Our July poetry feature celebrates the distinguished career of The Common contributor John Matthias with a selection of several of his poems from the last five decades. This year Shearsman Books completes the publication of the collected poems of John Matthias in three volumes: Collected Shorter Poems, Vol. 2 (1995-2011), Collected Longer Poems, and Collected Shorter Poems, Vol. 1 (1961-1994).
Shearsman also continues to publish Trigons, Matthias’ seven-part book-length poem, in a single volume, and two years ago they brought out Who Was Cousin Alice? & Other Questions, a collection of his memoirs and critical essays. This effort on the part of Shearsman, which represents, in effect, the stewardship of Matthias’ complete works (so far), has prompted John Kinsella to declare Matthias a “master poet.” Kinsella suggests that these Collected volumes are essential to an understanding of Matthias’ work, as his poems are “best read cumulatively and against one another. There’s a kind of grand project to convey history as primary data and to instill the poet as valid secondary source for the reader.”
For decades Matthias’ work was better appreciated overseas, in the UK (he is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he was previously Visiting Fellow in Poetry) and Sweden especially, but he was born in Columbus, Ohio, and educated at Ohio State and Stanford. He studied with John Berryman as an undergraduate and Yvor Winters at Stanford, where he was a member of the class that also included Robert Hass, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky; since 1967 he has been a member of the English Department at Notre Dame. In recent years, his readership in the United States is also increasing. In fact, American critic Marjorie Perloff has declared that Matthias’ “challenging poetry makes clear that what is needed today is a larger, more capacious conception of postmodern poetics, one that avoids the usual classifications so as to redraw the boundaries of the field.” At The Common we’re pleased to include Matthias’ work within our printed pages (several of his poems appear in our first issue, and a new longer poem of his is forthcoming) and on our website as well.
POEMS BY JOHN MATTHIAS
“Survivors” from Collected Shorter Poems, Vol. 1
A letter arrives in answer
to mine—but six years late …
“John,” it says,
“Dear John … ” and
“I remember absolutely nothing.
What you say is probably
all true; for me those
years are blank. I believe
you when you say you knew
me then, that we were friends,
and yet I don’t remember you
at all, or all those others
who had names, or anyone. You see,
the fittest don’t survive—
It’s the survivors.”
Like old women, burying their
husbands, burying their sons, lasting
it out for years without their breasts
or wombs, with ancient eyes,
arthritic hands, and memories like
gorgeous ships they launch
despairingly to bring back all
their dead, and which, as if constructed
by some clumsy sonneteer, betray them
instantly and sink without a trace.
Or women not so old—
women, not the men who knock
their brains and bodies against
fatal obstacles and spit their blood
on pillows and their hearts on sleeves
at forty-five to die of being fit.
I’ve known a woman keep her watch
beside a bed of botched ambition
where her man lay down and took
five years to die . . .
And though I drove one January night
through freezing rain into Ohio—
and though I hurried,
seeking the words of the dying—
all I found was a turning circle of women,
all I heard was the lamentation of survivors.
“She Maps Iraq” from Collected Shorter Poems, Vol. 2
She maps Iraq. For England and for Empire
and the Man Who Would Be King.
She is Miss Gertrude Bell, a friend of T.E.L.
and Faisal. She knows much more
than all the men around her table, and she knows
they know this and despise her for her
knowledge and her fluent Arabic. They need her though,
and so she maps Iraq. They cannot find
a thing: no well or wall or wildflower blooming
where they all think nothing blooms.
What they know they only say to one another
at their club–conceited silly flatchest windbag daughter
of the Ironworks Bell & Bell. They’d all
sweat their smelting jealousies in Turkish baths.
She maps Iraq. They all take notes. They lean across
her table, light her endless cigarettes.
She was in love with Doughty-Wylie, Charles Doughty’s
nephew who could quote in Persian poetry
that she translated back in 1893 with her lost Cadogan–
Songs of dying laughter, songs of love once warm.
Churchill sent D-Wylie to Gallipoli to die a hero and so now
she maps Iraq for Churchill, too. And still a graver
music runs beneath the tender love notes of
those songs she murmers to herself, her pencil poised.
She’d loved dear old Cadogan, too, but Hugh
the foundry magnate Bell opposed a marriage with this man
of so few prospects, and she loved her brilliant father
most of all. (The gossips had her now in love with Faisal.)
