Just in time for the new year, the latest issue of Pleiades has arrived. The current issue put me in a bit of a dilemma, since I didn't know where to turn first. Should I plunge into the teeming multitude of promising looking poems? Grab onto my colleague Rebecca Makkai's short story? Or rush ahead to the virtuosic, and sure to be controversial, Mark Halliday take-down of Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins (I have not read Brimhall's book, so I don't know if Halliday is right, only that he writes a hell of a take down). Should I begin at the beginning and race on to the end? These, I'm a little abashed to say, weren't the questions. Rather, I was stuck between wanting to read my own contribution—an essay on John Matthias' poetry, to see if the typesetters had changed innocent words into vile profanities—or to read Amish Trivedi's review of a collection of my own essays, The Poet Resigns. Anxiety warred with vanity! I won't tell you which won out, but veil the embarrassing result by quoting, instead, from both pieces.
My essay on Matthias is called "Indirections," and takes as its occasion the publication of his collected poems. But it's really out to make a general statement of Matthias' poetics. It begins like this:
John Matthias is so thoroughly a European poet he could only be American. That is, his poetry, now collected in three volumes from Shearsman Books, is so saturated with European geography, history, and, most importantly, personages from the history of high culture, that a reader coming to it for the first time would see at once an affiliation with Europhile American poets like Pound and Eliot. Like those poets, Matthias spent a considerable period of his life in Europe (mostly England), and like them he has read widely in the poetry of the continent. Like them, too,
he takes Europe as a kind of whole, and as a single living tradition—very much an American thing to do, and not at all English, or Spanish, or Lithuanian. Every inch of Europe seems to open out into a richly storied past, and one senses that at least part of his attraction to Europe is that it offers an escape from a perceived American historical shallowness, the sort of thing Harold Rosenberg described when he said that America “builds and acts on a thin time crust—its constructions reach upward rather than down, its politics take account of the immediate future rather than the past.”
One thing that the opportunity these three volumes—some 900 pages in all—offers is the chance to see the consistent appeal of Europe to Matthias, and to recognize a fundamental pattern in the way Europe plays into the poetry. Despite the serious religious concerns of poems like the 45-page “A Compostella Diptych” (which traces ancient pilgrim routes across France and Spain), Matthias does not seek in Europe a path back to a meaningful religious communion, as did Eliot. Nor does he use the European past as a way to cudgel Americanized modernity, with its preference for mass produced plaster over artisanal alabaster, as did Pound. Instead, Europe, and especially Europe’s past, provides a kind of Archimedean point outside of Matthias’ immediate experiences from which he can re-imagine them. From his earliest poems to his most recent, we find Matthias changing his perspective on experiences—often difficult or painful ones—by placing them in the context of distant geographies, remote pasts, or foreign lives.
Even the erotic poetry of Matthias’ youth works this way. Consider “What They Say,” a short poem written when Matthias was twenty and published for the first time in volume one of the Collected Shorter Poems. Grouped with other erotic poems like “Female Nude, Young” and “Swimming at Midnight,” it describes the Viennese painter Egon Schiele in his studio, posing his models and friends as “onanistic nudes,” then climbing a ladder to a loft to get the odd angle he desired. “And it’s the perspective that distorts,” writes Matthias, “The ladder and the beds/were Egon Schiele’s.” while “The postures and/the gestures/were all theirs.” It’s a simple poem, and very much juvenilia, but in a way it contains the poetic career that will to follow for another half century and more. It’s not just that Matthias’ erotic imagination, here, runs toward the visions of long-dead artists in faraway Europe rather than the proximate body of a lover: it’s that the important thing, the thing that makes Schiele more than a pornographer, is his distancing himself from his material, his climbing of a ladder to gain exactly the right point of distance and perspective.
Amish Trivedi's review of my book The Poet Resigns begins by explaining the book with reference to some lines spoken by Danny Devito's character in the move Other People's Money—a gambit that I never would have thought would work, but does:
"We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure" (Other People's Money, 1991). In The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World Robert Archambeau confronts Danny Devito's point: no matter how successful a poet may become, it is a success limited by poetry's ever-diminishing position within the world. While there are plenty of poets who wish that poetry were as marketable as popular fiction or Miley Cyrus, the central question Archambeau asks is whether or not poetry can successfully return to some imagined high point of a golden past...Trivedi cuts to the core of the book when he says that its central question is "What is the role of poetry in contemporary society?" Trivedi says some kind things about the book, but personally, I feel The Poet Resigns only starts to answer that question. I'm hoping the critical book I'm resolving to finish in the year ahead, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself takes things further. And in a way I'm kind of hoping a future reviewer will find a way to link that book to the Danny Devito oeuvre, too.
Pleiades 35.1 is currently available in print—online selections from the issue will appear soon.