Hot news! John Matthias' Collected Longer Poems has just appeared, published a month ahead of schedule by the good people at Shearsman, who have yet to publish a bad book. The long poem is where Matthias is at his best, and the new book is the best possible opportunity to get to know this side of Matthias' work.
Here, by way of introduction, is a review I wrote some years back of Matthias' Working Progress, Working Title, from which some of the poems in the new book came.
For many of his most passionate readers, John Matthias will always be a poet of place. His long topographical poems — “An East Anglian Diptych,” “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest,” and “A Compostella Diptych” — have inspired much commentary and have merited every bit of it. Such poems place the contemporary experience of a specific landscape in the context of the history of the region, revealing unexpected rhymes among the events that have occurred in a given space. Allusive, fact-packed, rich in specific dates, resonant with proper names, and tremendously ambitious, they have been both the means by which Matthias has made himself feel at home in particular landscapes and the means by which he has made himself existentially at home in the world. Readers who love this side of Matthias’ work may be surprised by his most recent book, Working Progress, Working Title. The two long poems that make up the book, “Pages from a Book of Years” and “Automystifstical Plaice,” seem oddly placeless.
Such surprise isn’t really warranted, though. The new poems grow from a branch of Matthias’ work just as well established as his poetics of place: the poetic exploration of texts and historical archives. Matthias has always been interested in investigating texts in the same way he investigates landscapes. He has been an adventurous reworker of found or archival materials, notably in the poems of the 1975 collection Turns. Here, Matthias enters a text and sounds out its parts, reworking them into new grammatical shapes and new intellectual contexts. In a way, what he does with text is similar to what he does with landscape in his topographical poems: through investigation and play he makes himself at home in a previously alienating environment. Whether that environment is physical or discursive, it becomes a kind of home territory through the act of poetic investigation.
In “Pages from a Book of Years” Matthias takes as his matter a rather unusual textual archive: a collection of yearbooks found in his recently deceased father’s closet. These books — the annual reports from any number of fields of endeavor — provide Matthias with the material he needs to investigate several key years in his own life. The reference works give him a rich store of historical arcana through which to reflect on personal and familial experiences. It is as if one filtered Robert Lowell’s Life Studies through the Encyclopedia Britannica. The personal takes on greater significance in the process.
“Automystifstical Plaice” is one of the oddest and most fascinating products of an odd and fascinating oeuvre. Here, Matthias draws from a number of textual sources and finds the historical links between such apparently disparate phenomena as George Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique, the career of Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the invention of electronically interfaced music. In the end, the poem becomes a kind of ode to the fusion of the human and the technological in the twentieth century.
Matthias’ poems of place have always treated landscape as an archive of the local past. Admirers of those poems would do well to read these new poems, where his archives lead us on new, unbounded adventures.