running, and people
are dying. There's a phrase in the eleventh line
our poet hates.
Love is fierce. The phrase must be changed.
As it turns out, "love is fierce" is probably one of the central themes -- or styles. "The phrase must be changed" as the style must always be in flux, the insistent conditional here suggesting both the impossibility and necessity of achieving its hope: the poem simply ends with all its strands dangling. For Matthews, ironies pile up upon ironies, and the most troublesome events are given an ironic undercutting, as if the speaker were saying to himself that it is all right, that the pain is something given, that the language is something we can give.
This is precisely the tone of his Blues If You Want, the title itself suggesting a sort of undercutting that perhaps finds its source in the inventive lyrics of the blues. In one poem in that book, for instance, Homer's seeing eye dog tells us the comically dim side of his master in street talk. Matthews has found an Horatian middle style, and indeed, Horace, especially the Horace of the epistles and satires, is an important influence on the urbane, witty and finally deeply moving style Matthews balances between pain and laughter. Indeed, one could also point to several other classical influences, including Martial, whom he has translated extensively, as well as Horace, Ovid and Virgil, three city poets of human foibles.
In Blues If You Want this characteristic irony mellows somewhat, but the satire still prevails. What he liked about satire was its insistence on the everyday punctures to more than human aspirations. In an essay he wrote on Byron’s Don Juan he explains: "daily life is Byron’s subject. His characters exist in time, incontrast to the heroes of the great epics, suspended forever in mythological timelessness." Byron’s epic is humbler, he says, "but by being humbler, it will be more accurate about the great human mysteries, which happen to ourselves, not to our heroes." This is evident, certainly in poems like his own "39,000 feet" which describes the ironic sense of togetherness passengers experience in a language that counterpoints the jargon of the pilot, lawyers and the speaker to provide a sense, finally, of our quirky smallness. "Change of Address" has the speaker looking at a new apartment, but also at the prospects for the future it might hold:
Figure a 50% divorce rate,
you've got one chance in two a sale
provokes another sale and maybe
two transactions after that,
a pyramid scheme for grief. The agent didn't
smirk, I'll hand her that.
"Nabokov's Blues" takes on a tour of the writer's museum, of the genital shaped butterflies in his collection, the Blues, and by association, blues in music and mood. Ultimately, the idea of museums, of collections, the language used to hold both, suggests the way we try to accumulate not only our pasts but our futures, and drag a good deal of the present in along the way. It's endless desire, as the end of the poem suggests:
You can be bead after bead on perception's rosary.
This is the sweet ache that hurts most, the way
desire burns bluely at its phosphorescent core:
just as you're having what you wanted most,
you want it more and more until that's more
than you, or it, or both of you, can bear.
There's a conversational ease here, smoother than in the previous books, seemingly ever more willing to invite the reader down to the other end of poetry's bar for a few drinks and good talk, as long as we're all willing to understand we won't solve any problems, as long as we know we'll scratch our heads tomorrow morning at what we said tonight, wondering how we said it so right. There's an endless counterpointing of ironies here that makes the voice so believable, so engaging. You hear it it Horace's epistles, and in Matthews poems, I don't know where else: urbane, witty enough to disguise its sentimental dangers, honest enough to speak for us all.
The counterpointing is probably at its most self conscious in "It Don't mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That swing." Like the distance and irony we have seen throughout it provides a mask to say some highly emotional things. The frame story, in a loose blank verse, describes a back seat affair between a young man and woman, his surprise, etc. But at the crucial point the narrator backs away for the long digression of the middle--
From what follows we turn away,
for we have manners
and our lovers need privacy to love
and talk and talk, for love is woven
itself, from jokes, pet names and puns.
The digression goes on to associate literay critics, Prometheus, a modern day woman who is a version of a sort of Penelope, jazz, Nabokov's Blue, then more about language, poetry, etc, in a witty sort of escapade one might expect to hear in the middle of Byron's Beppo. At the end, he returns to the scene of the lovers, then to his own love, "over a Great Lake / or two," to his "sweetie," to a night-time prayer he remembers, to something he meant to say but can't remember, but he's trying, yes, " but I'm on the case, let me tell you, / the way convicts can tell you about the law." The unexpectedness and the associations of that metaphor serve to dispel any sentimentalism, but they also suggest the sort of psychological imprisonment that motivates the poem, the sense of entrapment that only the language relieves. In this context, all the various associations become attempts to pull in a world around the speaker's sense of isolation, and it is this gesture that gives this poem, among so many others of his, its power.The control of rhythm here is simply "masterful," as the title of one poem, about the great hitter, Ted Williams, goes. This control of rhytmic elements certainly owes a great deal to Bill incredible background in music, and it was hardly ever understood. "My goodness, and all this time I thought I was writing iambics," he once quipped about a reviewer who had described his "free verse."
