Blackbox Manifold

Issue 10: Adam Piette

John Matthias, Collected Shorter Poems, vol. 2 1995-2011 (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013). 978-1-84861-180-1.


John Matthias, Collected Longer Poems (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013). 978-1-84861-240-2.


The titles of these two Shearsman collections (soon to be a trilogy with the first volume of shorter poems) signal the ambition – they point back to Auden and Faber’s consecration of Auden as poète sacré; and throw down a gauntlet before the lords of limit: dare challenge the presumption! Giving support to the gesture have been two collections of essay on Matthias’ work, Robert Archambeau’s 1998 Word Play Place, and the 2011 Salt Companion to his work, edited by Joe Frances Doerr.

John Matthias’ work has two main elements: imitations of the modernist cento, long meditations on specific histories and trajectories through space, but which guard against the fragmentation and modernist ironies of the genre at its most Poundian; and shorter lyrics which mix elegies for ‘names’ in the poetry and art world of the past with personal reflections on this and that.

Questions are raised at every turn by the measures taken to resist a too easily political poetry – the long poems Matthias wrote before the 1990s are rambling psychogeographical explorations of the histories generated by roads and shipways, from East Anglian ley lines (An East Anglian Diptych (1984)) through the rivers and lakeways used by earliest French colonist-explorers in the United States (Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest (1987)) to the pilgrim route to Compostela (A Compostela Diptych (1990)). They clearly have political considerations, many generated by the sheer accumulation of violent event along the ways; but the style militates against any hard and fast view.

Matthias himself admits that he gave up on political verse once he’d turned against the naivetés of his 1960s youth. This has meant, unfortunately, that these long pre-1990 poems (‘well-turned pocket-epics’, as Mark Scroggins describes them in his afterword) read as rather drained of significance. What is the purpose of tracing the events and anecdotes and trace-histories with such palimpsestual ardour? As John Wilkinson dryly remarks of the early pocket epics in his article in the Salt companion: ‘Both “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest” and “A Compostela Diptych” are exceedingly polished, the versification moving through shoals of detail and names, but their necessity remains inaccessible’ (201). Wilkinson finds the early long work ‘labored and worthy’, ‘[p]lundering histories and guidebooks’ with insufficient zany disrespect for the historical material, and relative absence of any ‘powerful investment of feeling’. Peter Robinson in the Salt Companion also takes issue with the pre-1990 work, for the name-dropping tendency that is the cumulative effect of those shoals, like the incantatory insistence, in ‘The Stephen Batory Poems’ of 1973, merely on the name as conjurable source of glamour.

I would suggest part of the problem lies with the turn from the politics of the past as history towards narrative iteration of names and anecdotes of the past as story. The design and measure of the early long work finds poetry in the sounding of the names, in the recounting of the stories least likely to raise ideological hackles, but most likely to have some kind of resonance in the mere telling of them.

Matthias admires David Jones and Robert Duncan, and one can see how Jones’ palimpsestual visions of landscape and Duncan’s idea of the field colour these mini-epics: but there is not the passionate attachment to Welsh myth and heroic endeavor which gives drive to the Anathemata; nor is there Duncan’s commitment to Earth Mother mysticism. What we are left with is something closer to a rhetoric, imitating Duncan’s ‘field of interacting melodies’, ‘find[ing] depth in the resounding’ (on the Pisan Cantos, The H.D. Book, chapter 4), or what John Holloway described as Jones’ ‘one relation repeated over and over, an endless catachresis of hinted identity’ (‘A Perpetual Showing: The Poetry of David Jones’). So when, in the Compostela poem, we are invited to witness the violence of war: (‘they hacked // the arms off those who staggered in the wind /  or split their heads down to their chins with sabers flashing / in the sun’ (157)), we observe quietly as in a gallery calmly taking in, say, a William Heath painting of the Battle of Vitoria; and the next instance John Matthias switches on his rhythmical naming machine:

From Villafranca to Nogales, from

Nogales on through Lugo to Betanzos, darkness fell at noon,

the walls of houses cracked, down 

from all the bell towers tumbled bells.

This has an ‘exceedingly polished’ gloss but, to risk catachresis myself, it also resounds: resonance is generated by the resounding of names, the hollow Milton reference, the phonemes repeated over and over (fell-walls-all-bell-bells) as if echoing off from the chance chimes in the place-names (the g/l chiasmus from Nogales to Lugo; the ‘o’ eye-repetitions in the second line above, ‘Villafranca’ exfoliating into ‘from’ and ‘fell’, etc.). There is something of Scott here rather than Pound or Duncan or Jones (‘From Alpuhara's peak that bugle rung, /And it was echo'd from Corunna's wall; /Seville responsive war-shot flung, /Grenada caught it in her Moorish hall’, etc.) , though Scott with the patriotic bugle on mute.

         The work in the end lacks feeling and personal (political) advocacy, despite the fact that the pocket epics do engage with places of personal significance to Matthias’ biography. As he states in his notes, the Midwest poem resonates for him because ‘I myself set off from the Midwest as a person’; ‘Northern Summer’ explores Scottish family roots, and helps ‘[establish] the back-and-forth movement of my life for twenty years between the US and the UK’; the shipgoing poems ‘reinforce the pattern’; the East Anglian poem, his wife’s country, tracks ‘that part of England where I have felt as much as home as I have in Indiana and Ohio’. Yet the personal touch is rare and the history-as-story swamps out any feeling in the verse.

It is the absence of what Wilkinson calls ‘feelingness’ and what Robinson calls ‘speaking personally’ which both Wilkinson and Robinson agree is redeemed in the flowering late style of Matthias’ post-1990 poetry. For John Wilkinson, the breakthrough is ‘Swells’, a longish poem that reflects on the poet’s love of Hemingway, with intense feelings of sexual desire triggered by the companionable love for Diana Adams his wife; the sixty-year-old Matthias on sabbatical in 2001 is fishing in a boat with his wife on Walloon lake in the Horton Bay area near Lake Michigan – sporting ground of his youth but also where Hemingway holidayed (at the family summer cottage called Windermere), and where Hemingway’s Nick Adams rowed and fished.

Peter Robinson also zeroes in on ‘Swells’ as a perfect example of the new openness of the late Matthias, triggered, he speculates, by reaching Pound’s age when he wrote The Pisan Cantos, and by the experience of translation. But it is clear, too, for both poets as they watch John Matthias enter into his late style, that the ‘kedging’ going on in these poems (a nautical term Matthias adopts meaning use of an anchor to winch stranded boats off sandbanks, and signifying the use of something other to help Mathias move off and on from blank misgiving and stranded feelings of depression) is a tribute both to Hemingway and to Diana Adams.

For Wilkinson, it is the frankness of the erotic writing in the poem that is the kedging agent, the many meanings of ‘swell’ coalescing round the memory of youthful erotic hope (‘some swell girl who’d maybe show me her swell cunt’) and releasing a swell of desiring energies that will lift and rock his boat off the sandbank. Sexual energy, for Wilkinson, coalesces with mnemonic energy: ‘memory traces converge, overlap and lock to oscillate sexually, and the sexual force propels the poet onward to new landfall’ (204). Hemingway is the kedge anchor that releases a male libidinal energy that at last makes the history-as-story swell and oscillate on this double wave.

For Robinson, the ‘matter of Hemingway and friends disappears from sight, reduced to a device for occasioning this more intimate material’, creating the swell of possibility of ‘a differently open and personally self-explanatory style’ (80). The poem has ‘kedged’ off Hemingway to rediscover not only male bravado, but also ‘vulnerably dependent relations with his wife, Diane, and so to the importance for an ordinarily flawed man of a loved woman in such a man’s life’ (83). It is a tribute to the complex feelingness of the poem and to its radical openness that it can elicit such divergent and personal responses from the two reader-poets.

The contradiction between Wilkinson’s and Robinson’s reading of ‘Swell’ – one reading it as a rediscovery of libidinal liberating desire, the other of an uxorious masculinity – is only apparent, however. The poem triangulates ages, as Robinson shows – staging a 60-year-old thinking about a man who shot himself at 53 and remembering both Hemingway’s and his own boyhoods. The chronotopic energy of the lake is literary and elegiac in a Wordsworthian sense (the hunt for Hemingway’s Windermere summons the Lakes and Wordsworth’s rowing boat poetry) as well as personal, so it is a bookish retrospect. But the triangulation is itself double: Hemingway may as a masculinist author enable a rediscovery of male libido lost during John Matthias’ illness, and therefore signal a new lease and love of life. Diana Adams may be there to stabilize the energy into married future possibilities. But what Wilkinson and Robinson do not fully point out in their readings of the poem is the way both Diana Adams and Ernest Hemingway come together as kedging agents.

In the poem, two naked girls are swimming in the lake – and they are the main erotic charge that summons the desire, creating the swell of desire-laden memory. It is the sight of the girls which turns the lake into a field of energies: ‘All water’s amniotic, nowhere Lethe, / and we watch with joy those naked girls swimming / there some fifty yards in front of us like two fine porpoises before / a ship that’s making for a landfall’ (107). But, critically, it is Diana Adams who points them out, as we learn a little further on in section three: ‘Diana points again. Unembarrassed, tall and brazen, / both the naked girls walk up on the sandy beach / and shake the water of their golden bodies like two dogs. / Then they turn to us and smile’ (108). It is Diana who throws the kedging anchor by pointing at the girls – that gesture not only turns the lake amniotic, but it re-sparks the erotic (loving and vulnerable) relation between husband and wife. One of the symptoms of the illness had been a killing insomnia, which Matthias has written about (‘Poetry and Insomnia’, Harvard Review 36 (Spring 2009), pp. 60-77); and Diana helped him by reading to him.

The act of pointing to the girls is felt to be comparable to the reading aloud: as as soon as the two girls smile, the poem turns to this act of generosity. As Robinson speculates, the kind of fiction read to him may very well have included the Buchan and Childers (very male) spy fictions he writes about so superbly in the ‘Kedging in Time’ sequence. But it is also, as Diana in the poem teases, likely to have been Hemingway too (‘How about your macho friend E.H.?’). What transforms what might have been a simple occasional poem about remembering fishing as a boy (‘This started out to be a poem about a bass I caught when / I was ten’) into a drama of cooperative triggering of memory and desire is the gesture made by Diana pointing out the girls. And this move, from solitary fisherman to couple regenerating mutual desire, is also indebted to Hemingway.

The Hemingway being remembered may be overtly the writer of the Nick Adams stories of solitary fishing and hiking boyhood, and covertly through the fishing motif the macho hunter of marlin and writer of The Old Man and the Sea. The chronicler of lonely machismo is summoned, too, in a curious memory Matthias has of another male energy field: the Berryman Mathias knew at Salt Lake City as a student: ‘Berryman, / who sat cross-legged in my Salt Lake City room / and recited every word verbatim of A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ (102). That Hemingway story features an absolutely isolated male forced to encounter the abstraction of that isolation as existential nothingness.

But at the third ‘swell’ level of intermixture of memory and desire, it is the Hemingway of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, the analyst and celebrator of love scenes in A Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast which comes to mind, the writer alive to the theatrical play and cooperative wit that sustains relationship, and alive too to the ways the new liberated women of the feminist 20th century will cause radical changes to masculinity. Hemingway functions, therefore, as an ambiguous kedge anchor: both cheering up the wounded Matthias with some old-fashioned and unabashed male desire, and pointing the way to the dominant woman in partnership as life-saver. But again, it is important to state that the machismo-Hem is replaced by the love analyst only because Diana’s gesture is transformative.

In the insomnia essay, Matthias admits that the hallucinations he suffered during the sleeplessness (‘various diseases I thought I had appeared before me as neon signs on a marquee’) were made worse by the lack of the sounds of his wife’s companionship (‘I didn't hear my wife's reassuring breathing beside me because she had moved down the hall to save her own sanity if she could.’) But that even so, it was her help (presumably with the reading programme) which saved him from the torment: ‘In the end, it was she who pulled me out of this.’ And in that essay he also admits it was not Hemingway, or even young adult spy fiction which she read but children’s stories: ‘I willingly submitted to a kind of regression as my wife returned from down the hall and read me Winnie the Pooh, all of Beatrix Potter, Paddington Bear, and Jenny.’ The regression coupled with the marquee-hypochondria point to the self-infantilizing masochism associated with the idea of the dominant female partner, something explored, for instance, by Richard Fantina in his essay ‘Hemingway's Masochism, Sodomy, and the Dominant Woman’ (The Hemingway Review 23.1 [Fall 2003], pp. 84-105). But this is just one edge to the new openness Diana Adams enables: the new openness is a rediscovery of 1960s love-politics and love-liberation, a return or resurrection of the youthful sexy and embodied idealism-as-sensuality that were the 1960s for this particular couple.

And it is also as importantly an openness that finds a living relation between Matthias’ poetry and American prose modernism. Berryman visited Matthias in Salt Lake when Matthias was only 17, giving a workshop and lecture at Utah State in 1959, a tale Matthias recorded for biographer, Paul Mariani, and collected in Reading Old Friends: Essays, Reviews, and Poems on Poetics, 1975-1990. Berryman was ruthless with the young writer’s prose, and recommended that the students on the workshop work long and hard to experiment with the sounds of the opening sentence from Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’ (‘None of them knew the colour of the sky’), trying out different emphases, exploring whether one should ‘write pentameter lines in sentences of fiction, especially in first sentences’. Matthias urges the neophyte to read Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, and then, presumably, with the verbatim performance of Hemingway, urging Matthias to take stock of that great prose stylist.

In ‘Swell’, Matthias can still recall Berryman’s words: ‘He said the story was a poem, and / he was right’ (102). Name-dropping Berryman is here another form of triangulation, Berryman-Hemingway-Matthias, shadowed by personal circumstance: Berryman in 1959 had just split from his wife, Ann, was writing his dream songs, wrote a will before taking the flight, Paul Mariani in Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman informs us, leaving ‘everything, incl. literary property & mss.’ to the woman he had just divorced (349). Berryman enacts the same Hemingway contradiction, impressing on Matthias the example of stories of male isolation (Crane’s story, Hemingway’s ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’), at the same time as suffering and dreaming of his wife (and recommending a Lawrence story about an unlucky mother-son relationship).

Something about this advice is coloured by very real risk, for Matthias: both Hemingway and Berryman killed themselves, Berryman at 58, Hemingway at 62; the poem was composed between those two ages by a 60-year-old. In other words, he is in the death zone tempting him to an end, one of the terrible depressive symptoms of the insomnia breakdown. Instead of those two men, Diana Adams offers the vision of the two naked girls. Instead of the twisted machismo-masochism of Hemingway, instead of Berryman’s courting of disaster through drink, divorce and Luciferian isolation similarly shadowed by emotional dependency, she offers him the possibility, that the 1960s generated in young couples in love during that time, of an open-minded sexual relishing of life and the world. If Adams here trumps Hemingway and Berryman it is because her gesture enables a narrative poetry which combines the freedoms of American modernist prose (and its account of relationship) with the intimacies of confessional lyric (and a more liberatingly frank and libidinous poetics).

The question remains whether the rediscovery of a 1960s spirit of joyful relationship is also still an apolitical agenda – for it was the anti-Vietnam poetry of his early years which Matthias repudiated. Robinson suggests that the ‘Kedging in Time’ sequence is concerned with British seapower and the great game, as scripted into the writing of Buchan and Co, because of the felt parallel with contemporary ‘great game’ politics. Equally, the other great sequence of the late style triggered by his working through of the breakdown is Automystifstical Plaice (2000), a work which tells the amazing story of Hedy Lamarr and Georg Antheil’s submarine torpedo guidance system, tracking it back to Ballet mécanique and machinist ‘robotic’ modernism more generally.

