blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Search Party: Collected Poems, by William Matthews,
                  edited by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly
                  (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Search Party brings together the best work of a uniquely eloquent poet, one of the most original voices of his generation, and surely the most readable. And the book comes along at the right time, for among those poets born roughly between 1935 and 1945—a group which includes Glück, Hass, Wright, Palmer, Williams, Bidart, Plumly, Pinsky, and Olds, among others—Matthews is the one whose reputation has seemed most at risk. Although Matthews was something of a ubiquitous figure on the literary landscape of the 1980s and early '90s, recent anthologies have ignored him, and his work has attracted little critical attention. Perhaps this has to do with Matthews' early death from a heart attack in 1997, but I suspect that it has more to do with the writing itself: Matthews' mature style remains blissfully indifferent to most of the prevailing literary fashions. Although his early work derives from the surrealist-tinged poetics of Deep Image poets such as Merwin and James Wright, and he never wholly abandoned the Deep Image predilection for startling pyrotechnical metaphors, the values of his mature work are Horatian—and Matthews translated Horace—arising from good sense, wit, an insatiable curiosity, an affable authorial presence, and a slightly shambling quest for wisdom. Matthews was not interested in the earnest disassemblings and assaults on linearity which have come to be such an important aspect of our period style, nor did he display the self-indulgence and mere schtick which contemporary poets have often confused with wit. Search Party makes a very persuasive case for Matthews' continuing importance, thanks not only to the poems but also to a superbly insightful introductory essay by his friend and fellow poet Stanley Plumly. The book is not a definitive Matthews—a good number of worthy poems from his individual collections and even his 1992 Selected Poems have been omitted, and Plumly and his co-editor Sebastian Matthews have culled only a tantalizingly small portion of the many poems which Matthews published in journals but did not include in his books. Ideally, a Complete Matthews will be available someday; in the meantime, this book does ample justice to his writing.

Over the years, I reviewed a number of Matthews' collections, and came to the poems of Search Party with the notion that I'd revisit some personal favorites but would not find much to surprise me. Not so. Again and again I found myself marveling at how fresh and lively the poems seemed, and how consistently strong the writing had been. We of course want the Collecteds of writers whose work we feel we know well to impress us in this way, but too often the poems of such volumes can seem a little shopworn; we see too transparently how the exercise of an individual style can lead to self-imitation, or how sustained development can be followed by decline. But Matthews' work avoids these pitfalls, and I found myself once again trying to determine what gives these easygoing and genial poems their capacity to suddenly shift tone, deepen their intensity, and startle us with their gravity and wry insights. In this respect, the modernist forebear who Matthews most resembles may be Frost, whose influence on Matthews does not emerge in the form of those bland pastorals that make up the work of so many of those contemporary poets who claim Frost as a master, but which instead comes from the figure who Jarrell described as the "dark Frost," the chatty and avuncular nihilist of poems such as "Out, Out" and "Design." Flood, the collection in which Matthews arrived at his mature style, closes with "Sitting on the Porch of the Frost Place, Franconia, NH," an effort which manages to be both homage to the elder poet and ars poetica. The opening is classic Matthews:

So here the great man stood,
Fermenting malice and poems
We have to be nearly as fierce
Against ourselves as he
Not to misread by their disguises.
Blue in dawn haze, the tamarack
Across the road is new since Frost
And thirty feet tall already.
No doubt he liked to scorch off
Morning fog by simply staring through it
Long enough so that what he saw
Grew visible. "Watching the dragon
Come out of the Notch," his children
Used to call it. And no wonder
He chose a climate whose winter
And house whose isolation could be
Stern enough to his wrath and pity
As to make them seem survival skills
He'd learned on the job, farming
Fifty acres of pasture and woods.
For cash crops he had sweat and doubt
And moralizing rage, those staples
Of the barter system . . .

The method is conversational and anecdotal, but it can give way to a more elevated diction and statement ("And house whose isolation could be / Stern enough to his wrath and pity"), and Matthews further avoids prosiness through his smooth tetrameter, his snaking sentences, his surprising verb forms and similes, and an Audenesque penchant for unusual adjectives; our sense that the poem is talking with us never diminishes, yet we are also aware of the poem's elegance. It is, however, an elegance which refrains from certainty and glib pronouncements, as we see from the poem's ending, a meditation on the uncertain nature of vision and insight—an apt subject for a poem which evokes the spirit of Frost:

I won't be longer on the porch
Than it takes to look out once
And see what I've taught myself
In two months here to discern:
Night restoring its opacities,
Though for an instant as intense
And evanescent as waking from a dream
Of eating blackberries and almost
Being able to remember it, I think
I see the part—haze, dusk, light
Broken into grains, fatigue,
The mineral dark of the White Mountains,
The wavering shadows steadying themselves—
Separate, then joined, then seamless:
The way, in fact, Frost's poems,
Like all great poems, conceal
What they merely know, to be
Predicaments. However long
It took to watch what I thought
I saw, it was dark when I was done,
Everywhere and on the porch,
And since nothing stopped
My sight, I let it go.

