blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Green Stars, by Charlotte Hilary Matthews (Iris, 2005)


A plate of madeleines—that’s what Charlotte Matthews serves in this collection. Like Proust, she conjures images with details drawn from the mist of memory and dredged from strong emotions. She gives us glimpses of the people in her life—and of herself. These are quiet, listening poems. Acute remembrances of sometimes obscure and seemingly irrelevant details evoke sounds, scents, colors, feelings—everyday details we would not notice if she did not mention them. We find frequent descriptions of the light on a scene. She shows reality’s stream as we actually see it in the stream of consciousness, in bits and pieces, with different senses at different times coloring our vision.

The poems are rich with images that unlock the motion toward revealing metaphors: “The afternoon has almost emptied, / light moving in starts over the eastern trees”; “venetian blinds half / closed so when cars pass / the room is striped with sudden light”; “There are whole years grouped inside me”; “Sometimes I dream the back field of our house goes / all the way to the river and my mother is still alive, / standing by her desk, arranging her day.”

The collection’s epigraph from Annie Dower sets the stage: “The world has wonderful details / if you can just get it a little closer than usual.” Matthews evokes the atmosphere of a childhood in a familiar yet no less valued environment as she puts a magnifying glass to her memory of “Growing Up in Washington”:

The streets are orderly. They move through
the alphabet starting at the canal where slow
barges carried beaver pelts to the Potomac
to be put on ships for England.

. . . .

In summer we played kick-the-can in the alley
where pebbles jutted from the cracked pavement.
Louisa and her two sisters, all exactly one year and one day
apart, brought cream soda from their father’s pantry.

As I tell you this, I can see that it’s unremarkable, really.

But when we sold the house last spring after the estate sale,
after my mother died, I could smell something
in the city air, something I loved. And I thought
it had to be written down, as I have here.

Members of her family—her sad, lonely mother, the elusive father and the older brother, her young children—often are subjects or allusions. In poetry based on the most personal, sensitive memories, there is danger of falling into sentimentality. Matthews does not. Her poems sharpen our awareness, teach us that ancillary details of our lives have importance, bring revelation. Matter-of-fact pictures of ordinary scenes and activities call up deep feelings, as in “After My Father Leaves”:

She sits at the kitchen table smoking an L&M.
The first cool of evening pushes itself
into the gray flagstones of the backyard.
She is listening to the Saturday opera.
Upstairs I read as if nothing has happened.
It is early spring, the pond turns over
in silence, its dark underneath rising weightless.
I try to walk down the tall, carpeted stairs
to tell her it doesn’t matter,
to tell her we weren’t happy anyway,
but suddenly the house is quiet,
the opera over or turned off.

Another well-chosen epigraph—before part two—comes from William Blake: “Labor well, thy minute particulars.” Indeed, Matthews makes large use of small details. “The Shape of Memory” shows how nearly unnoticeable details work to enliven an ordinary picture and to tell a poignant story:

Summers, cleaning trout on the chipped wellhead,
we scraped our knives against the scales
until they came off thin, the grass
around us littered with flecks of silver light.
The wellhead is scarlet with fish blood.
Cattails click on the shore road.
My father is watching over me
in case I ever have to do this alone.

Her older brother “Clark talks to God out of his window. / He says that’s where God is, / not in our house, not under our roof.” Her “daughter’s imaginary / friend is invisible / because she lives / in the light, / because she is everywhere at once.”

While Matthews’s thoughts sometimes seem random and free-flowing, they blend to create feeling in a poem. Some pieces have an air of mystery. We don’t always understand but we enjoy the images. The book’s title, Green Stars, comes from her poem, “Luminescence,” where she writes, “Tonight the stars are above cloud, invisible. / They are the brightness under ocean water. // The ocean has its own stars / when the light is right. / The ocean’s stars are green.” She conveys the mystery she finds in the very act of writing in “Learning to Write Cursive”:

My mother wrote with her left hand curved
over the letters so the side of her palm
wouldn’t smudge what she’d already put down.

From my room across the hall where first light
forms shapes on the green rug, I can see her.
This is what she cares for more than anything,
and I want her to teach me, too,
want a mystery so exalted it has no sound at all.

Emanations of her mother mysteriously continue after death: “The woman in the waiting room . . . . says Emma is beautiful / and there is something in her voice I recognize. . . . / like my mother and I know that / she has come for this one moment.”

Gentle images of domestic activities—or metaphorical reference to poetry—are used to evoke anxiety, even terror, as in “Poem in Fear of War.” Descriptions of gardening and birdsong and Homer dramatize the pervasive unease she feels in the current world situation:

I am the girl in the garden
bent over rows of spring peas
hoping, unexplainably, that they have
not grown in the dark of night.
Earlier, out on the leaf pile,
six sparrows were singing
under their breath without mercy
as if nothing horrific has ever come to pass.

Clearly none of us wants to mention
how dangerous this could be.

Remember how in the Iliad
all the important decisions
were made by the gods,
leaving men free to shift about
the way Albert’s cows do,
grouping in whatever
shade the sun has left behind.

Sound plays a prominent part in this collection. Matthews, musician as well as mother/teacher/poet, plays words and lines for their sound repetitions and rhythms. She writes about music, Handel’s, and church bells, and about the man who “can hear the past.” The flow of lines and the color of images educe music from our own memories, sometimes Impressionist music, Debussy, as in “Two Childhoods”:

Lately, I’ve wanted to be on a ferry,
closed in a glass compartment
above the ocean, sound
of seagulls hovering restless
over the bow, or asleep by myself
in an upstairs room
of the house where we lived.
It would be in secret, a summer
afternoon, blinds pulled
so the only light’s hazy,
half-filtered, coming in
through the cracks.
Whenever I close my eyes,
the house is exactly the way
we left it. And the world outside
is quiet, waiting for us.

With metaphors and images of dreams and shadows, half-light, dim light, and ‘fragile light,’ Matthews transports us gently into rich solitudes ripened by an aura of music, mystery, and wistfulness. A journey Proust himself could have appreciated.  

return to top