Readers curious about John Matthias
might look up the recent Work Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John
Matthias (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1998) that Robert Archambeau
has edited. In his introduction, Archambeau provides an overview of Matthias's
life as a poet including his political involvements as well as the impact
of time spent in California and England during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Along with James McMichael, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and John Peck,
Matthias did graduate study at Stanford University under Yvor Winters.
As Archambeau explains, Matthias balanced Winters's rigorous "stern and
cautious way" (9) with the counterculture and beat poetry of the Bay Area.
A few years later, Matthias was spending much of his time in the countryside
of England, and several of the essays here testify to a British character
to his verse. Jeremy Hooker addresses the American poet writing essentially
English poems, with comparisons to Ronald Johnson and Ed Dorn; Romana Huk
conceives of Matthias as caught between British and American "experimentalisms";
Kathleen Henderson Staudt discusses his longstanding commitment to the
poetry of David Jones. What makes Matthias so interestingˇand often overlookedˇis
the sheer formal, topical, and tonal variety of his poetry. This collection
of readable essays, many of which focus on close readings, gives a good
sense of his range of concerns.
For three days in early April, the
Women Poets at Barnard (most notably, organizers Allison Cummings and Claudia
Rankine) hosted an exhilarating conference, "Where Lyric Tradition Meets
Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women."
Featured poets, each of whom gave readings, included: Rae Armantrout, Lucie
Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman,
Ann Lauterbach, and Harryette Mullen. In addition to those dedicated to
these eight poets' work, panels addressed Alice Notley, Susan Howe, Mimi
Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, women writers at New York City's Poetry
Project, Language theory, epistolary and collaborative poetics, anthology
editing, and female publishers of the 1920s and 30s. Remarkably infrequent
were citations of feminist theory.
In "After Language Poetry: Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents," the keynote speaker Marjorie Perloff presented a necessarily reductive but insightful history of the Language movement, tracing the revisions and transformations of Steve McCaffery's early manifesto "The Death of the Subject" and arguing that the movement's early (mostly male) theorists were spurred less by a desire to innovate than to adapt poststructuralism to poetic practice. Its lasting contribution, Perloff surmised (read: elegized), "is that at a moment when workshop poetry all across the U.S. was wedded to a kind of neo-confessionalist, neo-realist poetic discourse, a discourse committed to drawing pretentious metaphors about failed relationships from hollandaise recipes, language theory reminded us that poetry is a making [poien], a construction using language, rhythm, sound, and visual image, that the subject, far from being simply the poet speaking in his or her natural 'voice,' was itself a complex construction, and that-most important-there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems, and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse." She then turned, with evident pun-rustling delight, to a sustained appreciation of Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge, in which "what could loosely be called a Language poetics has come in contact with one of color," holding it up as exemplary for its timeliness and savvy "internalization" of theory. Quoting a Lauterbach essay and winking as well, I think, toward Graham's appropriation-laden Materialism, Perloff wished aloud that poets would again focus on composing poetry. "Big Name Collage is too easy." She called for a "differential poetry"ˇvarying according to medium, venue, substrate-and granted her imprimatur to web-based interactive poetry, to which Calvin Bedient later responded skeptically.
The other highlight of the conference was the roundtable discussion of poetics. Graham, who the evening before had introduced an early poem as written "back when I had a poetics," briefly contrasted the privileging of word's or world's friction against the other. Mullen wondered whether black vernacular might not always fulfill poetry's untranslatability criterion. Uninterested in maintaining a consistent style, she instead seeks to "write beyond the range of [her] voice." Hejinian borrowed vocabulary from Heidegger, Arendt, and the Russian language to argue that aesthetic discovery can be congruent with the political discoveries that come of trusting oneself to foreignness. Calling herself "the only kangaroo among the beauties," Brock-Broido relied on the Dickinsonian diction of The Master Letters to stake her ground as a "neo-clarificationist, an anti-exclusionist": "I am quit of being misunderstood, quit of personae." She wants, she said, a poetry of inorganic artifacts, "fetishistic, amoral, below not above the law," with which "to keep oblivion at bay"-each poem "a palpable coffin." Hillman's avowed aesthetics of obscurity and dread notwithstanding, I got the impression that Brock-Broido was not alone in thinking poetic difficulty had reached a high enough zenith and should now be coaxed into lower orbit. In the question-and-answer follow-up, Lauterbach candidly confessed to having stymied a recent university audience; she said she intended to reevaluate her whole poetics. (Whether the new version would embrace or depart from her statements about the semantic fecundity of flaws and the transience of self-portraiture was left open.) When Charles Altieri remarked that none of the eight women had spoken of will or passion, defensiveness ensued- "warning: the following poems are willful and passionate"-uniting the not-at-all-round roundtable for the first time.