At tea with Mrs. Humphrey Ward or Jenny Lind
or Henry James she used to say: I know your work, and
I shall go to Oxford. At Balliol, she was obliged
to sit in lectures on the history of Empire with her back
to tutor Mr. Black, and yet she got a First in spite of that,
and now she maps Iraq. There was ancient Hit
where Babylonians found oil to light their lamps. And here
was Ukhaidir, her own discovery & gift to archaeology,
or so she hoped, in photographs & sketches, measurements
of every kind. They wrote down in their notes Petroleum at Hit
and made no reference to the ruins at Ukhaidir.
Arabia Deserta was beside her even now, whispering
archaic Englishes that Doughty drew from Spenser,
whispering his nephew’s name. She’d lead a gift-mare through
the very room and not a single hand would offer her
a sheep’s eye or a carpet full of pillows on the desert sand.
She maps Iraq. She thinks their nodding heads resemble camels’
and she almost laughs remembering just yesterday
when Churchill slid from his high saddle on a camel’s hump
in front of Lawrence & the Sphinx. She says that Baghdad,
Bosrah, Mosul should be vilayets but unified by the Sharif
the French drove out of Syria–the French, whose
archaeologists wrote up her finds at Ukhaidir before she
published Amurath to Amurath. The camels’ heads nod on.
She says and here is Carchemish where all the Hittites
watched through their binoculars as Germans
built the Baghdad railway bridge. Had they visited
Assyrians in Kalat Shergat, all the Jewish tribes there in Haran?
She’d wager none of them had been detained by the Rashids
but she was in a harem at Hayil back when Ibn Saud marched
that way before the war. She wonders now how many of
those pills she took. Lawrence would be difficult for wives
of all these men, but she herself was thought to be impossible.
Doughty-Wiley had a wife, and so did Cox, and even
Faisal, although no one ever saw her. They said her own visits
to the sheiks were scandalous where she was treated
as an honorary man. She smoked with them and drank their
bitter coffee and could gallop their best horses
with their favorite sons. Here were twelve oases and
the routes to them and these were villages one shouldn’t
for a moment underestimate. Faisal held her once so long
she felt she couldn’t breathe, but then he only kissed her hand.
She still read Doughty-Wiley’s letters in the night.
But where exacely draw these lines demarking Syria and
Palestine Iraq Arabia & Jordan Britain & the French had made
agreements while the Zionists had wondered was she Arab
or an English woman in her Bond Street skirts and funny hats.
It made her very tired. They said her influence had waned
but gave her titles both officially and otherwise: It was perhaps
too many of those pills she took to sleep.
She maps Iraq, but cannot now recall if in her wild travels
she had seen what she had said: I know your work, and
I shall go to Oxford. She was Oriental Secretary and she had
an O.B.E. She was Director of Antiquities in Baghdad
at her own museum. And still a graver music runs beneath
the tender love notes of those songs did not translate
Petroleum at all. She’s feeling very thirsty now for water
and not oil, speaks to them of dizziness, a spell, some word
you don’t pronounce as it is written or a place you’ve
never been that seems to be familiar as your English home.
The men stand up around her map and someone says
It isn’t here and she says but I’ve told you that was lost.
Everybody leaves. They pluck their camels’ heads
right off their shoulders as they go and she is back at Balliol
or in her bed and Who said anything about Americans
she’d give this land to Fattuh, her dear servant, or to Hugh,
her father, and you see there on her map Northumbria
is clearly indicated as a corner of this world.
She longs for sleep in which her map would gather her
into its folds and roll her up as in a carpet taken
from the desert floor. Daughter of a foundry, she has been
a maid of Iron. For she has mapped Iraq . . .
whispers only. . . Faisal, Fattuh, Father, take me back.
“After Five Words Englished from the Russian” from Collected Longer Poems
Horseshoe or dingbat, Sir oh just the one
he thought, even if a hoarsepshaw brief Cyrillic Ж was altogether
confidential then. Sadistic counsel goofy as it was to hit
a mark an iron-shod method like an actor on the methadone
for bad habits, pitching his good luck
to brain the brain-damaged boy, altogether his intention
Master Craft, I swear
swore it when he outran a goddamn dawn
a good man reigning through obsessive thought that inning out to bean
him break his neck Focus on the other’s head
a dingbat or lucky shot pitching high and inside
fucking up the outdoors, even fireworks on the Fourth can’t you
do an elementary task?
