V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of William Matthews's Poetry



The most persistent theme in Matthews's poetry becomes
that of temporality, the unyielding progression of time
as it weakens one's abilities and eventually ends
one's life, especially in dramatic or tragic instances
where mortality shuts down the gifted artist.

The opening poem in a first collection of poetry by a young author often offers readers an introduction to favorite subjects or recurrent themes found throughout the larger body of work, presents insight into his or her main poetic concerns, poses for a moment while readers get a first glimpse or initial impression of the poet's persona as a character in his or her own poetry, and invites readers to the inaugural rendition of the poet's individual voice.  In 1970, when William Matthews published his premiere book of poetry, Ruining the New Road, he began this volume with the curious, but correct choice of "The Search Party," a poem relating a night search by the speaker and other volunteers for a child lost in the wilderness.  Walking "deep in symbolic woods" with lit flashlight and among "thick roots as twisted as / a ruined body," the poet addresses his "readers" and confides to them a concealed fear that he "might find something."  As self-conscious as any speaker could be, a first-person narrator notes the obvious metaphor and irony contained in the process of telling the poem's story.
     Indeed, the poet also foreshadows and explains his own repeated and actively involved presence — as actor, interpreter, or commentator — within the lines of a number of the poems in this collection: "I'm in these poems / because I'm in my life."  By the close of the poem, the speaker even confronts the readers' awareness of this piece's perceived artificiality, particularly in its overt use of poetic devices, and the expectations that the tale, autobiographical or not, is really only a contrived form of art, not much more: "you're the one who thought it wouldn't / matter what we found."  However, the clever poet knows better as he reveals in the final lines that, despite the poem's ominous imagery and potentially dangerous atmosphere painted with distinctly dramatic details, the child was found alive, and the speaker urges the readers, whom he imagines tense from the suspense of the situation, to confess a sense of relief at the outcome: "Admit you're glad."
     With this introductory example, William Matthews quickly put forth for readers a brief and fairly precise indication of what kind of poetic qualities one might find not only in the rest of his first book, but moreso in much of his future production as a consequential American literary voice — as a confident and competent, yet ever-developing poet and analyst of poetry, whose work would mature even more fully, growing more complex in every subsequent volume over the next three decades.  Already, a relaxed conversational voice, engaging each reader and speaking in a language filled with wit and self-reflexive wisdom, is in evidence, as is the appearance of the poet's candid and almost casual attitude, though certainly carefully considered and crafted, toward form with lines that at times resemble the improvisational grace notes one would witness in the live performances of those jazz musicians Matthews loved listening to and about which he frequently wrote. 
     Ironically, rather than undercutting the poem's power by raising the readers' level of attention to the artificiality of the poetic structure or eliminating the illusion of a shared experience between speaker and readers, except as common interpreters of the poem itself, the poet establishes an aesthetic distance that actually illuminates, more completely than a mere "flashlight's beam," a path beyond the individual incident of the lost child (and even the question of life or death for that one character in the poem) to some larger issues about artistic rendering of real-life events in a highly cynical postmodern era. 
     The poem subtly blurs a fine distinction between vision and re-vision or actual truth and authorial trust in the effectiveness of fictional pretense, between compositional tactics and contemplation of relayed facts, as the speaker suggests what matters most may truly be the readers' suspenseful expectatons and emotional reactions to the perceived participants (poet and personae) and assumed actions in the poem rather than the course of direction in the fictitious chronicle of accounts chosen by the poet. The poem also initiates an ongoing exploration which will continue for Matthews throughout his career — the constant re-discovery of a tentative and evolving nature in the relationship (including its intrinsic characteristics of trust and credibility) which can develop between an artist and an audience simply by his insistence on investigating the elasticity of the limits, lyrical or narrative, existing in the extended monologue or implied dialogue a poet might pursue with the reader of any given poem.
     Appropriately, "The Search Party" is once again the opening poem, as well as the title piece, for the latest compilation of William Matthews's poetry, a posthumous collection edited by his son, Sebastian Matthews, and good friend named literary executor of Matthews's works, poet Stanley Plumly.  Although the book's cover calls Search Party a volume of "Collected Poems," clearly that title can be misleading.  As Plumly notes in the opening paragraph of the book's introduction, the poems included are meant only to "represent the best of William Matthews's ten original books of poetry," including After All, a collection submitted to his publisher by Matthews just days before his death by heart attack in 1997, as well as a selection of twenty-six poems previously uncollected in book form. 
     Plumly estimates that Matthews actually published "more than eight hundred poems" in magazines and literary journals: one hundred and sixty-five poems are gathered together in Search Party. In "My Father's Garden," an article by Sebastian Matthews that appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and describes his efforts, along with others (Plumly, Peter Davison, and Michael Collier), to organize and release the many works — poetry and prose — that are part of William Matthews's literary history, the poet's son comments on the appropriation of the opening poem's title for the heading of this collection: "Through the editing process the four of us had become our own search party.  We set out as a group to uncover my father's printed legacy.  The treasures we found are collected in Search Party."
     As is the case with most young poets, the poems chosen to represent Ruining the New Road hint at figures, contemporary or historical, whose own poetry influenced Matthews at that stage when his poetic voice was still developing.  For instance, there are lines that seem to echo W.S. Merwin or Mark Strand and their books of that time period, Merwin's The Lice (1967) and Strand's Darker (1970), as well as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  In addition, the selection from Matthews's first book includes a pair of poems — "Blues for John  Coltrane, Dead at 41" and "Coleman Hawkins (d. 1969), RIP" — that are elegies for famous jazz musicians and foreshadow subject matter or themes that will appear numerous times over the next few decades.  Indeed, if anything rivaled Matthews's passion for poetry, it was his devotion to music, especially the modern jazz that grew from the arrival of musicians who made their reputations in the mid-century bebop era, many whose music is referenced in the lines of Matthews's poems or whose names appear (rivaled only by the names of fellow poets) among the titles on Search Party's table of contents: Coltrane, Hawkins, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, etc.
     Considering some of his comments on the relationship between poetry and music, one might even conclude music sometimes ranked higher for Matthews.  In his essay titled "Poetry & Music," published in The Poetry Blues (2001), a posthumous anthology of Matthews's essays and interviews also edited by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly, he comments: "The power of music that poetry lacks is the ability to persuade without argument."  In "Instrumental Bones," an interview with Matthews by Dave Johnson that also appears in The Poetry Blues, Matthews suggests the priority of music as an early influence in his life: ". . . music came first. We have rhythm before we have discourse."
     The first three books of poetry by Matthews, published in the early seventies, display various influences of contemporary American poets at that transitional time of the sixties and seventies — Merwin, Strand, James Wright, Robert Bly, Charles Simic, Theodore Roethke — whose work often exhibited a style relying on surrealistic imagery and subjective voices.  In his book of criticism, Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass remarks of James Wright that his collection, The Branch Shall Not Break (1963), may "have broken ground by translating the imagery of surrealist and expressionist poetics into American verse."  This generation of "new surrealists" or "deep image poets" guided many younger poets toward a more associative and psychological imagery that might transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, might recognize the hidden revelations about the self lying underneath one's everyday surface existence. 
     Consequently, innovative and inventive images seemed to free the poet's imagination even more in ways similar to the opening of imagery that occurred in surrealist paintings.  However, deep-image poems in their extreme, especially those that held severe brevity as a positive poetic characteristic, also appeared to lead toward a feeling of superficiality in the response of some readers.  The emphasis almost solely on imagery allowed poets an opportunity to diminish the importance of subject matter, sometimes to an excess, seemingly avoiding any weighty themes as a matter of principle.  As a result, a number of interesting, but ultimately insignificant poems were produced alongside the many remarkable pieces that have survived as signature poems of the period. 
     The selections in Search Party from the first three books by Matthews provide examples of these types of weaker works as well.  For instance, Sleek for the Long Flight (1972) contains the following one-line poem, "The Needle's Eye, the Lens": "Here comes the blind thread to sew it shut."  Another, slightly longer poem (a mere four lines in length) from the same collection is "Night Driving":