Of course sports was another topic-- he had little use for football, or even baseball on T.V. though not at the ballpark. Basketball was his love. he even knew the names of the Chattanooga players and delighted when they reached the "sweet sixteen" of the NCAA’s. The Knicks were a source of constant frustration-- and constant hope. I don’t know how many times he or I would call up late at night, especially if it were after a Knicks-Celtics game. "This might be the last year we have a chance," he worried a few months before he died, "Patrick [Ewing] is getting older now." For sport, too, was style. In "masterful" he describes
When Ted Williams took-- we should say "gave"--
batting practice, he’d stand in and chant to himself
"My name is Ted Fucking Ballgame and I’m the best
fucking hitter in baseball," and he was, jubilantly
grim, lining them out pitch after pitch, crouching
and uncoiling from the sweet ferocity of excellence.
That last phrase with its shift of emotion at nearly every word perhaps summarizes Matthews’ carnivalistic style better than anything, and shows a mind so attuned to the world, to the demands of art, of sport, to a life spent in pursuing, like Martial and Horace, a precision and truthfulness to experience, that the art itself becomes one of the very pleasures of life. It’s a humble and a unique way to have lived.
There's a kind of humility in Matthews poems, a sense that we are all, as he says in the title of an earlier poem, "Fellow Oddballs." "Laughter is the father of beauty," he wrote in his Notebooks. There's a sense that all we know about the world we know only in our art, our music and our poetry, and when we go out, into the world, things get strained. This is what the longish monologue, "Straight Life," seems to suggest: whatever we learn by whatever losses through whatever travels, "Music's only secret is silence. It's time / to play, time to tell whatever you know." And there's an irony in that, as he says in "Little Blue Nude," which tells a story of being burglarized-- "I'm / the one with the typewriter and the gall to speak / for others." What the poem does is sort of inventory the important things, while confronting the culprit, but finally realizing what all these poems do, what Matthews has been doing from the very start in a unique and compelling language that remakes the tradition he rises from, that remakes our language, makes us conscious of what resources lie hidden in it, of what it and we hold-- "It's a reverie on what I love, and whom, / and how I manage to hold on to them."
Just what that reverie meant was what I experienced at the rented house in Maine in the mid eighties. My family and I went up for the weekend, and we went down to the piers to buy lobster one night, and Bill made a wonderful stew with Dan Halpern the next night. We played Trivial Pursuit, the conversation sometimes bouncing off the obscure questions we had to field-- Bill seemed to have a sort of photographic vision for details that he delighted in-- and extending to the usual range of diverse topics from food to sports to poetry to music to current events. It’s hard to describe the speed at which the shifts and turns in subject and tone took place, but it seemed in many ways as if we were living inside on of Bill’s poems. At that speed, I thought, we were lucky to hold on to anything, and that is precisely why we all felt so lucky there on the coast.
He held on to more than most people manage to, that’s for certain. He could know you for ten minutes or ten years, the reverie of his conversation made you, if you were a new friend, always seem like you were an old friend. This was true of students, too, even the students here at a university he only visited 8 or 10 times in 15 years-- his generosity of time and spirit was something they always appreciated. In fact, many would correspond with him for several years afterwards, and he’d always be ready with a letter of recommendation. They liked to think, and I believe they were right, that he held a special place for them-- he came here to read for whatever we could offer him, sometimes goodly sums, sometimes small sums, and once, seeing how destitute we were, for nothing at all. It was, he told Danielle Hanson, a former student now at Arizona State, in an interview for Hayden’s Ferry, a lucky place where students had advantages in the writing program like nowhere else in the country. Good poems, good conversation, a love for the art, a bunch of young minds eager to play with words-- he repaid their enthusiasm and seriousness with something that redefined generosity.
