Pages: New Poems and Cuttings, by John Matthias.
Athens Ohio: Swallow Press, 2000.
How does a well-established poet with a mature esthetic greet the millennium? Pages: New Poems & Cuttings is John Matthias’ answer. Pages is Matthias’ first volume after Swallow’s publication in 1995 of Beltane at Aphelion , a collection of his long poems and Swimming at Midnight, his collected shorter poems. Pages contains three sections—Poems, a collection of short poems, Pages: From a Book of Years , an experimental sequence, and “Cuttings,” a sequence “cut” and sculpted from thematically linked texts.
Matthias’ place in 20th century poetry is unique. You could say, setting aside the influence of poets who don’t write in English, that much of 20th century English and American poetry has made Matthias.
From Stein the mechanics of language play.
From Pound the rendering of political history as esthetic history.
From Eliot a European legend of cultural foundation.
From Olson & Jones the signification of local texts.
From Duncan the hermetic tradition.
From McGrath the tactical and strategic political poem.
From Berryman the poem of pathos.
The last of these influences is important. Poems from the first section like “Photosonnets,” “Academic Poem,” “Persistent Elegy,” and “C.P.R.” express nostalgia, outrage and devotion. For all the difficulties logos imposes on his work, Matthias also writes poetry shaped by pathos. Other poems such as “Two in New York,” “Sadnesses: Black Seas,” “Tourists,” and “When Lilacs Last” continue his practice of writing political poems. And, of course, a number of these poems are allusive in the manner of the High Modernist.
A frequent theme in the first section is music, which Matthias treats as esthetics and history. In each poem, history sounds the counterpoint to esthetics. Matthias includes biography as texture in these poems, as well as the historical context in which the music is written and performed. “A Note on Barber’s Adagio” provides the simplest example. The poem narrates Samuel Barber driving through the Midwest during the autumn of 1963 and discovering that radio station after radio station is playing his elegiac Adagio for Strings:
The president had been assassinated
earlier that day, but Barber didn’t know it yet.
He only knew that every station in America was playing
his Adagio for Strings.
He only knew he didn’t know
why he should be responsible for such an ecstasy of grief.
Although the poems in the first section are not a radical departure from the corpus of Matthias’ shorter poems, a lighter touch can be detected. This “lightness” is profoundly evident in the second of the three sections, “Pages: From a Book of Years.” This experimental sequence allows us to answer the question, “How has Matthias made it new?” He has made it new out of the old. The oldest trick that keeps tricking time. The trick that keeps time tricking.
“Pages: From a Book of Years” is new. The long poems it shares the most kinship with would probably be Matthias’s Batory and Lermontov cycles. But unlike those poems in which each day was an occasion for a poem, in “Pages,” five years are the occasion—1959, 1941, 1953, 1961, 1966. Instead of marking time, “Pages” loosens time from its fixed course.
Each section in the poem is a locus for multiple narratives. The narrator’s narrative in metric time: the narrator is closing down the house where he grew up. His mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is being placed in a nursing home and the son has returned as executor of the mother’s estate. In addition to old letters and books, the narrator discovers his father’s collection of a Book of the Year for a wide span of years—nearly his father’s entire married life. The father’s narrative: his letters, his laws. The year’s narrative: news, high culture, low culture, people who die, words that get coined. Essentially, the multitudinous signifieds of a year’s signifying; time chronicled. The year’s narrator’s narrative: the narrator narrating his life in each year’s narrative; time recovered. The mother’s narrative: forgetting; time erased.
Within each section, these multiple narratives are put into play so that the language of each inflects every other. Although begun as time-bound, each section sets the signifiers of narrative time loose onto an esthetic field in which the texture and music of language are foregrounded. The poem becomes a field of discursive writing. In this way, it shares kinship with Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.
Narrative in Matthias’ previous long poems is frequently weighty. The narrative serves as ballast to an immense amount of information. In poems like “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest,” “Northern Summer,” “An East Anglian Diptych,” and “A Compestela Diptych,” information is necessary to set up a poetics of metastructures. Matthias rhymes histories, languages, cultures, in these poems. In order to hear the rhyme, you need the information. To be sure, often the materiality of language is in play in these poems:
to gaze at Golliwog, Sheila-na-gig.
Whose giggle, then, this
gog-eyed goggle goddess ogling back.
