Reading John Matthias
I first became aware of John Matthias by reading "Cafe des Westens Kurfurstendam", a poem from the "Trigons" sequence which was published in 2010. I was immediately struck by the technical skill and ingenuity with which Matthias weaves many disparate strands together in a way that makes sense. I've since become familiar with more of his work and have become increasingly impressed with the range of the work, from the very direct and personal to what his publishers describe as "extravagantly inventive".
Matthias does write difficult poetry, he writes about complex and varied things but his work is always a pleasure to read because the voice that he deploys always so gracious. The stumbling block for most readers is with his use of proper names and foreign phrases but the internet now means that we can chase these down quite quickly, like Geoffrey Hill, Matthias does not want to insult our intelligence (he even provides reading lists for the three poems in "A Gathering of Ways" and cites 2 urls as reference in two of the "Trigons" poems.
Like Charles Olson, Matthias' work is never forced, he has mastered the art of making the technically difficult appear easy and never puts his virtuosity on display. The reader is gently led through a conceptually complex thought process without realising (until the end) what has occurred.
A good example is "Laundry Lists and Manifestoes" which takes us from Noah through the "Odyssey" to "Robison Crusoe" to opera, to Tristan Tzara and Malevich and Klebnikov to the present day and ends with:
.....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image of a broken SE10
Madame C's nine cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
of cargo cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs,
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. they're cognizant and they can glow. They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no stories of their lives, their little trumpets blow.
Here, I would argue, is an example of a skilled poet poking gentle fun at man's need to list things (objects, data, ideas beliefs) followed by the serious point which is concluded by a billiant image in the last line. As well as these grander themes, Matthias writes about place with enormous sensitivity. His "A Gathering of Ways" contains vivid and evocative descriptions of East Anglia, the American mid-west and the pilgim routes from France to Santiago de Compostela.
One of Matthias' shorter poems is "26 June 1381/1977" which contrasts the execution of Geoffrey Lister (the East Anglian leader of the Peasants' Revolt) at North Walsham with tourists visiting Norwich Cathedral in 1977. It tells the story of the execution and portrays Henry Despenser, the local bishop and Lister's executioner as a very unpleasant man (which he was). the poem ends:
Stupid or giddy, gawking-
Us with the eyes still in their sockets
And tongues still in our mouths-
Where do we travel, where
Do we think we can go-
All of us now, staff, of one, life?
The placement of the commas in the last line brings additional strength to a poem that asks serious questions about faith and about our relationship with the vagaries of the past.