I think a good deal of what Bill was up to in his poems comes through in the last book published while he was alive, Time and Money. The book moves from poems about isolation, depersonalization, dissatisfaction, mailaise to an incredible sense of healing at the end. This is a book that faces squarely all our fears, frustrations, failures, and makes of them a triumph that is indeed rare. Section one begins on a snowing street in "Grief,’ a poem that ends " And I have toild you this to make you grieve." The whole section moves then through all the sorts of emotional prisons we can build for ourselves until it ends literally in "New Folsom Prison." Of course there is a lot of goofing around and self irony along the way, as in "Social Notes from All Over: Mt. Olympus," about the trials of Hephaestus who has to keep making armor for the pitiful quarreling gods. Like Bill, this god "limped," and like so many quarrel feeders today, hepaestus "swore and stoked / his fires, ever busy filling orders." That little bit of self reference is the type of thing that occurs in enough poems to insure that the poet never gets on his own moral high horse: he’s a part of the problem as we all are. By the second section of the book images and similes that undercut their potentially dire subjects are surfacing everywhere, and the book experiences a sort of joy, a breaking loose, a going over the prison walls. The first poem in that section, "The Rookery at Hawthornden" is about Ben Jonson and Drummond, but Matthews too, and converts the image of confinement from the first section to one of flighty liberation:
The brash choir, like a polyphonic heart,
beats loudly in the trees and does not ask
what poetry can do, infamous for making
nothing happen. The rooks and I rejoice
not to be mute. The day burgeons with raucaus
song about the joy of a song-stuffed throat.
Even an image of loss in the poem to Gerald Stern ends : "And then we’re back, alone / not with the past but with how fast the past / eludes us, though surely, friend, we were there." That gives the narrator the freedom in the next poem to begin with raucous word play: "It would be good to feel good about yourself for good," though the conditional there, and the punning, saves the poem from being a simple surface exhuberance. The last part of the book is more retrospective, a sort of analytics of grief: "What’s hard to know is how to value grief" he writes in the opening poem. And then, magically, the body of his dead father he so meditated on earlier in the book is metamorphosed here in "Mingus in Diaspora" "as the work of the body becomes a body of work." One of the last poems in the book, in this section that looks ahead in time as in "Tomorrow," is "The Generations," where all time seems to come together as it did for Wordsworth in his Dorothy in Tintern Abbey, as it did for Coleridge and his son in "Frost at Midnight" (two "converstion" poems, by the way, that Bill recognized owed a lot to Horace). Here he describes his two young sons, whom he loved dearly, and whom he would later speak of in a tone reserved for saints and prophets. It was at the time they draw stick figures of him, too young to know "the radical equality of human / souls." He ends the poem with a humble note about his own inadequacy that refuses to pity itself, and in fact recognizes that inadequacy as essential to being human:
They could only draw it, and they blamed
their limited techniques for the great truth
that they showed, that we’re made in the image
of each other and don’t know it. How hard
we’ll fight to keep that ignorance they had
yet to learn , and they had me as a teacher.
A pretty amazing gesture, one that reveals the deep resonance that William Matthews added to the Horatian wit and complexity of the earlier poems. "Let the healing candor start," the next poem ends. And it did. It was always beginning.
We should recognize that a lot of that healing took place in language per se, and we should recognize that it happened in many ways through similes. This was a mainstay of his conversational technique, too, sometimes directly, sometimes just by placing one reference next to another. often they didn’t seem to fit, and that was part of the strategy of showing how easily we fall into certain patterns or language that lead us one way or another, imprison us, and out of which we must come bursting. Here is "Landscape with Onlooker," a poem that could have rested in less masterful hands in a sort of melancholy, and in fact may well be read as a parody of that sort of meditative description filled with melancholy thoughts that is so common today:
One night shy of full, fat as a beach ball, the moon
looks not lonesome shining through the trees, but replete
with the thoughtless sensuality of well-being.
A chill in the air? No, under the air, like water
under a swimmer. The unsteadfast leaves grow crisp
and brittle, the better to fall away. Some nights
fear, like rising water in a well, fills these hours--
the dead of night, as the phrase goes, when you quicken
and the dank metallic sweat beads like a vile dew.
But tonight you stand at your window, framed and calm,
and the air’s as sweet as a freshly peeled orange.
There’s a moon on the lake, and another in the sky.
If the insistence on the two moons rather than one visionary transcendent moon isn’t enough, the beach ball simile and the orange simile certainly undercut morseness by their wit and charm, and the sweat image adds an elaborate inventiveness for such a short poem simply for undercutting the "vile dew" as a weapon of the melancholist. And after all, the water is rising, and the poem is written in couplets, that open, witty form more suited for secnes of balance, like this one, than the potential melancholy that might ensue. This poem, coming early in Time and Money, signals the way language will solve the issues of the book. It is language, after all, that saves us, as he said many times.