He Who Finds a Horseshoe fires a synapse begs a question
but in time bags his quarry by the marsh
even brags about it, flees as far as Moony Lake running
in the tallest grass and crouching down they say
it’s possible to drown in mud and sand and shoreline
stagnant pools in short order, Sir.
I Babel’s unit, Blogmeister Ulyanov. A thrice- beaten hoarse
without a pshaw is very dark indeed.
In the long run in short it was like this: He stumbled bleeding
into foreign camp where all the officers played
dice with nasty dingbats, bits of backbone lacking, they maintained,
in cowards who’d run off. Their poet said that what he said
was never said by him. But also Three times blessed is one who
puts a name in song. Mandelstam. Ulyanov. Babel:
No iron can pierce the human heart with the force of a period just
exactly in the right place
Aplysia at just that point in time became, like injured campers,
Useful slugs in neurobiological associative tasks.
Aplasia, though, prevented both the classical and operant conditioning.
Iron bomb’s your balalaika too? And you an anarchist like me?
In this day and age, the pleaЖureis entirely mine.
&shhhhhhh . . . sashays to Жay. . . &does shay &
No iron can pierce and so on just a way of betting on the
pen that’s mightier than the sword? You think
that babble saved him. All that playing Cossacks was
to chess what Checka was to his submerged cliché:
No one gets the period in the right place. Full stop, Bakunin.
A friend of ours saw him finger-fucking the countess, then
went off to a commune called K’ Klarity. Stammered it so
long ago at Horseshoe Camp they only managed checkers,
chests puffed up by golly nonetheless in pride. And no!
Not a commune merely but a country: It’s Charity.
And that’s a virtue too, Great Aunt Calamity: tell me Muse
what E flat played as an harmonic on a single string
can say to the amped-up soundtrack rocking the whole square
until the child screams and holds his ears and Dingbat’s
prancing Lipizzaner slips on the cobbled street and breaks a leg.
Then you must put him down. A mistake: They pitched
their good luck then and brained the brain-damaged boy.
All that rock n’ roll at such a volume it would surely damage
anybody’s brain. Had you been at the May parade, it would
have damaged yours. Even had you volunteered as number
one sadistic counselor. After all, it was a job.
So too the bold advance of Ivan Chesnokov right up to
the gates of Chugunov with his regiment of cavalry. They asked
him could he read and write, and could he maybe put some
order in the Orders of the Day. He took his rimless glasses
from his pocket, but did not dismount. What he did
was read aloud the leud jokes told at the Second Congress
of the Comintern. A kind of poetry in that. A kind of horseshoe
thrown with malice at the eyes, the mouth, the balls.
Cousin Klarity, I was only at a camp but you were in camp a.
Rabbi Mordecai was putting into verse the harsh sayings
of the one from Dobryvodka called Inert.
Person of the book, Bookie of the Downbeat. Dingbats all in order
for an answer to the ringing red &black phones.
Picks up the black: Name and patronymic. You think all this
security is just a game? Interrogation’s terminal.
Means you integrate, and don’t fill out that line on race.
Do fill out the item re your mother’s maiden name. Tartar, no?
When I first went to Paris with the orderly for mess
we asked for steak tartare. Didn’t know the local customs, raw egg
on raw meat. Nearly barfed, but stayed cool, & ate it up.
Did you clean your plate at camp? No you can’t phone Mother now.
You’ll answer only to the bad cop at mass. I hope for
your sake, Soldier, all of this can be resolved as expeditiously
Hello up there & looking disingenuous
and fat. Here’s a joke. Guy goes to a shrink. After a while
the shrink says, Man you’re absolutely nuts. Man says Please sir
I’d like a second opinion. Shrink says OK, Man, you’re
bloody ugly too. Man says, Mein Herr, but I’m the Revolution
of the Word. Shrink says: Well then speak
He doesn’t though
he can’t. He’s gagged by then. And look at how
his hands are tied behind him. If he could speak he’d
improvise a panegyric on his old Prof. Then they’d let him off.
For example, Camper Klubnik might begin, speaking as a
prisoner in the nether fields of play: By God they had me walk
upon the water, bored. That made all of them electric.