          You follow into their dark tips
          those two skewed tunnels of light.
          Ahead of you, they seem to meet.
          When you blink, it is the future.

     By the time of the publication of Rising and Falling in 1979, William Matthews had arrived at a new, higher level in his writing of poetry.  His main influences among contemporary poets seemed to shift from those who experimented with surrealist images towards those who promoted a more realistic description and more fully detailed account of the relationships between place and persona or between one's everyday exterior situations and one's understanding of the experiences which accompany them. 
     Though not truly confessional nor strictly autobiographical writing, the poetry certainly was more concerned with subject matter and more transparently informed by specific recognizable elements of Matthews's autobiography.  Matthews speaks of this in a 1997 interview with Peter Davison for Atlantic Unbound that also appears in The Poetry Blues: "I'm not a particularly autobiographical poet.  There are circumstances and urges and emotions and quandaries and recurring problems that of course come through my work.  I'm an autobiographical writer, therefore, to the extent that no writer can avoid being autobiographical, but I'm not a systematic and relentlessly autobiographical poet to the extent that, say, James Merrill was." 
     Matthews viewed his experiences — as a son or father, lover or husband, teacher or traveler, patient or caregiver, etc. — as resources for his poetry, situations that permitted him to engage and perceive life in a more enlightened or more insightful manner.  In the same interview with Davison, Matthews concludes: "Life happens to us whether we have the good sense to be interested in the way it happens to us or not.  That's what it means to be alive.  Paying attention to it and trying to figure out what it does and doesn't mean (and what's wrong with seeking meaning in experience?) — these are opportunities."
     In an interview with David Wojahn and James Harms recently released in the Fall, 2004 issue of Blackbird, Matthews observes, "there was subject matter that I was interested in writing about.  A lot of the sort of Imagist / Deep Image poems were about the assumption that subject matter was a stand-in for something else."  Later in the same interview, Matthews specifies some of the subjects on which he wanted to focus in his poetry, as he notes that in "the poems that start with Rising and Falling, which begin to include my sons and my domestic life, and so forth, much more than the earlier poems, there is a sense in which you're working out of very direct and practical concerns."
     As Matthews chronicles in "Butterscotch Ripple," a chapter from The Poetry Blues, Richard Hugo had briefly become a colleague with Matthews at the University of Colorado in the mid-1970s and then a close friend until Hugo's death from leukemia in 1982.  In an essay titled "Durations," which Matthews originally had written for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, he speaks of the loss of Hugo: "Richard Hugo's death meant the loss of a good friend and one of my favorite poets."  "Left Hand Canyon," one of the poems in Rising and Falling, is dedicated to Richard Hugo, and a few of the poems in this collection carry titles, highlighting place names, that resemble the ones Hugo used for his poetry and that he wrote of as "triggering towns" in his prose collection of lectures and essays on poetry writing. 
     Matthews also wrote the introduction to Hugo's posthumous collection of autobiographical essays, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet's Autobiography (1986), in which Matthews claims all of Hugo's writing "is the work of ceaseless reclamation."  Matthews expands: "It is to say along with Whitman that you can, by continuous imaginative appropriation, belong to America, however beautifully and terrifyingly vast it is.  And it is to say that the continuous reclamation of a hometown, the original mystifying poise between self and others, is the lifelong imaginative project of any adult."  Such a summary might be equally as pertinent in assessing most of the writings by William Matthews, especially those from Rising and Falling and afterwards.
     The influence of Hugo and his poetry in the mid-seventies moved Matthews toward a more mature style of writing, one which appeared more frank and more revealing, one which included an even greater connection between the life lived and the lines of poetry derived from leading that life.  Laurence Lieberman, writing of Hugo's poetry in his book of criticism, Beyond the Muse of Memory, has stated: "Many poems erupt with ardent impulsiveness, blurted messages phoned in haste and breathless passion from a noisy bar.  The visitation has struck.  Here.  Now.  You better listen, reader.  Lover.  This may be our only chance."  Some of these characteristics of urgent address to the reader or others in the poet's life are also evident in the poems of Rising and Falling, as well as works that would follow in subsequent volumes.
     Among the themes that seem to dominate Rising and Falling, as well as much of Matthews's later poetry, readers will find the classic contemplation by the poet on aging and meditation on mortality, the expected examination of life and death subjects; however, Matthews prefers to discuss time and the various consequences — physical, emotional, and spiritual — of its passing in a manner that requests readers look both backward and forward at the same time, see the connections, apparent or subconsciously contrived in their narratives, between one's childhood and the person one becomes in later life.  In his book of criticism on contemporary poetry, Local Assays, Dave Smith describes the poetry in Rising and Falling:  ". . . he wants to look quietly and speaks to us always like an intimate and avuncular friend.  He intends to illuminate emotional time and space as well as their communal roots in memory.  Meditation properly leads to a control of rising, falling breath; it means to slow down for suspended examination all that may be known or apprehended.  Poetry, however, has to translate the apprehended into the tangible and Matthews makes a poem the art of the 'meditating mind.'"  Matthews blends time periods in his life, often as a way to show one stage of growing is dependent upon another — or at least the perception of it one holds.  Nothing should be viewed in isolation, no honest evaluation, even if informed by misremembered events or revised by recent recollections, would attempt to disconnect the boy from the man, the son from the father, or the apprentice poet from the master lyricist. 
      This section of Search Party begins with "Spring Snow," a poem whose title indicates a blending of time and a confusion of seasons.  With most of the first three stanzas in this poem, Matthews describes ordinary events of his growing up as a typical Midwestern boy in Ohio; nevertheless, the images presented are themselves a blend, almost purely nostalgic scenes mixed with remembered details that provide a touch of impurity and cool just a bit the warmth of the memories, perhaps in a way similar to the spring weather and greening landscape now tainted by late snow.  Stanley Plumly writes insightfully of this poem in "Chapter and Verse," a section from his book of criticism and commentary on poetry, Argument & Song: "The information is all Americana — from powdered milk to newspapers to spotted dog to the white laundry to the sheets.  To rescue these memories from Norman Rockwell, Matthews punctuates them with qualification.  The powdered milk saves money, the spotted dog is in heat, the sheets are watermarked with semen.  Matthews is a master at redeeming the domestic cliché."
     As is characteristic of Matthews's developing style and maturing poetic voice, after closing stanza three with a concluding statement ("Yet childhood doesn't end . . ."), a thesis that will become a continuing focus in future poems, "Spring Snow" goes on to more discursive language and abstract reflection in the lines of its final two stanzas:

          . . . but accumulates, each memory
          knit to the next, and the fields
          become one field.  If to die is to lose
          all detail, then death is not

          so distinguished, but a profusion
          of detail, a last gossip, character
          passed wholly into fate and fate
          in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.

     In his interview with Wojahn and Harms, Matthews speaks of an evolving writing style during the period he was working toward completion of Rising and Falling.  At the time, Matthews was dealing with divorce, relocation, and the relationships with his two sons, which forced him into "a more urgent, considerable curiosity about childhood."  In "Moving Again," Matthews believes: "If I lived with my sons / all year I'd be less sentimental / about them." 
     Matthews hints at how he wished to use specific subjects as central points around which he could wind some twines of thought the way one might thread together associations and illuminations in a private late-night discussion with an old friend.  In some instances, the language of a poem's lines might resemble words spoken at another personal moment, perhaps as if said during an intimate conversation with a lover.  Matthews reveals, "at that point I was beginning to figure out that poems were a way of thinking.  It seemed natural to want to write different kinds of poems under a different set of urgencies; and they very much had people in them and social consequences, and they were about different experiences with time; and they were about loyalty and betrayal."
     The most persistent theme in Matthews's poetry becomes that of temporality, the unyielding progression of time as it weakens one's abilities and eventually ends one's life, especially in dramatic or tragic instances where mortality shuts down the gifted artist.  In "Living Among the Dead," Matthews tells of once discovering furniture left by relatives who had died before he was born, and how he "opened two chests / of drawers to learn what the dead kept."  Similarly, he suggests that literature, as with any art that freezes moments in life to preserve them long after the participants have passed, blends the past and present for its readers and painfully reminds all of our mortality even as it enriches our lives.  Matthews reports, "it was when I learned to read / that I began always / to live among the dead."  Commenting on "Living Among the Dead" in Local Assays, Dave Smith applauds how "Matthews examines his responsibility to ancestry, history, and artistry." 
     Likewise, the theme of temporality and an awareness of one's own mortality are both brought forth when one becomes a parent, witnesses the lives of one's children and contrasts their youth with one's own aging.  Matthews knows responsibilities of the parent include sharing with them a knowledge of the past and of the dead: "To help his sons live easily / among the dead is a father's great work."  At the same time, the presence of children and a life-affirming love for them assists the parent in his or her own dealings with mortality and death: "To love a child is to turn / away from the patient dead."
     Nowhere are the issues of loss through death, as well as the temporality of one's ability to use talent, more distressingly apparent in Matthews's poetry than when it is pictured in conflict with the vitality of art, especially in his elegies for writers or musicians where readers realize that at the heart of such loss is the awakening to an additional absence, a void which involves the end of a magnificent creative spirit.  Matthews begins "In Memory of W.H. Auden," a poem that honors one of his influences, with the following four lines: "His heart made a last fist. / The language has used him / well and passed him through. / We get what he collected."  These poignant lines might also have served as an epigraph to Search Party. 
     Rising and Falling contains a pair of his patented poems mourning the passing of jazz greats who mattered so much to William Matthews: "Bud Powell, Paris, 1959" and "Listening to Lester Young."  In the case of Bud Powell, his "hero," Matthews sees the painful end of that creative spirit even before Powell's physical death.  As Powell's power is eroded by drug abuse, Matthews attends a performance in which the pianist's "white-water right hand clattered / missing runs nobody else would think / to try . . . ."  In "Listening to Lester Young," pain and the approach of death are present once again:

          It's 1958, Lester Young minces
          out, spraddle-legged as if pain
          were something he could step over
          by raising his groin, and begins
          to play.  Soon he'll be dead. 

     Young is "so tired / from dying he quotes himself, / easy to remember the fingering."  The innovative spirit and incentive to invent new moves has been displaced by a desire to get by on what one has already done.  There is nothing new or fresh, and the musician may already be stuck in his own past, imitating himself, rather than stepping forward into the future.
     As noted above, such elegies for jazz musicians were written earlier in his career, including the previously mentioned "Blues for John Coltrane, Dead at 41" and "Coleman Hawkins (d. 1969), RIP" which appeared in his first book.  However, with maturity has come a difference of perception for Matthews.  In those earlier elegies, he tells the reader how he physically felt the deaths of these musicians.  Hearing of Coltrane's death, he feels it in his feet, "as if the house were rocked / by waves from a soundless speedboat / planing by, full throttle."  Upon learning of the death of Hawkins, Matthews writes:

          It's like having the breath
          knocked out of me
          and wearing the lost air for a leash.
          I snuffle home.
          I hate it that he's dead.

     In both earlier elegies, Matthews tells the reader how he, too, felt pain with the passing of these men.  However, in his later poems, rather than simply narrated, that pain is displayed in the poet's own actions, and a connection to time is made between past and present, or even to the future.  Looking back in his poem about Bud Powell, Matthews notes: "I was young and pain / rose to my ceiling, like warmth, / like a story that makes us come true / in the present."  In his homage to Lester Young which begins in 1958 and moves through 1976, Matthews concludes:

          It's 1976 and I'm listening
          to Lester Young through stereo equipment
          so good I can hear his breath rasp,
          water from a dry pond—,
          its bottom etched, like a palm,
          with strange marks, a language
          that was never born
          and in which palmists therefore
          can easily read the future.

     The lessons learned from the music of these jazz masters, his heroes, and perhaps his tacitly identifying with them, may have been more instrumental than any other influence on Matthews's maturing voice.  In "Instrumental Blues," his interview with Dave Johnson that appears in The Poetry Blues, Matthews acknowledges what his avid interest in modern jazz taught him as a poet: "There's something I know about phrasing and how to keep a fairly long sentence afloat for seven to a dozen lines of free verse without it losing its shape or momentum.  If I'm right in thinking I can do that, I learned it more from listening to music than from listening to poetry."
     Emotions associated with loss enter other poems from Rising and Falling, as Matthews's personal experiences affect his perspective and apparently alter his perceptions of the subjects in his poetry.  In "Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo," Matthews considers these nearly extinct animals ("only a hundred or so / snow leopards alive"), three of which the speaker watches as they jump inside their cages at the zoo, and he notices at the end of the first of two stanzas how the "snow / leopards land without sound, / as if they were already extinct."  In the second stanza the speaker switches to a focus on himself, his concern for the leopards transitions to a contemplation of his own sense of loss and awareness of endangered aspects in his life: "If I tried to / take loss for a wife, and I do, / and keep her all the days of my life, / I'd have nothing to leave for my children."
     Notably, in his introduction to Search Party Stanley Plumly isolates this poem for inspection as an example of Matthews's maturing voice in which "thought is not only feeling but a coherent language."  Plumly correctly characterizes the tone of this poem and its positive attributes that will mark many of the poems in later poetry published by Matthews in books or in literary journals:

          The fragility of the poem is also its subject, the balance
          of saving "whatever I can keep" against the perishability
          of losing it all.  Behind the poem is the certain knowledge
          — which is the theme in Matthews's poetry — that it will
          all, always, slip through our hands.  This genius for turning
          the most familiar materials into something extraordinary —
          both smart and moving at once — comes from his gift for
          making connections and exploiting them to the limit their
          language will bear.

     The mutual respect held for one another's poetry by Matthews and Plumly, as well as the likely influence on one another as poet and critic, is exemplified by the dedication to Plumly of "Long," the final poem in Rising and Falling.  In "Chapter and Verse," Plumly — whose own outstanding breakthrough volume of poems, Out-of-the-Body Travel, had been published in 1977 exhibiting poetry Matthews held in high regard — outlines his admiration for the technical achievements in this "exceptional piece of work," a poem that again addresses death, loss, time, and memory:

          . . . If we call the future's name
          it becomes our name, by echo.

          And from the dead, not even
          a plea that we leave them
          alone, each dead locked
          in its dead name.

     Plumly singles out how this "extraordinary" poem "formulates rhetoric from ideas."  He compliments the smooth movement of the poem, "as an entity."  The unified nature of the connections in this poem seems to exhibit that established knack for phrasing and maintaining a lyric, line after line, "without it losing its shape or momentum" that William Matthews believed he had learned from listening to extended riffs of musicians in jazz clubs or on recordings.  Plumly observes: "There are not even any images, in terms of the discrete.  Instead, the poem reads as a single, self-sustaining 'image' — a fugue . . . ." 
     Readers of Rising and Falling recognize the collection as a transformational volume, one in which the rhetoric of the surface language closely aligns with the deeper meaning of the poem until the two cooperate completely, almost inconspicuously combined as one.  Plumly salutes Matthews's poem as "the condition of an idea, its music," and offers the following evaluation:

          This is free verse well in love with itself, free verse
          formalized and formulated so as to call attention to
          the discretion of its moves.  The internal rhyming,
          the assonance, consonance, the soft touch on the
          alliteration — these are all clear enough.  But
          underlining the overt technique is the pace of the
          sentences . . . .

     William Matthews followed Rising and Falling with the publication of Flood (1982), a collection that continued to treat those themes Matthews had adopted in his previous volumes of poetry.  Once again, he revisits his childhood with a desire to revise memory, which he seems to distrust and by its nature most likely already exists in a revised form, to alter the past, consciously or not, simply by writing of it in the present and through time's filter.  In the introduction to Search Party, Plumly points out the merit of Matthews's "quirky, often sardonic take on memory" that is displayed in a number of his poems.  In "Housework," Matthews almost acts surprised or dismayed by what he finds when looking over his shoulders at his personal history, recalling a boyhood life in wonderfully lyrical lines:

                         How you could have lived
          your boyhood here is hard to know,

          unless the blandishing lilacs
          and slant rain stippling the lamplight
          sustained you, and the friendship of dogs,
          and the secrecy that flourishes in vacant lots.

     The speaker in the poem addresses the remembered persona of the boy with the second-person pronoun, as though the "you" were someone separate from the self of the adult speaker (the poet) and as if to emphasize both the differences in the lives led by the two and, eventually as he unites the pair in the final lines of the poem, the characteristics that are transferred through time from child to adult, shared by boy and man alike.  Nevertheless, the speaker questions the authenticity of memory, limited as it is, and wonders whether the writer's ability to revise can actually re-create the conditions of the past in a manner more palatable to the poem's present persona by wiping clean the surface details, a type of housework, to ease his ongoing questioning of the effects of time.
     Elsewhere in Flood, Matthews concludes "Cows Grazing at Sunrise" with a specific question about time and memory, about what our concept of the "past" really entails when we attempt to remember it: "And isn't the past inevitable, / now that we call the little / we remember of it 'the past'?"  In "School Figures," Matthews describes the pre-dawn practice of a skater cutting figure eights over and over into a fresh ice surface, circling backwards to see where she has been and to measure her success or failure.  The speaker seems to be commenting as much on poetry, when he offers his observation:

          So much learning is forgetting
          the many mistakes for the few
          lines clear of the flourishes
          you thought were style, but were
          only personality, indelible as
          it seemed.

     By the time the poem ends, the speaker has concluded "learning and forgetting / are one attention," and that is the interest which repeatedly draws the subject, this figure skater, to each pre-dawn practice, "turning / over your shoulder as if you could / skate back into your first / path and get it right for once."  Again, looking back to the past, time after time, for guidance on how to proceed in the future seems on the surface to be a wise maneuver, but the words "as if" suggest the speaker in the poem feels such moves will ultimately prove futile.
     In an essay from The Poetry Blues — "Merida, 1969," titled after one of his poems — that Matthews originally wrote for an anthology (Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman) in which poets comment on the composition of one of their own works, he speaks of the connection his view of the past and memory, as they are presented in poems or stories, seems to have with Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."  As in Frost's well-known poem, Matthews believes many of his pieces that regard the past, relying on one's often faulty and usually self-serving memory of long ago incidents, are works that alter the actual events.  Matthews indicates that, even if an autobiographical moment is related in a poem, what happened in real life is bound to be re-shaped by the speaker telling the poem or story.  In the example of Frost's poem: "The roads beckoned about the same, but later, when the pleasure of telling the story was part of the story's truth, and there was much intervening life to explain, we could hear the poem's speaker veer off again, this time away from incident and toward shapeliness." 
     Matthews's own reluctance to rely on the past and his distrust of memory for accuracy or factual truth, especially in the direction or the details of his poems, are explained when he notes Frost's speaker's famous false final lines, already disproved by previous details in the poem: "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."  Matthews reports the speaker as "giving his little anecdote a neat and summary dramatic effect that's in the story but not in the original event.  Though of course by this stage in the life of the story each exists somewhat for the sake of the other."  In his poem, Matthews proposes two versions of the truth — what happened and what might have occurred "if we'd been happy / then, as now we often are."  About the changes his own poem consciously forces onto the facts of the actual events with friends that inspired the work, Matthews confesses: "In this second and hypothetical life, they may or may not be wiser, but they are happier . . . ."
     The last pair of poems ("Nabokov's Death" and "On the Porch at the Frost Place, Franconia, NH") from Flood pay homage to two writers — Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Frost — who, like Matthews, enjoyed including shadowy figures justaposed against situations representing the lighter side of life.   (Also, the second of the poems offers an additional nod to Stanley Plumly, to whom Matthews once more dedicates his poem.)  Nabokov knew readers were willing to accept the darker parts of his fiction amid its wit and humor because "we'll hold to our grief, / stern against grace, because we love / a broken heart."  Matthews shares some of Nabokov's attitude toward the audience for his art, and he approves of Nabokov's playful way of manipulating reality in the tricks of his fiction, how he was a writer who delighted in eventually inviting the readers to participate by letting them in on the deception, displaying the artifice: "he loved the art that reveals art / and all its shabby magic."
     Matthews recognizes the important influence of Robert Frost.  He respects Frost's poetry for its "disguises" consisting of deliberate deception and ambiguity, the way it sometimes illuminates a subject indirectly or from different perspectives, as if its surface maintains a multiple of cut angles with facets reflecting surrounding light.  He seems to appreciate the demands Frost places on his readers to participate and be as willing to face their darker sides even when a more amenable meaning might be available:

          So here the great man stood,
          fermenting malice and poems
          we have to be nearly as fierce
          against ourselves as he
          not to misread by their disguises.

     Like Matthews, Frost was capable of lulling his readers with a comfortable conversational tone while at the same time challenging those same readers to discover the more disturbing or dismaying elements camouflaged by a soothing or reassuring poetic voice.  Even when images are conveyed through lyrical language, these two poets know how to ask readers to confront difficult questions about their own everyday conditions as human beings whose lives contain conflicts or decisive moments with possibly dire consequences hanging in the balance that might evoke emotions of uncertainty, sadness, regret, and grief, among others.  Matthews summarizes: ". . . Frost's great poems, / like all great poems, conceal / what they merely know, to be / predicaments."  
     Death, absence, and memory, three of the primary elements necessary for elegy, persist in A Happy Childhood, published by Matthews in 1984.  The crucial title poem of this collection demonstrates how unmistakably ambitious and complex his poetry had become as he moved further from the deep images or more surrealist touches in his earlier work.  Much of the subject matter and language is deceptively ordinary and plain in "A Happy Childhood"; yet, the content and the breadth of the poem's emotional range represent a lifelong consideration of one's past and an accumulation of deep personal associations made in meditation upon that past.  In his autobiograpical memoir of 1994, "Durations," Matthews attempted to retrieve the conditions surrounding his earliest memory in the back yard of his grandmother's Iowa home, but he retains only a fragmented set of details in his recollection of the scene: "a sandbox, a tiny swatch of grainy sidewalk, and — there! it's moving — a ladybug."  Out of these bits from the farthest parcels of his memory, Matthews desired to manufacture a factual story, to fill in the missing blanks.  However, as much as he might try, he believed he was unsuccessful in his prose account: "I have tried again and again to construct a tiny narrative from these bright props, but they won't connect.  They lie there and gleam with promise but won't connect."
     Nevertheless, when Matthews turns his attention to the same subject matter in his poetry, he proves much more successful because he can make connections without seeking the continuous and chronological narrative the prose of his memoir would demand.  Instead, the form chosen for "A Happy Childhood" consists of more than fifty three-line stanzas subtly set off in four sections signaled only by an extra white space placed between stanzas.  The poem opens with an autobiographical recollection involving an example of his mother's sense of humor, the type of wit he admired, as she uses literary allusion to command the family dog into the yard with the comment, "Out out damn Spot."  Already, a past personal moment blends with a reference to writing as "A Happy Childhood" delivers a message about reverence for the influence of memory and an instilled love for literature.  The poem also preserves an elegiac tone that now hovers over everything:

          I hate it when anyone dies or leaves and the air
          goes slack around my body and I have to hug myself,
          a cloud, an imaginary friend, the stream in the road-

          side park.

     The emotion of anger expressed here is echoed later in "An Elegy for Bob Marley" — another poetic tribute to a musician, this time a reggae legend — where Matthews determines: "Surely the real fuel for elegy / is anger to be mortal."  Thus, the poetic declarations of pain and sorrow over the loss of another in elegies are often more revelatory of the frustrations and fears their emotionally affected speakers feel.  They expose how vulnerable we all are in our everyday existence, a condition most hope to ignore a majority of the time.  However, they especially remind us of the fragility of life when we are forced to face evidence of our own mortality in the images of others' deaths, especially when the treasured voice or vision of an artist, someone who has enriched our lives or with whom we have identified, is ended as well.
     Connections between the present and the past or future weave together the various stages in one's life, each influencing the other.  One incident in "A Happy Childhood" is labeled "a memory in the making."  Later, a boy in the poem "goes home to memory."  The poet then elevates the act of remembering as he nearly reveres memory and speaks in veneration of it when he compares memory to prayer.  Individuals, similar to their memories, continually undergo change and are altered by the way their present portrays the past or is explained by the past.  Matthews proposes: "It turns out you are the story of your childhood / and you're under constant revision."  In fact, our perceptions of the past as viewed through memory are so transformed throughout time that our lives may become nothing other than the stories we tell ourselves and those we know, little more than renditions that try to depict who we have been and, ultimately, how we will be remembered even by those closest to us when we are gone. The past and our personalities constitute a compilation of remembered experiences, and memories can, often do, differ between even those who share the same situations.  Such a contrast occurs in the memories of mother and son in this poem:

          He'll remember like a prayer
          how his mother made breakfast for him

          every morning before he trudged out
          to snip the papers free.  Just as
          his mother will remember she felt

          guilty never to wake up with him
          to give him breakfast.  It was Cream
          of Wheat they always or never had together.