The last time I was in New York I came with my friend Terri, and Bill kindly put us up--we had come up by train from Baltimore a little later than we planned, and then we all grabbed a bite to eat down on Broadway and headed back to the apartment. We had the usual wine, and then a rare treat, some armagnac, because, after all, Terri and I had to leave for Boston the next day, and we wouldn’t be able to meet Celia, the woman he’d been seeing for several months, and who had the same sort of job as Terri. Whatever else we talked about that night, celia’s name came constantly to the center with the same sort of pleasure and joy I saw at that Flannagan show. I hadn’t seen him this purely happy and at ease in a long time. What comes to mind now is Bill’s translation of Martial 20th epigram from the 5th book whose last line he’d inscribed in Latin in my copy:
Old friend, suppose luck grants to us
days free of fret, that shadow life,
how would we live then? No foyers
to stall in, no butlers to schmooze,
no lawsuits, not one working lunch,
and no ancestral busts. Instead:
strolls, bars, boo shops, the fields,
shaded gardens, cold baths from the Aqua
Virgo and warm baths from the others--
these will be our office and our work.
We toil too much for others. Days
flicker by and then are billed,
one by one, to our accounts. Since we know
how, let’s start really living now.
"Since we know how," -- there’s a rich irony there, a very big sense of the conditional. No, we never would, but we could pretend, just as we could pretend to be better tennis players than we were. In Martial, Bill found the spokesman for a way of living, for a way of holding it an playing it like the keys on an alto sax, so various, so unpredictable, and yet later how inevitable. here was love and irony, here was poking fun at our foibles and absurd aspirations, and here also was a smile for and a toast to them, here was urban life as he loved in, in the heart of that great city whose herat somehow seemed to be Bill Matthews himself. What’s left to report? The armagnac was quite good, too, and then, after we had all been thoroughly acclimated to it, Bill went and brought back a bottle with only a few shots left in it, a gift he said, a $350 dollar bottle, obviously something dear and precious, "what the hell," he said, "it’s only time and money." We were drinking down the last of the bottle as if it were a life and there was both a sadness and a pleasure in the end. He had been through a horrific operation, but things were looking better. He had helped me though some horrendous times and had been like a big brother. His Horace was about done, another book was seeing the last touches. He’d be coming back to Chattanooga the following year. Who should he try after Horace? Catullus maybe? Ovid, which he had already done a little of? The room, the dreams, the whole city was turning the color of that liquor. What’s hard to know is how to value grief. He was the best friend a person could have, and we were going to go on like this forever. "E lucevan le stelle."
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Sometimes a blood looks for an opening,
any way to get out from under us and the knives.
Blood cuts into blood to look and its hands grasp blood.
My block is a corral of yellow crime scene tape.
Twenty cop cars—
sometimes blood looks at blood for an explanation.
It turns out the whole block slept through a murder.
A social worker was stabbed by her psychotic charge
not two houses down, near the door of the Headstart School,
where the underprivileged play catchup next door to the door to the School for the Disabled.
Both schools are underfunded, with all their school-day lives.
Call us childish, call us to our teachers:
a cop with a clipboard calls me over, to ask me what of blood I heard.
He knows in his blood better than to say it that way.
He puts it neutrally, may his heart feel adjudged by restraint,
may the differently abled be restrained for their own good,
and when I say his "heart" may I mean mine and may my mouth feel antique—
what he asks me is if I heard any cries—no, not even that, just . . . "anything."
Let's get this right.
Does a dying self make up a face as it goes, will any face do?
Right there on the concrete a bloodstain the children will pass, to touch it:
what's to touch once blood stops doing its cartwheels?
Someone has stepped out from under our thumbs and heels?
I wish I had a heart that would take care of . . . what?
Can anyone ever make blood do anything? Can clouds be pushed around?
On and on till the questions are all open coffins.
Sleepy me, a cop, a schizo the state sent packing
and a dead do-gooder the papers will leach till her photo is a window after death.
By the windows of institutional ministration the cop
glances away from me at wheelchairs, spokes aglitter
like Ezekiel's chariot about to commence his convictions.
God cares that our families and homelands are slaughtered for being weak.
We are all victims, down to the butchers among us?
Weakness has strength, even if it hasn't killed us?
I drive by these windows each day, some strapped in headgear,
others who can be trusted to walk careen from wall to wall—
one always laughs with a "it's not funny" lodged in his laugh;
another always carries a Raggedy Ann doll with a sewed smile
and button eyes hanging by threads,
the stuffingng coming out of it, affection has mauled it—
she holds tight what even oblivion gave up torturing,
clouds shining, her wheelchair passes me, a cop and our laws and our clue, blood;
its driver squints smiling into a happiness that is its own skewed warding of us off,
her wheelchair shines—o steel throne—a fool might even believe
she would wish to reign over our disabling kingdom.