The men in protective cover took Aplysia by the tail & shocked
him good, found that serotonin is a modulator and that
neurons form connections where a new protein is required
for growth. Our team, my Champion, seeks out
long-term memory: Your own. Our mistake in Paris was in
not ordering the snails in white wine sauce.
(If you’ll just attach those wires to his name and patronymic
we can all go home)
Camp A is not ballet in Voronezh,
although it’s true they have a company. The dance we’ll do
together’s called the Nimble Neurons. Simple stimulation with
the horseshoe, hard. The Presbyterian (head) Master
got so angry that he cast dung about him, rang the orthodox bell,
hid the weapon in the tall grass of long-term mnemonics,
left it there to find. Fend for yourself, my boy, who called him friend.
Picks up the red: Koba Steel here. . . . (No, not a CEO.)
So stop and think. You’re at a high point in telephonic history.
He asks you now about your friend. Wants to know
is he the Big One. For a moment you are overcome by envy.
Iosif the Georgian – Koba, Mr. Steel – thinks your
friend and rival maybe is the Big One. He’s waiting for your
answer on the phone. Horseshoe, you know I don’t . . .
So think again. You’re having dinner with some friends
And Джугашвили (-shvili is the suffix meaning child)
telephones and asks you is your rival really great.
It isn’t Harry Truman on the line, not General Eisenhower,
not even J. Edger Hoover. It’s the Ossetian, the herd of sheep.
Yet another name is сталь,suffix -ин You’ve heard of sheep,
but not from Georgia. (Georgia doesn’t border Florida.)
He takes an avid interest in the welfare of the motherland’s bards.
Three times blessed is one who puts a name in song.
Boris Leonidovich, for example.
He says, I think you liked the summer camp we sent you to.
We gave you a dacha all your own; not a day, not an hour
did you spend like some Denisovich. You know. You’re grateful,
But you’ve got these dinner guests. Koba, we will have
To keep it short. You’re so frightened now you’re shitting in
Your pants. Can we take this up another time?
You feel gagged, and look at how your hands are tied
behind you so you have to cradle the contrivance
with your chin. Boris Leonidovich, have a pleasant meal.
An old camp counselor, a bully Boy Scout grown into
a what? A what?
. . . writing for him on Yagoda-Checkist
checker board, black squares and red, king makers, triple jumps,
a bowl of raspberries lodged in each man’s lap, a rasp
in both voices, a rattle then: Were I to take my pencil up for
the supremist praise, I would speak of him who shifts the
axis of the world and call him by his dobrydawnsong name,
Koba was a nom de guerre, and he darkened eighteen others.
Dzhugashvili only an aubade.
The telephone, the book, the pencil, and the bomb.
The horseshoe, the letter Ж, Aplysia, a prod. Full stop, Aplasia
No codes where none intended.
No modes where all roads lead to home. No Rome.
Beneath her stone,
Arachne spins an Achmeist revival.
Rest with mother, bested brother,
shining on a harvest moon. Frost at midnight, steel
reflecting starlight: Stella, Stalin, Blog-
meister Ulyanov. He Who Finds a Horseshoe
fires a synapse, begs a question, bags his quarry in due time
but fears it was a 💣 Nihilism was your nickelodeon, Clarity
embracing nil, your dingbat more than that
but only half the whole.
The other half in plus fours
Told it as a crime, a time when the brakeman was annoyed
at Nickerbocker, who was there for re-hab
in the -ilitation for an injury sustained to his cerebral cortex
from the wreck of nations on the railroad track that
used to be an outback songline, wrack of notions that were
once all viable ideals, and so he hit him HARD
with what was handy: horseshoe. He could have put him
or gouged out his eye with a
These are conventions that you see in
Children’s books. Child Aplasia failed all exams.
Aplysia could respond. But where exactly in these snail brains
did one locate the long-term memory, let alone the Ego
and the Id? Could they, anyway, be trained by pain, subjective
and unconscious? (No codes where none intended.
No allusions that have not offended. No mimesis. No thesis.)
If you cross synoptic cleft, target ion channel and inject
The catalytic element, you’re under way. Dingbat is an object
used as missile in the absence of a horseshoe.
Or a gizmogadget with an utterly forsaken ancient name.
A typographical ornament . A silly jerk. A slug releasing ink.
What I’m saying isn’t said by me.
This is your whingding moment: dug out of the ground like gold.
John Matthias‘ most recent books of poetry are New Selected Poems, Kedging, and Trigons.