The tonal variety within Matthews' poems is always impressive; so, too, is the range of his subject matter—and it should be added his poems have subject matter; they have no patience with postmodernist strategies designed to undermine our sense of the poem's occasion and speaker. There are of course the prevailing and obsessive subjects familiar to Matthews' readers—his many poems about jazz and the lives of jazz musicians, his later but similarly abiding poems about opera, his recollections of a fifties childhood, and above all his meditations on love and its inevitable failures (though Matthews treats this latter subject in a highly restrained fashion, without any vestiges of the confessional). But just as important are Matthews' odes to objects and events which manage to be at once quotidian and oddball, subjects which escape the attention of other poets or which others would deem unpoetic. How many other contemporary poets can write engagingly about truffle pigs, nurse sharks, onions, defunct pro basketball teams, "Another Real Estate Deal on Oahu," "A Poetry Reading at West Point," "Condoms Then," and "Condoms Now"? Or offer up monologues whose speakers are the likes of Billie Holiday's accompanist on the one hand, and "Homer's Seeing Eye Dog" on the other? At their best, these efforts reflect a kind of affable detente with the world by a poet who refuses to make distinctions between high culture and low or the comic and the serious. True, there are other poets of his approximate generation who express similar interests and strive for a similar range of concerns—I think of Marvin Bell, Robert Pinsky, Denise Duhamel, Billy Collins, and Stephen Dunn, among others. But few of these poets are as lively as Matthews, or as capable of investing the quotidian with such depth. Matthews aims less for satire than for small and querulous reckonings with contemporary culture, a culture whose complexity offers a staggeringly large number of new opportunities, both funny and unsettling, to express human folly. Consider, for example, "The Memo," a previously uncollected poem which begins with some fairly banal lampooning, but which soon turns upon itself, becoming yet another of Matthews' many sly versions of the ars poetica:

I want this up and running, the office
bully wrote, next Monday and I insist
blah blah blah blah. Each blah stands for three
or four moronic instances, because
a poem honors the non-reading hours
in its readers' lives by brevity, just
as grace uses far less time than dinner.

And this poem, presto, replaces the memo.
Gentle reader, you didn't need that shit.
You work hard, right? You wanna be the screen
on which some bozo you don't know projects
his lurid drama, Bozo: The Lean Years?
Or do you want to control your leisure?
If so you'll want to take this simple test.

Like many of his later poems, "Memo" is a loose sonnet, the formal restraints helping to give the writing the kind of epigrammatic inevitability which is a hallmark of Matthews' style. Also characteristic is the offhanded metaphorical wit of "a poem honors the non-reading hours / in its reader' lives by brevity, just / as grace uses far less time than dinner." And, just as Matthews' work is characterized by surprising subject matter and fresh approaches to familiar topics, so too is it characterized by a slightly wacky but exact approach to figurative language and analogy. Where else but in Matthews can we find a chainsaw described as a "tantrum with an engine," opera singers characterized as "poached in sweat / and smell[ing] like fermented pigs," or the speaker coming out of surgery to "wait like a lizard for the first fizzles / of sensation from my lower, absent, better half: / and like a truculent champagne / the bottom of my body loosed a few / petulant bubbles, then a few more . . ."? Matthews in passages such as these expresses the art of poesy as well as the art of joke-telling, with an acute sense of timing and delight in comic wordplay: here, as elsewhere, Matthews puns relentlessly, offers zingers and one-liners, all in the space of a few lines. Fortunately, these qualities, which can sometimes turn into mere indulgences, are usually counterpointed by a similarly characteristic concern for statement, though for Matthews statement tends to function with the same sort of slipperiness and unpredictability which distinguishes his metaphors. A good illustration of this is the opening of his elegy for Reggae great Bob Marley:

In an elegy for a musician,
one talks a lot about music,
which is a way to think about time
instead of death of Marley,

and isn't poetry itself about time?
But death is about death and not time.
Surely the real fuel for elegy
is anger to be mortal.

No wonder Marley sang so often
of an ever-arriving future, that verb tense
invented by religion and political rage.
Soon come. Readiness is all

and not enough . . .

Matthews' limitations, like that of so many other good poets, derive from those very things which give his voice its piquancy and charm. His banter can at times grow benumbing, like that of a loquacious dinner guest whose wit starts to fail him by the time the bottles of wine have been emptied and dessert is served. Furthermore, like Auden (another of Matthews' most important masters, and the subject of one of his elegies), Matthews' rapacious curiosity and discursiveness can sometimes seem self-protective. Although we suspect that many of his poems arise from a great emotional vulnerability, his stance is at times frustratingly detached and guarded. I suppose that Matthews himself would attempt to put a bit of spin on these criticisms, noting that reserve and self-protection are qualities which we admire in the work of classical poets such as Martial and Horace, both of whom Matthews rendered into English. But sometimes stoicism is the wrong kind of reserve, which is to say that while Matthews always delights and engages me, it is only more rarely that he moves me. Yet I know that I will frequently return to his work, and that its pleasures and consolations are greater than that of almost all of his contemporaries. Whether Matthews will continue to find the readers he deserves is another question, and says more about the fickleness of the poetry audience than about Matthews' capacity to endure. Search Party reminds us that there has been no other American poet quite like him, and that for some of us who read poetry he is sorely missed.  

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