By JOHN MATTHIAS.
I WAS STANDING in the middle of a river. In waist high water and afraid that I would lose my footing and be swept downstream where the river is deep enough to drown in. What I had to do was difficult. My job was to sort things in a giant case as big as all the world that nonetheless was floating there beside me. In it were Diana’s things – her dresses, her family heirlooms, her intimate apparel; also all her past; her houses and her hats; her dislikes and her likes; her looks and what she’d overlooked; her locks and keys. Although I knew she had died, she was fully present on the north bank of the Saint Joseph River with its bend to the south that gave the town its name. South Bend was not her native town, nor the Saint Joseph River her own. Her own rivers were in Suffolk, in England – the Alde, the Orwell, and the Deben. Still, there she was, and everything besides was in the case. Do like Henry James she shouted. But I didn’t know what Henry James had done. Outside only she and I, the river and the river bank. Do like Henry James she shouted once again. But save me seven things.
I FIND THAT Henry James saved nothing. None of Constance Woolson’s things. Her middle name, Fenimore, tended to be recognized. She was an independent woman but maybe in love with James. Maybe James knew or maybe not. If it was the case, that is, and the world is everything that is the case. They would meet in Venice, Florence, London. They both loved Venice best. Her books sold better than his. She was going deaf. When she went to the opera she heard no singing. But still she went, alone. And was seen. She moved from Casa Biondeti to Casa Semitecolo in Venice. When she threw herself out the window of the latter – was it for unrequited love? Her gondolier was called Tito. Tito the gondolier. She had collected many things during her life. Which had no life of their own and someone had to make a case, execute a plan. Like you, she liked magnolia trees in bloom. Tito knew the lagoon where only the best gondoliers could navigate in safety. Henry James and Tito took her clothing out in the boat. They had decided to drown her dresses and gowns. Henry tossed Miss Woolson’s things in the lagoon and Tito pushed them under with his long heavy pole. A ball gown billowed up and wouldn’t sink. It seemed that Constance Fenimore Woolson swam beside them now. The first thing I’ll save is your magnolia tree
WHEN OUR DAUGHTER was young, a teacher asked in class, what’s a punt? Laura said it’s like a boat. The other children laughed, mentally punting their footballs. It’s when you can’t make first down and have to give the other side the ball. Laura said, it’s like a gondola. I was awkward with the pole and indecisive, unlike Tito on the Grand Canal or the lagoon. We were on the Cam in our punt and had to turn around once we had reached Grantchester. Poll it left or right? Poll’s a verb, and also a noun. Punt’s a long and narrow craft. Craft has several meanings, several anythings are maybe just in case. In case you wondered, in case you pay attention. Dr. Leavis tried beside the Cam explaining literary criticism to Wittgenstein. The latter said he didn’t see the point. Of literary criticism. Dr. Leavis didn’t think a punt involved a football. There were certain lawns at Cambridge colleges where Dr. Leavis couldn’t take a step. I myself nearly knocked him into the street coming out of The Whim in 1966. The Whim was a tea shop. In 1966, I also met Diana. We were that very afternoon to punt our way to Grantchester. Just the two of us. Not with Wittgenstein or Leavis either one. I’ll save your black Schrödinger cat called Zeitgeist.
WE SAILED ON the Alde. No punt this time, a real sailor’s sailing boat. I mean it belonged to the Captain. When you sail the Alde from Orford you get the wind from the sea, the river running near it, tidal and tricky for the helmsman. If the tide goes out on you, you’ll spend the night on a mudbank. You won’t jump out because you’d sink in it like quicksand. The sale of some things in England made us sad; but I am even sadder standing in the Saint Joseph River. This time all things must go downstream aside from the excepted seven. Otherwise, that is the case. I reach into the case for Henry James’ American and send him doing backstroke down the stream. Life is but a dram of chance. A drachm should you have a drachma. Trying to come about, we broke a stay. The sail shivered and it caught no wind. Winded when I ran to meet her, late but with my arms full of roses, Captain Adams said, it’s jolly well my boat but she can sail it with you in or out. I was out and in. We would go alas to a landlocked docking port, our destination on a Greyhound bus. Best not complain. I’ll save for you your father’s sailing boat.
