Issue 9: John Matthias (for Peter Robinson)

Associational Poem for Peter Robinson at Sixty

The great cellist, Pablo Casals, was asked on

His ninetieth birthday why he continued to

Practice for five hours every day. He said:

“I’m making progress.”  I just saw a picture

Of you on Facebook – playing guitar in a

Rock group!  I trust you’re making progress.

When I was thirty-five or so and you

A decade younger, we both lived on what you

Called Inertial Road in Cambridge. Our first

Conversations were in your attic flat.

Herschel Rd. still looks much the same, but

You and I do not.  I’m headed fast for

The geezer class, but hope I’m making progress

Even now at writing poems.  When you

Put down your guitar, that’s what you do too.

At least when you’re not painting works in oils

Like “The Clothes Chair” or the unfinished

View of Yagiyama, Sendai, on the cover of

The Look of Goodbye.  You flipped me a look of

Goodbye when you departed South Bend, Indiana

After having read from your translations of

Vittorio Sereni at my university.  With Italian,

You’ve always made great progress, though

I wonder if your Japanese isn’t getting rusty

(Jozu, desune, the locals say politely to the Brits

And Yanks willing, at least, to give it a try)

Now that you’re living back in Britain, having

Overcome inertia well beyond its Cambridge road

By making progress in Sendai and Italy.


Coming to South Bend, you were drafting something

Later called “Enigma Variations,” the title meant

To reference not just Elgar but De Chirico, whose

Doppelgänger stood up at your reading in Chicago

And volunteered a question.  What did he ask?

Your poem doesn’t say. Maybe something enigmatic

Like, “Did you find the poets in Japan a bit Italian,

Or would you say more British or American?”

Clutching your bilingual U of C edition of Sereni,

You caught The South Shore train, writing on the way

Perhaps the only poem in English about stations

On that route from Randolph Street to Gary Metro,

Hudson Lake, and points beyond. The run-down

Neighborhoods along the way must have looked familiar

To a Brit from Liverpool who lived not far from

Where Paul McCartney met John Lennon.

Just the way, as I think you’ll remember, that the gray

Abandoned workings—that’s what Auden would have

Called them – of the local Studebaker plant looked familiar

To our friend Roy Fisher, fresh from Birmingham. . .


         . . . Had you stayed in town

For more than just a day, we might have made you

Honorary laureate of the Midwestern rustbelt, but

You had to leave for Parma and Giuseppe Verdi airport.

At Michiana Regional the airlines didn’t substitute for

Elevator music arias from Traviata or Otello (even

With TB and murder on the rise, Vittorio Sereni Englished

In your bag). Waiting for your flight you wrote the

Section of “Enigma Variations” on departure. Have you

ever noticed that Enigma almost anagrams Imagine?

What’s left over is an extra I.  I’ve always liked the

Fine eye in your poems, and for that matter also

The reticent (and English) “I”. I hope your subtle ear

Isn’t damaged by this recent flirting with the

Rock and roll, but no one knows these days when

A Facebook photo is a meme, and that’s my only

Evidence of this indulgence, granted to us all, in one

Form or another, once we’re over sixty.  (Anyway, all

Poetry began as song.)  Like Casals at ninety,

I hope we both keep making progress – when in Reading

Or Parma, Sendai or South Bend. But even if

We do, we know life’s an enigma.  Just imagine!

John Matthias is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. He has published some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman is bring out his complete poems in three volumes.