John Matthias' Pages pt.2:an open letter.

Dear John,

I just wanted to put a few thoughts down on paper and this might be the best way to do it. One of the thinggs that I'm increasingly aware of is the way in which I 'relate' to some work. By that I think I mean how much I'm led to compare my own experiences with those described in the poem. This doesn't happen often but part 2 of Pages, primarily about the year of your birth, has triggered a range of comparisons that I'd like to share.


You were born in 1941, I was born in 1955. You write of public events and of your parents, amongst other subjects that I'll get to later. I'd have problems writing about my birth but you carry this off with aplomb:

Among the old prescriptions, bottles and bandaids, Married Love (of 1936) moulders in a cabinet. Illustrated in a modest way for the fastidious, it's clear enough: and you yourself at the end of all instructions and a digit added to the census come September.


It had been a healthy boy brought to term in all good time who'd twist the dials of his interlocking disks or ride a yellow tricycle around his yellow room to wind up magic blow the east wind back uncloud the dark horizon that a dark rain down could never rain.


First of all, the first of these is brilliant in that in two sentences you deal with your birth with incredible invention (a digit added to the census) and, more importantly, say a great deal about intimate relationships as they were 'managed' in that period. The use of 'fastidious' is exceptionally good because it conveys the underlying 'spirit' of that period.

I couldn't have written the above, obviously I don't have your skill but also because my birth was difficult, I suffered a sub-tentonal brain 'event' which led to quite severe emotional difficulties in childhood. Also, my parents (both in their nineties) are still living in the family home whereas yours is empty because your father has died and your mother has moved into residential care. I think I'm beginning to understand how you cover so much in so few words, it's about word choice and cadence, a modest way for the fastidious, it's clear enough is an example of this, something apparently light and conversational but crafted and honed and worked at.

I did however have a trike and an early interest in music (your reference to winding up magic) although this moved in a different direction to yours. You've prompted me to remember that day we bought our first record play and the delight I got from playing the marching tunes of American military bands. One of my very earliest memories was riding my blue and red trike (that my father had cobbled together) up and down the path in our small garden. I could write about these but not with your invention and intelligence.

Your events.

Yours are many and diverse, from the deaths of the famous to Citizen Kane, bandleaders, the suicide of Marina Tsetaeva, the Schmeling boxing battle with Joe Louis of 1938 and WWII code cracking as well as Rudolf Hess' flight to Scotland. All this is done with verve and energy as this example shows:

DiMaggio had fifty hits.

in fifty games with everybody counting and the wonder was the Brits had cracked Enigma too at Bletchley Park as Berthold Brecht settled into Hollywood. Three years later I would ride my yellow tricycle round and round the dining table while the old Victrola played out Mcnamara's Band When the music went all sour I'd dismount and turn the crank until I couldn't turn it any more. McNamara gave them twenty records when he learned about the pregnancy and one of them was MacNamara's Band.

I'd describe this as a 'riff' in the sense of a half-improvised solo around a theme (1941) and featuring several aspects in rapid succession. The real skill is to make this 'spread' seem a natural grouping.

Given our recent collaboration, I'm resisting the temptation to annotate on your behalf but it does seem to me that you're, as in Trigons, dealing with the workings of memory and what David Jones described as his 'res' or his collection of cultural clutter- not a technical noun but one that works for me. I'd also like to observe the unerring accuracy of the souring of the music as it gets slower and slower.

One of the other aspects that comes to mind with these events is the process of selection, how you manage to extract from a period those things that are now part of the US cultural fabric, with Bletchley Park thrown in for us Brits.

My events

I know nothing at all about 1955 except that it was the year when Churchill ceded to Eden as Prime Minister and I've just had to wiki this to verify. In my head, the national events of that period were the Coronation of 1953, Hilary's ascent of Everest in the same year, something about rock and roll in (about) in 1955 and the Suez fiasco of 1957.The first world event that I can remember was the Russian dog in space and then Kennedy's election. Again, I'd have no idea how to put this together but your work does lead me to think about and question my personal clutter. The Di Maggio reference has brought to mind the North East working class religion that was football in the fifties and sixties which was marked by a shared passion and intense rivalry across the big three regional teams. I was lucky to experience this in adolescence before money took over and the tickets could only be afforded by the middle class. Wilf Mannion, who retired in '54 was still everyone's hero throughout the sixties. I didn't realise how important this stuff was to me until now.

A general observation.

Before we move on to sex, I'd like to give some thought as to why I think (feel) that these bags of stuff that we carry around with us are important. For me, it's about self definition, about how I think about myself and 'frame' the me in the world. This isn't the same as how I present myself to others but these bits and pieces come together and inform my less than consistent sense of self. In terms of poetry, this is not any kind of elegaic mourning for a past that never was, as Hill seems to suggest but a statement of a variety of pasts that continue to be present in the present.


One of the recurrent themes in Pages is your experience of sex from initial fumblings to the advent of the pill, this is where we've got to in Part two:

I put my hand directly up her skirt and she did not say no don't do it didn't say a thing and so I kept it there a moment just above the knee and then began advancing slowly with my fingertips in little steps.

My experiences of the opposite sex are different from yours, at fourteen I entered into a relationship that has lasted for the last forty five years and I must confess that our early fumbling behaviour was 'resolved' much earlier than yours although I can recall similar scratchy yearnings experienced by others in our peer group. Still, back to frameworks, my early youthful experimentation is a past that remains with me in a number of quite puzzling ways.

This also raises aspects of the confessional in your work. As you know, I'm generally 'against' this particurlar element and try not to use it myself. The reason for this is that it's a form that often looks for empathy in the reader and makes use of the various poetry devices to create this effect. Your accounts of your past, with one or two exceptions don't do this, they're much more of a statement to the world rather than a request for understanding.

In conclusion, this is probably shorter than I intended but I've tried to curb my more digressive impulses. I don't expect a response but I hope you feel that the above is a reasonable response to this small part of your work.



ps, I've tried to proof-read this but you know that this is not my strongest point. Apologies in advance.