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John Matthias' Laundry Lists and Manifestoes.

Up until about four years I had never heard of John Matthias, then I bought issue 1 of the Cambridge Literary Review (CLR) which contains a poem called 'Café des Westens' which intrigued me because it drops more names than Geoffrey Hill and because it is gloriously manic in a fairly controlled kind of way. It also contains many lines that I wish I'd written (the ultimate arduity test of quality).

Being thus impressed, I bought two volumes (Selected Poems and Kedging) and came across the above sequence which is more accomplished and wiser than Café because of the 'ground' that it covers and the technical mastery with which it is put together. We start with the figure of Nausicaä, a character from Homer's Odyssey and the daughter of King Alcinous of Scheria. She encounters Odysseus when she and her attendants are washing laundry by the sea, her list of clothes is then used by Matthias to develop his themes. Next we have Noah and his manifest of animals to be brought into his ark. Throughout the poem the list - manifest - manifesto trio is played out with great wit and intelligence. This is all of the tenth poem in the sequence:

                               Crusoe, like Odysseus
     And Noah, lost his original list, like
     Ishmael was the only soul among the farers on his ship the sea released
     Coins and precious metals were no use, although in time
     He counted them. One by one he inventoried items of survivor's gold.
     Spirits in the guild of fraud and guile
     Perforce at Pandemonium
     One by one stood up in council making manifesto of their
     Will: Manifesto for an Open War.
     Manifesto for Ignoble Ease and Sloth. Manifesto for a Nether Empire
     In the Flames. Manifesto for the Seduction of the Ones who
     Dwell in Music, Phacia, Indices, Cockaigne & Realms of Gold.

     Them did Yahweh
     Hurl headlong filthy into laundries cursed by
     Noah in the son of Ham whose Canaanites and neighbours
     Named the spirits (former names all lost and blotted out) the likes of
     Chemos and Astarte, Thammuz, Dagon, Rimmon, Isis and Osiris,
     Orus, Belial, along with Ion's Greeks, the sons of
     Japheth's sons (Japheth's wife still working with Nausicaa
     Somewhere on the other side of 12 degrees and 18 minutes latitude
     The storm blew westward and the ship struck sand, the sea
     Breaking her apart....

Some of the names here might be obscure to most of us and the various manifestoes might require some familiarity with Paradise Lost but the 'effect' is at once exciting and full of momentum, we're moved along through the various aspects / manifestations (sorry) of the list and not given time to savour the sheer virtuosity of what might be Going On. It's one of those extended jazz 'riffs' that poetry does well, that feels improvised but is actually the product of craftsmanship and very hard work. The last six lines of the first stanza refers to Book I in Paradise Lost and the Bad Angels presenting different strategies to Satan after they've been thrown into hell. I'm particularly fond of the "Ignoble Ease and Sloth" strategy but my point is that there is on the surface a wry and multi-facted examination of the list but this also carries several layers of 'under meaning' which add further context to the Point of the Poem as a whole.

I've always been fascinated by the list , by our futile attempts to make sense of the world by means of organisation and naming. Matthias points out that a manifesto is usually a list of principles or ideas which attempts (and fails) to impose order on things. The best recent dissector of manifests was Michel Foucault who had built his reputation on an extended critique of the list business. Laundry Lists can be read as a poetic version of the same but with John's clarity and characterisitc sense of humanity. The sequence moves between myth, fiction and history without effort and in doing so opens our minds to some wider truths. The other interesting thing about the manifesto is that it often tries to disguise itself as something else. In the last section of the poem, Matthias seems to draw a parallel between manifestoes and elegiac poems and goes on to point out that both "are 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". I'm taking this as encapsulating the sadnesses of our struggles to impose a finite structure on the chaos that surrounds us coupled with our desire to order the future before it occurs. I particularly like the final phrase although, being a stubborn materialist, I'd question the choice of 'coeternal' but can't currently think of a better one. The 'little trumpets' image is magnificent, the kind of phrase that burns into the brain and stays there, which is precisely what I need poetry to do. It is magnificent because it carries a sense of frailty and vulnerability but also the urgent and plaintive blare that a little trumpet can produce, rather like a wailing child. Of course, lists don't tell stories, they have no narrative function but only have value in that they are evidence of what Might be There. Manifests are lists of What Might Become.

For this poem, Matthias uses three epigraphs, the first is from AS Byatt- "People often leave no record of the most passionate moments of their lives. They leave laundry lists and manifestoes." The third is a list from Robinson Crusoe but the second is a quote from Tristan Tzara - "I'm writing a manifesto and I don't want anything, I say however certain things and I am on principle against manifestoes, as I am also against principles". I'd like to think that Matthias uses the Tzara quote to illustrate the list paradox in that we can all claim to be unfettered by )and not at all neurotic about) the principle of organisation but are still bound to make sense of things in an organised way, each of us priming and then encouraging our little trumpets to blow.

One brief word of warning, some of the poems are quite difficult in terms of the complexities being expressed and in the use of reasonably obscure names. This is from the a poem in the sequence which discusses (among other things) human evolution and 'handedness':

     Agent for a span beyond biology--Anaxagoras, who
     Shook the hound of Aristotle, tooling down
     the highway on his supercharged Lamarck. Thumb is up or down

In terms of difficulty, Aristotle shouldn't be a problem but most of us will need some help from the interweb with Anaxagoras and Lamarck. Once you've looked at those two then the poem as a whole seems much more fluid and 'accessible'.

To conclude, Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is a masterpiece of erudition, wit and technique. Writing this, four years after my first encounter, makes me realise how much it has influenced my own view of human endeavour and how firmly I stand in the Tzara camp. It also encourages my often waning faith in what the Poem can do.

This remarkable piece of work is contained in John's Longer Collected.