     Poet or not, each person authors and revises his or her own story that defines a life.  We often depend upon tentative or unreliable memories in constructing the stories that identify us.  In his autobiographical essay, "Durations," Matthews observes that his earliest memories may be his own, or the repeated details of relatives' anecdotes, or a blend of these that mixes "like vodka slipped into a bowl of punch."  In the end, though, we are responsible for the fact combined with fiction in the narratives of our lives.  We possess a power that allows us to steer a clear direction toward personal definition:

          There's no truth about your childhood,
          though there's a story, yours to tend,

          like a fire or garden.  Make it a good one,
          since you'll have to live it out, and all
          its revisions, so long as you shall live . . . .

     At gatherings of writers and readers or among members of associations formed to promote literature, William Matthews was a well-known personality whose public persona and personal behavior often drew attention, for better or for worse.  His service as an officer in literary organizations included terms as president in the Poetry Society of American and in the Associated Writing Programs.  He also participated as both a member and as a chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Panel.  In addition, Matthews was widely recognized as a teacher of creative writing at various universities, including Cornell University, the University of Colorado, the University of Washington, and City College of New York, among others.
     Sometimes, Matthews's seemingly reckless and self-destructive personal behavior trespassed upon his living as a college professor and his livelihood as a poet.  Although Matthews rarely permitted his poetry to reach the point where it might be viewed as "confessional" — and never allowed his work to completely drift toward the more confessional mode of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath — as A Happy Childhood suggests, autobiographical elements almost always influenced his writing in one way or another, particularly in later volumes of his poetry.  When Matthews published Foreseeable Futures in 1981, he had "just come through the most difficult passage" of his life, according to his son, Sebastian, who wrote a memoir titled In My Father's Footsteps (2004), released in the same year as Search Party.  Matthews had left his position as holder of Roethke Chair in creative writing at the University of Washington under a cloud of scandal and accusations.  His reputation as a professor had been damaged by widespread stories that raised questions concerning his behavior toward women, especially his relationships with female students.
      Sebastian Matthews reports his father's troubles in the memoir.  He relates how his father was confronted with official university charges and a filed lawsuit from a female student with whom he had an affair, suggesting the charges perhaps had been leveled by the young woman as a measure of revenge for the unpleasant ending of the relationship.  Sebastian Matthews wonders why his father repeatedly risked such a highly-respected position at the university by engaging in a series of affairs with his students.  "I know that he couldn't stop himself.  Was he a sex addict?  A compulsive womanizer?  I don't know," writes the son.  The trial eventually concluded without a verdict by a hung jury, and the charges were not pursued further; however, by then William Matthews had moved across the country to New York City. 
     In "Durations," Matthews recalls how throughout his youth "New York had been the preferred weekend destination from boarding school and then from college."  He had come "for the museums and especially for the jazz clubs."  With its easy access to the great jazz clubs (even though some from his college days were no longer open) and a magnificent opera house, with the numerous restaurants and cultural centers, and with a new wife — someone who had been in publishing and wrote psycholanalytical books, and a woman who seemed to have a settling affect on him — Matthews gradually found himself at home in a Manhattan apartment and comfortable with a teaching position at City College.
     Sebastian Matthews speaks of Foreseeable Futures in his book:

          There are no out-and-out love poems in Foreseeable Futures,
          the 1987 book that my father dedicated to Arlene.  I am not
          sure there needs to be.  The whole book is a love poem of
          sorts — a toast raised to a life, if not always well lived, then
          at least survived with grace.  Throughout its pages, I see my
          father breathing a sigh of relief, as if looking around and
          appreciating the small ironies.  He's just come through the
          most difficult passage of his adult life, and he's still standing.
          Not only that, but he's found a new partner, a great apartment
          in his beloved city; he's got work, a new book out, friends
          around him.  His sons have grown up, gone off not to prison
          but college.  Things are truly looking up.       

     Although not one of his stronger collections, Foreseeable Futures contains poems that slip to readers a few glimpses at the attitude toward self Matthews may have had in moments of reflection during his mid-forties and at such a turning point in his life.  "It feels like the very middle, the exact // fulcrum of our lives," he writes in "April in the Berkshires."  Matthews often spoke or wrote in a self-deprecating manner about himself and any emotional or physical shortcomings he believed he exhibited, such as his lanky build and the way clothes crumpled over his frame or the athletic limits set by his body, especially his knees gnarled from the "thousands of hours of driveway and playground basketball" ("Durations").  Remarking wittily of private resentment he feels toward his poet persona (the public self others perceive) in "The Complaint," a brief essay included in The Poetry Blues, Matthews declares: "I'm very emotional and easily filled with formless murk, and sometimes I get weepy like this, I'm sorry.  Yes, thank you.  He's glib, he files his tongue before he brushes his teeth, and he's diligent as a dog."  Matthews also includes himself among those he terms "Fellow Oddballs" in a poem by that title from Foreseeable Futures:

                                            . . . Here's to us,
          morose at dances and giggly in committee,

          and here's to us on whose ironic bodies new clothes
          pucker that clung like shrink wrap to the manikins.
          And here's to the threadbare charm of our self-pity.    

     One of the more powerful poems ("The Accompanist") in this collection offers Matthews an opportunity to make another connection between poetry and music.  Many times in interviews and essays Matthews displays admiration for — even identification with — the musicians who accompanied the great female jazz vocalists, like Lester Young with Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong with Bessie Smith.  "I have certain dopey identifications with Lester Young, it's true.  There's a combination in Young of strong emotion, not so much concealed as released by diffidence, irony, and sweetness of tone, that doesn't sound far off from certain textures in my poems, unless my ear is off," Matthews told Sascha Feinstein in "Mingus at the Showplace," an interview from The Poetry Blues.
     Sebastian Matthews comments on the opening lines of "The Accompanist" ("Don't play too much, don't play / too loud, don't play the melody."): "I can't help picturing Tommy Flanagan here, talking about his years with Ella Fitzgerald.  Or Mal Waldron in an interview about backing Billie.  Or maybe it's the poet himself, hiding behind a persona, who is speaking so wisely about the exact difficulties (and rewards) of writing — and living — well."  In "The Accompanist," Matthews surely appears to be drawing a parallel between the subtlety of a jazz musician accompanying the compelling content and delivery of a singer's lyrics — it's "her story" — and the way a poet's lyricism sharpens or soothes (as much as it reflects the world his words might reveal), both records and consoles at the same time, and maybe even hints at levels beneath the surface, toward those acts in the life of the artist to which the poetic lines might allude or that certain words may indirectly portray, but left mostly unmentioned in any overt way:

             . . . When you play it you become
          your part in it, one of her beautiful
          troubles, and then, however much music
          can do this, part of her consolation,
          the way pain and joy eat off each other's
          plates, but mostly you play to drunks,
          to the night, to the way you judge
          and pardon yourself, to all that goes
          not unsung, but unrecorded. 

     By the time Blues If You Want was released in 1989, William Matthews had experienced the end of his second marriage, and the tone of the poems contained in this volume shifts once again.  His voice sounds as assured, yet unassuming as in any of his collections.  The works show a sense of confidence and control even when their content poses questions the poet cannot answer or creates quandaries that he cannot resolve.  The images are sometimes darker and the wit sharper than in his previous poetry.  In considering differing aspects of subject matter, Matthews brings together his varying topics of interest (music, literature, language, travel, memory, love, and loss, among others) with as much success as he'd ever done in one book of poems.
     This book filled with the color blue seemingly appearing in nearly every poem or with titles alluding to "blue" — such as "Nabokov's Blues," "Mood Indigo," "The Blues," and "Little Blue Nude" — and evoking emotional blues, Matthews gives the reader a glimpse into this blue period of his life.  In "The Blues," Matthews traces the connections between music and mood, and he suggests ways for the reader to view conditions of loneliness or loss.  In a time of sorrow, those musicians Matthews admired so much now provided a needed companionship and a complementary sense of expression, empathy for the status of the spirit: ". . . I knew the way music can fill a room, / even with loneliness, which is of course a kind / of company."
     By the close of this poem, Matthews discovers an approach to the future that he has been wanting ever since he was a boy.  As he states, it is "the future toward which I clatter / with that boy tied like a bell around my throat, // a brave man and a coward both, / to break and break my metronomic heart / and just enough to learn to love the blues."
     In "Nabokov's Blues," Matthews defines an aspect of the pain one might find at a troubled time of life:

          This is the secret ache that hurts most, the way
          desire burns bluely at its phosphorescent core:

          just as you're having what you wanted most,
          you want it more and more until that's more
          than you, or it, or both of you, can bear.

     Matthews even sees the beauty in various shades of blues, "every hue and tint," one might view through an evening in the end of summer.  In "Moonlight in Vermont" he summarizes:

                              There's no illusion here.
          It's beautiful to watch
          and that's reason enough for blue after blue
          to blossom, for each decaying swatch

          to die into the next.  The faster it goes
          the less hurry I'm in for home or anywhere.

Matthews eventually recognizes associations with "unspent love" and the lateness of the hour as he observes:

          By now the moon itself is blue.  By this
          we mean that we can see in it the full freight
          of our unspent love for it, for the blue night,
          and for the hour, which is late.

     Perhaps the most revealing poem in Blues If You Want is one that addresses the poet's reactions after discovering his apartment has been robbed while he was away in Tennessee.  Matthews knows the identity of the burglar, "Tony, my dumpster-diving friend," whose girlfriend the poet had comforted recently after she'd been beaten by Tony.  Matthews declares even a robbery is "designed to hurt," to take away those things one loves most, as the thief — to whom Matthews had previously confided about his jazz tapes, "I just love these" — steals a tape deck, but leaves behind the poet's typewriter.  Perceptively, the thief discerns Matthews's apparent preference for the language of Ben Webster over the words of Merriam-Webster.  The poet concludes: "Writing's my scam, he thought, and music my love."  The speaker in the poem explains the elevated place of music in his life:

          . . . you could turn to music you love, not as mood-
          altering drug nor as a consolation, but because
          your emotions had overwhelmed and tired you
          and made you mute and stupid, and you rued

          them every one.  But then Webster kicks into
          his first chorus, they're back, all your emotions,
          every one, and in another language, perhaps
          closer to their own.

     Matthews recalls all this in retrospect, when he arranges the continuity of his thoughts and sorts his emotions through the composed and controlled, though contrived, clarity of memory; as Matthews also admits "afterthought" to be "the writer's specialty and curse."  In the face of loss, Matthews muses that one of the marvels of living is "how much we manage to hang on to."
     The final stanza of "Little Blue Nude" presents Matthews's eventual response to a neighbor's question concerning the new book the poet is writing.  "What's it about?" Matthews is asked.  Matthews acknowledges he didn't know how to reply then, and he didn't even ask himself "until later."  However, he ultimately concludes this poem with an answer that accurately characterizes not only Blues If You Want, but much of his other work as well: "It's a reverie on what I love, and whom, / and how I manage to hold on to them."
     Upon the release of Blues If You Want in 1989, William Matthews planned a publication celebration scheduled so his parents could attend while in the United States.  The day following the book party, his parents returned to England where "his father had a massive heart attack at the luggage retrieval area in the Newcastle upon Tyne airport," Matthews records in "Durations."  Further, Matthews notes in this essay published just prior to the release of his next collection of poems (Time and Money, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), he was reminded how deeply he'd been affected by the loss of others since his grandfather's death.  He reviews the strong reactions he'd especially had to the passing of artists, writers, and musicians, evident ever since his earlier works.  Matthews writes: "I've seen the deaths of writers and musicians who'd meant as much to me as family members — Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop.  In the case of artists like these, whose continued development and invention had produced not only beloved work but a model for the way a life in the arts can be imagined and lived out, the deaths meant an absolute end to the marvelous momentum by which an important body of work is produced."
     Matthews realizes in "Durations" his enhanced awareness of mortality, heightened by the death of his father and by witnessing his own sons grow into adulthood, even making him a grandfather: "I have never been more aware that the meter is running and, consequently, never been more vivid, concentrated, happy, or warily hopeful."
     Nevertheless, Time and Money contains a number of references to grief and sorrow, depression and loss.  Time is described as a primary cause of much of the pain we feel, an element that creates sadness in our lives and the lives of those we love, and then takes away those lives.  One of the title poems, "Time," questions whether "time's just one more inexact way / to gauge loss."  However, Matthews follows with a reminder that memory and the lessons learned through time, and perhaps the stilled moment in an artist's work, allow us to "keep more than we think."  Matthews advises:

               To begin thinking about time, we might
          take all the verbs we like to think we do

          to time, and turn those verbs on us, and say
          that time wastes us, and time saves and buys us,
          that time spends us, and time marks and kills us.

