Sunday, November 27, 2011

"La Transhumance du Verbe, Incanted René Char": John Matthias' Shorter Poems

Rejoice!  John Matthias' Collected Shorter Poems, vol.2, is now available from Shearsman Books.  Covering Matthias' work in shorter forms from 1995 to 2011, it showcases both the breadth and the consistency of Matthias' achievement.  No small part of that achievement is the wedding of the lyric self to the historical world beyond that self.  Matthias has a term for this, and uses it as the title of one of the poems, “Kedging. ” “Kedging’s all you’re good for,” he writes here, in an address to himself that invokes his image for the kind of poetry that reaches out beyond the self into historical and literary allusion.  The image is nautical in origin: to kedge is to move a ship forward by sending out a launch to drop an anchor at a distance, then winding in the anchor line to pull the ship forward.  For Matthias, this most strenuous form of locomotion mirrors the process by which a certain kind of poet writes.   “Poets, too, may cast an anchor well before them, “ he writes in a modified dictionary definition of kedging, “pulling forward when attached to something solid, only then to cast their anchor once again.”  It’s the “something solid” that’s important here: for Matthias, the poet needs to latch on to something beyond himself to make any progress, catching his anchor in a solid mass of history or literature before he can make any headway.

This casting out for an anchorage figures in even the most personal and anecdotal poems of this collection.  Consider “Francophiles, 1958,” a memoir of a high school senior year in Ohio.  “La transhumance du Verbe, incanted René Char,” it begins.  Right away we know there’s going to be precious little Norman Rockwell Ohioiana to this Buckeye childhood.  Instead, the anchor’s been flung out far, catching in the solid mass of midcentury French history and culture:

                        Hell was other people
we’d proclaim, pointing out each other’s mauvaise foi.
What was not absurd was certainly surreal, essence rushing
headlong at existence all the way from Paris to Vauclause.

Or again:

We went to bed with both Bardot
and de Beauvoir.  Fantastic volunteers of Le Maquis, we
knew about Algeria, about
Dien Bien Phu...

What comes across most strongly here is the power of our connection to world beyond self: to wars, poems, philosophical ideas, to the spectacle of mass-media, to history as it (often tragically) unfolds.  So strong are the connections one begins to wonder if there really is a separation between the self and the world beyond.  Would those Ohio boys have become who they became without French intellectual chic?  Would their daydreams have been the same without Brigitte Bardot?  Certainly Dien Bien Phu would come to mean a great deal for the class of ’58 in the turbulent decade ahead.  The culture that seemed so attractively remote and exotic turns out to be the very stuff of who we are, or who we become.

One of the points of a poetry like this is to show our interpellation or situatedness in history and culture.  This certainly seems to be what Matthias is getting at in some lines from the poetic sequence that closes the book, “Kedging in Time,” where he writes:

kedging’s all you’re good for
with a foot of water  under you, the tide gone out, the fog so thick
you can’t see the lights at Norderney but enter history in spite
of that by sounding in its shallows with an oar

To enter history — or, at any rate, to see that one has always already been a part of history, and that the self and the historical other are in some sense one — that’s the gist of any ars poetica Matthiasiensis.