V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




—in memory of William Matthews

For years now the elegies have shuffled
down the roads to the leading journals,
blank-eyed refugees half afraid
you may return and rake us all
with a phrase deft as a cat's paw,
blood welling as if from nowhere.
I'd burn a poem or three of mine
to read that phrase, but must admit
I'm glad you won't be reading this,
Bill (may I call you that?)—
or the hundred others being scribbled
by better students and actual friends
or other bare strangers like myself,
all rivals in the dumb conspiracy of grief.

I know your casual meanderings
down the page only looked facile,
every diamond unearthed and raised
like wan luck, bathed in that sidelong smile.
Caught being eloquent again!  It happened
often enough to earn your distrust,
as every day you issued that droop-eyed grin
while your calm baritone hummed on.

Time to set the mood, Bill.  Let's slap
some vintage vinyl on the turntable
—Lester Young and Teddy Wilson,
OK?—and let it swoop and sail behind us
as we trade puns in pig Latin, names
of sci-fi movies so inept they seemed made
to flicker gamely against the rumpled sheet
of your poems.  It was always the poem
fermenting in your wine-dark gut, I think,
that shaded every joke, deflected each gush
of praise from the likes of me.  You
shouldered the absurd bookbag
of our common ignorance, rubbed
your graying moustache in lieu
of goodbye, and vanished, as usual,
in a cloud of one-liners.  Glib enough not
to need to love a single thing you said.

I can't pretend to have known you.
You chatted me up quite amiably
the several times we met, as if good manners
were easier, anyhow, than hauteur.
In one workshop I leant you my poems
to poison with deft jest (one resembled
"a cat in a bag," you said, "all that weight
squirming around in the bottom")—
and of course you were right.

You did sign one book "Bill,"
but even as a student I knew well
the difference between friendliness
and friendship.  I enjoyed how you would
retreat a half step from every apt observation,
the perfectly rumpled look you wore
like a puppy's excess skin, and the rage
you let percolate—flashing wickedly—
under placid, ambling syntax.

William Matthews has marinated
long enough in adulation, your poem
might begin, time now to eat our fill
and be done with him. . . .  After all,
your last poems have now buried
their dead quite nicely.  Let the rest
of us now resist the chilling
wisecrack which turns away
too quickly from the lines inscribed
upon our lives like skaters' figures
on the ice-cold comfort, as beauty's
strangeness often must be.


© by David Graham


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