     Matthews has learned to cope with the passage of time and the erosion ("water licks its steady way through stone") it inflicts ("my male friends my age and I / scan the obits every day.  The word / 'time' now seems, often enough, the nickname / for the phrase 'time left.'"  Through writing poetry, the art that has served him so well, he connects the past to the present even more: "Now critics write // of my 'mature work.'"  Matthews appears to explain one purpose for his composition of poetry, an activity that provides a way to confront, and maybe control, fear of what the future holds:

                                                I'd soldier through
          the fear and depressions.  I'd call on
          what those critics like nicely to call 'wit,'
          i.e., the whole compressed force of my rage
          and love.  I'd invent whatever it took
          to get me through or dead, whichever came

     In a couple of poems Matthews directly addresses the death of his father and the absence left behind.  The movement of time ages us all and in time we are taken away.  Matthews begins "My Father's Body": "First they take it away, / for now the body belongs to the state. / Then they open it / to see what may have killed it. . . ."  After death and the scattering of the ashes, what remains of the father Matthews knew, "a mild, democratic man / will sift in a heap with the residue of others, / for now they all belong to time."
     The recognition of mortality and fear of death Matthews experiences is magnified in the minds of the men of his father's generation, those he believed closer to losing their own battles with time.  Matthews observes this among the mourners he meets in "Men at My Father's Funeral": "The ones his age who shook my hand / on their way out sent fear along / my arm like heroin."  As always, Matthews responds to the unsettling of his own emotions through the use of language:

          And I, the glib one, who'd stood
          with my back to my father's body
          and praised the heart that attacked him?
          I'd made my stab at elegy,
          the flesh made word: the very spit

          in my mouth was sour with ruth
          and eloquence.

     Throughout his poetry, William Matthews imaginatively wrestles with the past — how it influences and shapes the present, but also how even the faulty memory of the past is influenced and shaped by the present.  Yet, Matthews knows he can never fully or accurately hold on to time, or hold it back; instead, the true nature of the past escapes even the artist who wishes to preserve it, to keep alive the moments of the past and those who lived those moments.
     Nevertheless, perhaps it is enough to know we experienced what now may exist only in unreliable memories or fictional memoirs.  In "Note Left for Gerald Stern in an Office I Borrowed and He Would Next, at a Summer Writers' Conference," Matthews concludes the poem with words offered from one poet to another, and shared as well with the reader: "And then we're back, alone / not with the past but with how fast the past / eludes us, though surely, friend, we were there."
     In addition to how Time measures various forms of erosion in our lives, the focus on Money in this collection of poetry also directs the reader toward ways to gauge emotional evolution and explore more closely how we account for ourselves, whether one examines love, loss, or other feelings we experience.  In "Money" Matthews asks:

                                                               What do
          we want, and how much will we pay
          to find out, and how much never to know?
          What's wrong with money is what's wrong with love:

          it spurns those who need it most for someone
          already rolling in it.

     Just as Matthews tries to unravel the twisted and tangled threads of time, he also hopes to show how the material nature of money may calculate the cost of living, the price we pay day after day:

          Money's not an abstraction; it's math
          with consequences, and if it's a kind
          of poetry, it's another inexact way,
          like time, to measure some sorrow we can't

     At the time of William Matthews's death in 1997, he had finished a new collection of poetry.  That manuscript, After All, was released in 1998 and, as he had done in the past, he delights readers with his wry humor in poems like "Oxymorons" — a work that gathers together clusters of phrases, figures of speech with seemingly self-contradictory words in various areas, including "money's . . . rich in such mischief."  Appropriately, Matthews closes this poem with another glance at the topic of human memory: "Our memories / will be our real estate, all that we've got."
     Nevertheless, After All continues to display some of the darker themes and the somber emotional tone detected in much of Time and Money.  Indeed, had readers not come upon similar poems in earlier works, they may have been startled by the way Matthews again depicts time's erosion of body and spirit.  Matthews once more addresses mortality and the helpless feelings of frustration, fear, and anger that often accompany one's confrontation with aging and a weakening physical condition, whether it be oneself or another one admires and loves who is the subject of such deterioration and who faces the prospect of death.  As an example, Matthews begins "Mingus in Shadow":

          What you see in his face in the last
          photograph, when ALS had whittled
          his body to fit a wheelchair, is how much
          stark work it took to fend death off, and fail.

     Even the name of this final collection seems to hint toward an ending and an exhaustion as one looks backwards at what has been experienced or endured during a lifetime.  Sebastian Matthews writes in his introductory note to The Poetry Blues: "My father died having just completed a manuscript of poems.  The book, prophetically titled After All, was already sitting on the desk of his editor, Peter Davison."
     The book's title fits nicely the attitude of the speaker who regards that last photograph of Charles Mingus and concludes that after all the musician had suffered, physically and emotionally, and even now after death, the music and memories that remain are most important, provide a light in dark times.  Matthews had confessed in his interview with Sascha Feinstein ("Mingus at the Showplace") to having "the most complicated relationship to Mingus.  I set that up for myself rather deliberately.  Call it hero worship, call it role model. . . . I picked him as a tutelary figure." 
     In addition, one could claim "to take the photograph" is also an act of taking the spirit represented by the one in the picture, taking it from the grasp of time and preserving it in a timeless portrait.  The image in the photograph, itself a form of art, serves as a perfect metaphor of the human endeavor and those aspects, especially the gifts to others that are represented in the performances or works created throughout an artist's life, that are maintained in the minds of those left behind:

                              It was human nature,
          tiny nature, to take the photograph,

          to fuss with the aperture and speed, to let
          in the right blare of light just long enough
          to etch pale Mingus to the negative.
          In the small, memorial world of that
          negative, he's all the light there is.

     Matthews compactly summarizes much of his understanding of the atmosphere he'd found around him in his personal circumstances in "Care":

                        Books get read and written.
          My mother comes to visit.  My father's

          dead.  Love needs to be set alight
          again and again, and in thanks
          for tending it, will do its very
          best not to consume us.

     Certainly, this book of William Matthews's poetry should be read by anyone who desires to comprehend the cumulative impact of his poems, three decades in the making, and to better seize the self that was William Matthews.  In "Privacies," an essay from The Poetry Blues, Matthews explains "the world inside the reach of our wishes, the self, is the world we mostly live in, if only because we have small power in the other, the one we casually call the 'real' world.  And in that inner world, where we mostly live, poetry and its allies — prayers, curses, sexual fantasies and other daydreams, letters, diaries, and all the other members of the chorus — make the music, like an internal weather, to which everything happens."  Throughout his life, William Matthews admired, idolized, and identified with the great jazz musicians of his time, and in the lines of his poetry he learned how to make his own music "to which everything happens." 
     In "A Poetry Reading at West Point," responding to questions about his poetry, the speaker reveals a personal assessment of what he attempts to achieve when composing his poems: "I try to write as well as I can / what it feels like to be human."  Likewise, readers of Search Party will find what they are seeking as they recover what it feels like to be human — including the faults, frailties, fears, and failures, but also the tenderness, tenacity, truths, and triumphs — and readers will be rewarded with the re-discovery of the poet who in his poems opened up his personality, which included all of those characteristics and more, the human who was William Matthews.          


Matthews, William. Search Party. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. ISBN: 0-618-35007-1  $26.00


© by Edward Byrne



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