John Matthias, At Large: Essays, Memoirs, Interviews (Shearsman, £16.95).
John Matthias, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro & other poems (Shearsman, £9.95).
John Matthias, Jean Dibble, and Robert Archambeau, Revolutions: a Collaboration (Dos Madres, $20.00).
John Matthias’ At Large is a compendious and welcome collection of Matthias’ essays, memoir and interviews. Very welcome because Matthias is a poet-critic in that particular American tradition which sees the poet as not only a creator but a reporter too. At Large is welcome, too, because Matthias is one of the few North American voices who have read and understood (if that’s not too large a claim) British Modernism of the generation which lived and worked in the shadow of Eliot. Such Modernists as Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid and especially David Jones. Thus, At Large usefully reprints Matthias’ elegant, sensitive essay, ‘Some British Survivors from before the War’ from The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945 – 2010. Matthias does a slightly unusual thing of starting with comments on W.H.Auden and then he moves via Stephen Spender, MacNeice and Dylan Thomas into the more modernist writing of David Jones and Basil Bunting. Such a survey essay is likely to come up with such yokings. However, Matthias shows that the technical innovations of these poets, for instance Auden’s use of Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre in the Age of Anxiety, might also be linked to the aural emphases created by Thomas and Bunting. Matthias’ point is, as I understand it, that there was, in this period in twentieth century poetry, a much more conscious presentation of ‘voice’. The sound of the poem, its music, became more reified on the surface of the text. In this essay, Matthias is much more sympathetic to Stephen Spender than others have been, and he comments, ‘[Spender’s] deep engagement of the theme of interpenetrating public and private worlds in many of the poems, and especially in Vienna, is important for any consideration of British poetry in the 1930s. If The Waste Land had been a political poem, it would have been Vienna.’
Matthias has also espoused some of the generation of British poets who lived in the shadow of the earlier Modernists, poets such as Roy Fisher and Ken Smith. In America, Matthias, himself, has tended to be included in a group of contemporaries from Stanford University: Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, John Peck and James McMichael; of whom Clive Wilmer has written that this group had ‘a fundamental faith, tested to endurance by the politics of our era, that a common language implies a common society.’
This situating of Matthias should indicate a writer who has taken his vocation very seriously. And part of that seriousness has been a willingness to reach out into other traditions in order to explore what they might mean to the variousness of his own practice. This reaching out has often been written in Matthias’ ‘Editor at Large’ column in the Notre Dame Review, of which he was the editor for many years. So, this book reprints Matthias’ reviews of a range of books from Burton’s biography of Bunting, and Neil Powell’s biography of Benjamin Britten, to his letters to such journals as Stand and London Review of Books. That letter itself riffs off a review in the LRB of Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novel about Shostakovich; Matthias points out how many writers have been painters, but few have been composers, with Antony Burgess being an exception.
The variousness of Matthias’ own practice is present in his most recent book of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro & other poems. This book contains an Elegy for Seamus Heaney, translations from Virgil, Thomas Transtromer and Apollinaire; as well as poems which describe Pound and Yeats sharing a cottage in Sussex near to where Ernest Shepard got the inspiration for the cover of The House at Pooh Corner, and the difficulties presented by Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The forms are various too, ranging from the tight, end-rhymed quatrains of the Heaney Elegy, to the prose poetry translation of Transtromer, to the free verse of the title sequence ‘Complayntes for Doctor Neuro’. This latter is also, in part, an elegy to the composer Stefan Wolpe, husband to the poet Hilda Morley whom Matthias discusses briefly in At Large. The title sequence is also an ‘exploration’ of a range of mental conditions, not only the Parkinson’s disease which claimed Wolpe, but also Tourettes, and Matthias’ own depression, as well as the disabling conditions brought on by Myasthenia Gravis. Matthias’ writing here is robust and straightforward, without any false pity, ‘One poor girl writes in from Western Oz,// isolated in an outback of the mind and far/ from any Neuro. She’s just fourteen; she woke/ one morning and she couldn’t raise her// eyelids. Aristotle Onassis, Jackie’s second/ husband, held his up eventually with/ tape.’ Although Matthias can use metaphorical play with ‘an outback of the mind’, this metaphor is almost buried in the unadorned narrative that contains it. And although Matthias carefully organises the three-line stanzas such that the writing appears as ‘a poem’ on the page, Matthias creates a tension between that overt poetic form and the facts of the illness which heightens the sense of the effects of the condition.
The final book under review here is the most recent, Revolutions: a Collaboration. And a collaboration it truly is. John Matthias has supplied twenty original poems, which Jean Dibble has incorporated into twenty posters, and for which Robert Archambeau has a supplied a commentary. In addition, there is a wonderful portrait of Matthias by Dibble, who has provided a portrait of Mandelstam, as Matthias has translated a Mandelstam poem. In one commentary, Robert Archambeau remarks on ‘”The Hijofit,” a game whose pieces are the first few nine-letter words [Matthias] finds in the dictionary’s listing under a given letter.’ In ‘Onomastic’, for example, Matthias finds places in the poem for, ‘oneiromancy’, ‘ontology’, ‘ontogeny’, ‘onanistic’, ‘ophicleide’ and ‘opinionated’, along with ‘O’ and ‘Oh’ and ‘ogle’. Perhaps these last three might indicate some of the ‘thrust’ of the narrative in this poem. And, although Matthias’ concern is often ludic, that sense of play is used to push both language and narrative in interesting and fulfilling ways.
If the methods of composing the poems are semi-aleatory, Archambeau goes on to remark that a central influence on Matthias’ poetry is Modernism, ‘Not only is his work written in accord with a thousand Modernist techniques…it constantly invokes the Modernists themselves: the poets, the artists and especially the composers.’ One particular Modernist spirit invoked throughout the poetry is that of the Russian Modernists, not only Mandestam , but also the others in Akhmatova’s ‘four’; Akhmatova, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva. Archambeau claims that another Modernist spirit for Matthias’ is his refusal to compromise.
In part, that invocation of Russian modernism occurs from the moment you pick up the book with its rather Soviet-style cover of hammers swung in the pattern of sickles, and the book’s title. The collaborative nature of the book might also be seen as ‘revolutionary’. Matthias’ poems hint at a subdued ‘Russian’ narrative; they contain lexical gestures towards that narrative: ‘hussars’, ‘steppe’, ‘vodka’, ‘tsar’ all occur in the first two poems. The poems also contain ‘characters’ who are engaged in an often surreal narrative in which the lexical gestures help to both pin down the action and also move it centrifugally away from possible narrow concerns. Archambeau riffs off all this with his own centrifugal commentaries. ‘Onomastic’, for instance, stimulates Archambeau to mention the ‘Oulipo’ movement and George Perec’s La disparition, a novel length book written without the use of ‘e’. Archambeau also mentions another modernist ancestor, in Gertrude Stein.
Overall, what this book offers is something which is not quite revolutionary. There have, after all, been many books of poems with illustrations, and Archambeau’s lively, focussed criticism is not the only time such poems as Matthias’ have been put under the microscope. But what this book offers, that is new, is a sense that these are three artists who, each in their own way, are operating at the height of their powers, to bring this collaboration to a uniquely satisfying whole.