William Matthews Essay - Critical Essays


In his poems and essays, William Matthews refers frequently to poets as diverse as Horace and Richard Hugo, Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop and Galway Kinnell. However, the allusions are not limited to other poets. Novelists such as Vladimir Nabokov and Russell Banks are part of that world, and European writers of various periods populate it: Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Vergil. Still, such a strictly literary “Who’s Who” would give a reader a false impression of Matthews’s range. The list would have to include Ted Williams, Jack Nicklaus, and Archie Moore, and it would encompass musicians as various as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Bob Marley, though the emphasis would definitely be on jazz and blues (Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith, Dexter Gordon, and Stan Getz). Sigmund Freud also makes frequent appearances in Matthews’s work. Perhaps it is indicative of his world that in a poem titled “Self-Knowledge,” one encounters him reading Horace while listening to a Bud Powell tape.

Ruining the New Road

What is elusive in Matthews’s poems is more difficult to account for than the range of his reference or allusion. In the prefatory poem to his first full-length collection, Ruining the New Road, Matthews teases his audience with the suggestion that “the search party” does not involve an actual lost child, but that poet and reader are “deep in symbolic woods”: “The search is that of art.” No sooner does he offer that premise, however, than he insists, “There was a real lost child./ I don’t want to swaddle it/ in metaphor.” Even as he proclaims what he does not want to do, he does it; not only is the infinitive “to swaddle” metaphoric but it is also “loaded” for any reader of the King James version of the New Testament. His definition of his stance as a writer is as applicable to his later poems as it was to his earlier efforts: “I’m just a journalist/ who can’t believe in objectivity.” To make such a statement in the poem is to “digress,” as he admits, from the poem’s supposed subject, so he concludes by informing the reader, “The child was still/ alive. Admit you’re glad.”

Especially in the first three collections, Matthews seems to be at some pains to contrive a surreal metaphoric base, as in “Cuckold”: “You can hear the silverware/ catching its eager breath/ inside the sleeping drawer.” Early, too, he established himself as a virtuoso of the simile—both simple, “We twist away like a released balloon” (“Moving”), and complex, “In sleep we issue from the earth/ like prayers the nuns have swallowed/ but can’t keep down” (“Der Doppelgänger”). The poems of his first book are often quite spare, and the lines tend to be rather short.

Sleek for the Long Flight and Sticks and Stones

In Sleek for the Long Flight and Sticks and Stones, Matthews was to carry this minimalist impulse to nearly the ultimate point, producing three one-line poems, while at the same time exploring the prose poem. His unusual blending of the inner, dreamlike world of the surreal and the outer, quotidian world of the domestic is evident in various ways throughout the long, narrow-lined “The Cat,” which begins with “a hail of claws” as the cat lands “in your lap.” Matthews greets the cat with playful, Homeric epithets: “Fishbreath, Wind-/ minion.” What is most striking, however, is how Matthews moves from a domestic simile, “One night you lay your book/ down like the clothes/ your mother wanted/ you to wear tomorrow,” to a surreal metaphor, “The cat exhales the moon.” One moment the speaker can be quite direct: “This is the only cat/ I have ever loved.” In the next lines, however, he moves to the whimsical, “This cat has written/ in tongue-ink/ the poem you are reading now,” and then angles toward the profound: “the poem scratching/ at the gate of silence.”

One remarkable poem from Sleek for the Long Flight is “Stone,” dedicated to fellow poet Charles Simic, which begins with wordplay: “The creek has made its bed/ and wants to lie in it.” Matthews delights in moments such as these, in which language seems to deconstruct itself. His best poems are always densely textured; that is, they are not only thoughtful or provocative or profound but also metaphorically rich and musical.

Sticks and Stones, published in a limited edition of six hundred copies by a small press, is a transitional collection. Its most ambitious effort is “The Waste Carpet,” a four-page satire on the ecological “apocalypse” that gets quite playful: “Three Edsels forage in the southeast corner,/ a trio of ironical bishops.”

Rising and Falling

In his next three collections, however, Matthews was back to major key: Rising and Falling, Flood, and A Happy Childhood. “Memory,” Matthews writes in “Moving Again,” the second poem of Rising and Falling, “is our root system.” The poem opens with one of his patentable similes: “At night the mountains look like huge/ dim hens.” Now divorced, he sees his sons infrequently: “If I lived with my sons/ all year I’d be less sentimental/ about them.” This mingling of the surreal metaphoric element with the mundane statement typifies Matthews’s most effective poems. From the top of the mesa, the speaker imagines, he and his sons look down on their new home. Matthews weaves an assonantal long i through the lines:

The thin airwarps in the melting lightlike the aura before a migraine.The boys are tired. A tiny magpiefluffs into a pine far belowand farther down in the valleyof child support and lightspeople are opening drawers.

An imagined resident opens a drawer and finds a forgotten telephone number. The elusive quality of this ending is not really clarified by comments Matthews offers about two names in the poem (Nicky and Verna) in his essay “Moving Around.”

The image of rising and falling permeates the collection of that title, involving...

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