Katherine Lederer, the editor of
Explosive Magazine, has inaugurated a chapbook series under the
imprint Spectacular Books (P.O. Box 25648 Columbia University Station,
New York NY 10025). Most recently, she has issued Martin Corless-Smith's
The Garden. A Theophany or Eccohome: A Dialectical Lyric. This sequence
of poems reads as a masque, though one in which the characters merge and
reflect in a shared landscape:
Lake: Like a noise of many voicesAs in Of Piscator (1997), Corless-Smith's last book, these poems are most remarkable for their rich and knotty dictionˇperhaps derived from Shakespeareˇjoined with a tendency towards abstraction. The result could be described as Bunting and Zukofsky in equal measure.
Line: linen as text and textile
linnet a songbird feeds on flax
Know, whoever asks my name
that I am Line and go
through a meadow flower-gathering
To Be: The Bee who gathers beauty from the flowers
What happens when a poet goes from
one level of accomplishment to an obviously major level? How does the reader
register this change? Even when you read poetry books as books, you also
follow poets and their poetry careers. John Ashbery, for better or
for worse, has been writing at the same level since he was a young poet.
One prefers, say, Three Poems to Flow Chart; but one doesn't
track his progression from one book to the next. One waits for them, instead,
like news reports. Susan Howe, more experimentally so, is much the same:
the publication of her collected earlier books of poetry in Frame Structures
didn't so much encourage a developmental reading of her work than it did
a sense of affirmation, as in: "See, it's true. She has always been an
Another kind of poet is the one who finds a major voice and publishes it in a major book. Robert Duncan is archetypal in this respect. Duncan claimed his real work began with The Opening of the Field, published in 1960 when he was forty-one years old. He had been publishing his poetry by this time for over twenty years. But with the Opening of the Field, and further with Roots and Branches and Bending the Bow, Duncan commands the reader's attention. He commands it with his voice, with his confidence, and with the poetic vision he sees through. With the advent of these books, all the earlier books are necessarily correlated into a developmental or progressive scheme.
Forrest Gander published Science & Steepleflower last year (New Directions, 1998). I mention the preceding thoughts because Science & Steepleflower is a major book. It is major in the feeling of readerly delight that humbles and awes on reading the book and then rereading it. And it is major in the way it asks the reader to look back on Gander's previous work and look forward to his next book. I first started reading Gander's poetry when it was appearing in Conjunctions pretty regularly back in the early 1990s. I bought Deeds of Utmost Kindness (Wesleyan, 1994) after flipping to a page and reading these lines of careful japanoiserie:
The curtain conveys both: the warbler'sOn hearing the "chalkstrokes," I sensed something was right about these lines. Deeds is a good book, with a varied voice that is documentary and not shy about experimenting or speaking directly, sometimes almost plaintively so. But it does not anticipate the experience of looking into Science & Steepleflower.
Scribble at first profile
Of pine and the broken
Chalkstrokes of last crickets. (43)
This is the meaning of the vision:"The body's sawing stride" draws the reader into the poem like a languorous undertow. Its lulling music is cut first by the sharp "glint," then by the image of the scarecrow. It's the sight of the cucumbers that abides. Gander's is a poetry of minute precisions and metaphysical curiosities, as in the claw-tipped brain of god. What does this mean? I'm not sure, but I am in no position to doubt this poet in having identified this raptorial feature of the divine. Later in the poem, we learn "in lithesome undulation, / the world came true" and that "The day uprighted,/ gleaming with wounds" (5). The truth of this world is one of southern-fried gothic, spooky and peculiar, imminently vivid:
the body's sawing stride. Before which, before appearance
appeared, god in the glint
unmoving stood like a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers.
Though, not god. It was without a god's claw-tipped brain,
and unforeseeing. Only: an incisive force. (5)
The goat-lipped young men holding handsWhen the ritual of encountering this god-like force is concluded, "the thing went inside them and out again as along a spoke / and they thrashed to remember what it was like" (6). The poems in this book are dense but read like stories. Gander's poetic medium is the lyrical sentence, and in this respect he resembles Wallace Stevens more than anv of his contemporaries. His vocabularyˇas the book's title indicatesˇis detailed and surprising, and in this respect, he can sound like an American Hugh MacDiarmid, full of expostulations with seemingly revelatory intentions, as in: "If lava were not derived of exigence, / the scarp might reveal a parasitic cone. / But volcanic glass hisses forth / carrying free plagioclase crystals" (87). Science & Steepleflower is an incredibly rewarding book, to be missed by only the most obstinate reader.
felt the throbbing begin, felt it beat into speech, and they called each other
with throaty cluckings and amphetamine
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