(“Ley Lines,” V)
But the information necessary to set up such play is often considerable. Matthias is a master at transforming factum into poesis, but information still carries weight across the line. Matthias has made “Pages” new by cutting weight. Where his previous long poems required effort at excavation, “digging down,” “Pages” is lightning quick across the surface:
rat’s baffle cry who’d haiku now DiMaggio my hero Errol Flynn my Messerschmitt my Spirit of St. Louis and by Louis’s right cross and uppercut Yo no naka wa jigoku no ue no hanami kana:world’s middle
walking on the roof of hell
and flower gazing!
Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium surmises that 21st century writing will be characterized by Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Writing that has Lightness is, “to the highest degree light...It is in motion...It is a vector of information” (13). A vector measures the direction and magnitude of velocity; therefore it is not what the information establishes that is important, but how quickly, and in what direction it moves. Information moves quickly in “Pages,” in all directions:
When teleologists took Alpha from our almanac, Omega wept. Rebel hit-men on the margin become hatters. Barkan, Binkley, Bowen, Cash; Giles, Goss, and Griffin. What were they to advertising, Aeronautics? Taken from aback, Zoetrope and Zero; but underneath photographs such confidence: Not a single future written off as bankrupt. Nor as death from aneurysm. Not a battered bride. Those who’d be the doctor lawyer businessmen and engineers demand a potency beyond their prime and potentated. Look at Shah Mohammed smiling warmly from his page. Why ever should he be not?
From the Alpha to Omega in one line! Matthias is able to gain velocity, in spite the load of information, because of the relation of information to narration. In previous long poems narration holds the information. In “Pages,” the site of poetic invention, the books of years, are already entirely informative. Narration is used to rip information from its contexts. Narration in “Pages” no longer supports information, it subverts it, it swerves towards noise that becomes music.
This is not to say that “Pages” is all polyphonic play. There is a master narrative, A Book of the Year. This master extends back before the Domesday Book, before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The master narrative is the book of patriarchal law, Nobodaddy’s book, the law the father chronicled, “All the books of all those years I’ve numbered here/to parse out features in a body of the past that took its measures.”
The erotic economy in “Pages” conflates eros and death—male pleasure and patriarchal law—on the site of the eroticized, dead, female body. In Part Three there is a brilliant and disturbing juxtaposition that shows this. Queen Elizabeth II is crowned the year Ethel Rosenberg is executed, the year the narrator learns sex with Nell, his friend’s 15-year-old sister. Near the end of the section, the three women become one woman. The one woman is the space that eros, law, and death occupy:
We did the executions readily enough, strapping one another down and playing anthems on an old kazoo. Nell preferred to play the queen but she was also good at making little fists & jerking from the hips when hit with say two thousand volts delivered at a full eight amperes.
The mother’s refrain in the poem contrast with the father’s chronicle. The mother forgets:
Take me home she said don’t sell the house I can’t remember quite which one you are you know I really don’t live here I’m only visiting.
The son’s role is to take his place in relation to the law, to become the executor of the mother’s estate, the law’s executioner:
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 nutrition and hydration but allow whatever drugs may be obtained to kill the pain ontology...
In the last two lines of the poem, The narrator speaks for the mother:
do not resuscitate do not let go
The end of the poem rests between two contrary strictures: the letter of the law that demands no heroic measures; the spirit of the law outside language that demands we go on, “do not let go.” This second law calls us outside the poem, to the present that won’t let us go until we’re gone.
“Pages: From a Book of Years” is as innovative as any poetry now being published. It finds a new voice by inventing, by making new on documents of the past. This new style is evident, as well, in the final section of the collection, “Cuttings.” “Cuttings” is closer to Matthias’ previous long poems than “Pages.” England, as imperial power, collects flowers for its gardens as it extends its control over one-third of the world. Narrative in “Cuttings” links diverse texts together. Yet, like “Pages,” music is made by cutting up texts of imperial power and letting their language resonate in play.
The poem ends with growth, a healing. This is not to say that the poet’s dissent has gone soft on imperialism. The Foucauldian conjunction of discourses in “Cuttings”—genetics, physiognomy, evolution, travel, horticulture, esthetics—clearly exposes the rhetoric of power. The violet growing is contrasted to the colonial prayer, “Baptize as we do the sea routes and the landmarks./Baptize as we do the flowers./Know thyself as European Sapiens.” Yet, flowers, stripped of their “Latin long Linnaean names,” grow. As if washed by Cordelia’s tears, flowering is medicinal.
With the collection Pages, and in particular, the middle section “Pages: From a Book of Years,” Matthias has managed an adroit bound into this new millennium. It is an esthetic leap, over books and years, over almanacs of the past, onto the path where is contained the next leg of his poetic pilgrimage.
— Michael Barrett