Superficially, the work has the same structural design as the other long poems, cherrypicking from its research base and versifying lightly. But it is really about the dominant female at the heart of the modernism which has haunted Matthias’ work, beginning with a Genesis moment of parthenogenetic modernist female being: ‘In the beginning / without any mother the girl was born a machine’ (245). Modernist feminism espoused a futurist potentiality (H.D. and Marinetti) to generate a motherless agency, linked to erotic power too (‘In the year of erotic parades’). That combination comes to fruition in Hedy Lamarr as naked actor in Ecstacy who then becomes scientist-entrepreneur and maker of technology (same technology that governs the way mobile phones work). The politics of this is a subversive, even countercultural, registering of an alternative history and trajectory to the military technology and cybernetic ideology underwriting American wars in the desert.

But earlier than this is the long sequence Pages, which creates a scrapbook of year-specific information and memories turning round Matthias’ biography. The years are 1959, 1941, 1953, 1961, 1966 in that order, so tracking back from the boy who learned from Berryman back to the birth-year, then forward through the Cold War years of Hemingway-boyhood through to the defining 1960s identity-formation. It is this autobiographical work which I believe lay the foundation for the shift to the late style in Matthias: it is anarchically and zanily constructed, full of wry and critical moments of self-examination, and tracing a journey through the earnestness of the war and high Cold War to a disrespectful, druggy, playfully political writing, as with this extract from the last section, remembering the 1966 trip to England and his science research whilst in ‘present time’ tending to his Alzheimer-suffering mother in the home; but also mixing in soundbites from the rest of the section, patches of language about the Rosenberg executions, or from the university work, or from the politics and drug discourse of the counterculture:

I ask them how much she remembers how much she can understand this execution which on her behalf releases other documents consents to this Do Not resuscitate this paper that prohibits interventions that prohibits both nutritions and hydration but allows whatever drugs may be obtained to kill the pain ontology a function of oncology if

protein synthesis and polymeric vectors

mean you are your mother’s son your father’s fated cowboy

polyeptides flowing like the war

This is a musical poetic prose in the sense that it has sophisticated motif-work that at the same time sequences the bites of experiential language into new formations, moving from the unyielding scientific prose of the textbooks, adding the catalyst of countercultural intelligence and the later traumatic witnessing of the mother’s pain, and generating a political awareness (‘polyeptides flowing like the war’ is wonderful about how the mind flows from the research into chains of amino acids to anti-Vietnam consciousness through sensing the tidal flow of history flowing through the scientific work being done as an American student). And that political awareness is linked both to the erotic awakening that Pages is also there to recall, and in this extract to a feeling-with the female otherness his late work is dependent on (‘how much she remembers how much she can understand’).

         If Pages enabled the writer to live through the breakdown by securing the bond with empowered female being and the possibility of a reawakening of 1960s sexual and political progressive experiencing, it also laid the foundation for the more open-ended and free-flowing prosaics of the compositional method. As the extract above shows, Matthias realises a prose poetry that combines the virtues of the modernist cento with the prose daring of the modernist novel and short story writers, but all freshened up with a Ginsbergian countercultural and sexual prose-versifying. If Matthias’ work for too long was apolitical, overly indebted to the masters of style, and lacking the necessity of deep feeling and personal investments, then, oddly enough, he uses the same self-effacing indebtedness (or name-dropping method, citing Hemingway and Berryman, for instance, in a triangulation I have tried to mimic by combining myself with John Wilkinson and Peter Robinson) to release himself from the double bind: but only once the kedging gesture from the female ‘motherless’ agent enables a return to the 1960s and to a prose poetry informed by erotic charge and political valency. The late work (including the book-length Trigons, a section of which, “Islands, Inlands’, Wilkinson writes so well on) is sensuous, passionate, wonderfully engaged, quietly inspirational: and it marks a vital and inventive new prose poetry that merges modernist with 1960s poetics by way of a liberating revisiting of American prose.

Adam Piette is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, and author of Remembering and the Sounds of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War.