DOCKED AND DISEMBARKING we found ourselves a real presence at a Catholic university. There was a good story thereabouts. In years gone by the KKK was anti-Catholic not just anti-black. Once their busses parked in this same lot and members marched to what they thought would be a rally. All the ND football toughs had gathered round the corner from their destination and, as they arrived, torches alight and chanting Nazi slogans, the students set upon them with their fists, fending off their clubs with field hockey sticks. The KKK retreated, beaten black and blue. In that first year we found the work of Ivan Mestrovic at every turn. He’d come here like an exile fleeing Kosovo. He did not play football. His Pièta was in the church, Christ at Jacob’s Well outside the window where I taught my first group of students, all of whom became my friends. People gathered at the well in springtime and among them stood my pagan wife, a friend of all my friends. They laughed and drank together from the well. Elsewhere on these grounds Mestrovic had carved Persephone and Dionysius in a single block of stone. In Eleusinian rites Persephone’s betrothed to brother-son. I’d be her brother-son and spouse. I was. A girl of springtime steps out of the Pentateuch’s five scrolls. I’ll save you all the wine in Jacob’s well.
I CAN’T SAVE everything. I couldn’t even save you from your illness. Is illness in the case that floats beside me? I see silk and cotton garments, I see wool. I see scarves that might be veils. I see vials of unguents and of poisons too. There’s lace here also and some boxes within boxes as if Russian dolls. A small travelling case, a gold half-hunter pocket watch. Loose pages, sketches with a stick of charcoal, sharpened pencils, water-color paints. Grandmother was the artist. Could have been professional but was an Edwardian lady, European traveler, scribbler in her diary. But she did have shows. She wouldn’t sell, but gave away her work if someone really liked it. She was ninety when your mother Pamela was nine. They watched from Fife surrender of the German fleet, scuttled one year later full fathom five. 1914-1918 war. In the boxes within boxes medals for the men, and for the women ribbons from a horse and pony show. Someone’s lock of hair tied up with a ribbon. Your half-sister’s wedding dress. Daguerreotypes of Hilton-Youngs and Drury-Lowes and Bonham-Carters. Double-barreled through the generations until now. The first Lord Kennet tried to court Virginia Woolf (Virginia Stephen then). The last box of all contains some teeth. Louisa saved her teeth, and I guess was toothless when at 90 she beheld surrender of the German fleet. I’ll save you now your granddad’s grandest prize — it’s a By God Authentic Victoria Cross.
TWELVE VCs BY Breakfast is the title of the book about Zeebrugge. The Zeebrugge raid. My own VC that stood for Very Cautious led you to impatience and you whispered in my ear. I said I feared impetuosity. You kissed me on the cheek. I was lucky to have known about the U-boats operating out of Bruges. I’d found them in the mouth of a canal where from the Belgian harbor they would sail into the sea. The North Sea, under which was Doggerland which once between two icesheets had allowed for walking with your deer’s antler harpoon in search of anything that was the case in the Holocene. But it was a mole in April of 1918. A mole with German guns protecting the narrow mouth of the canal. Along with the VCs your father’s men won DSOs and DSCs. There were framed pictures of his ship above the fireplace, where soon we settled down to kiss in earnest. That was April 1966. Computer-generated maps have shown where Doggerland emerged and flourished following the last Age of Ice. The ice was broken, as they say. I’ll save the secret that you whispered in my ear.
THE RIVER THAT I’m standing in was also glacier-carved. The Erie ice, the Saginaw, the Michigan converged just here. Hills and ranges fixed the contours then. Basins formed, and runoff made two rivers wider than the Mississippi. Tributaries broke through lateral moraines. The Elkhart and the Yellow rivers drained away the last of Maumee glacier – no waters yet could run off to Desplaines. When they did, the two great rivers slowed, silted up their valleys with debris and changed their names. