MARY LEE ALLEN
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”:
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”:
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:
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”:
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:
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”:
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.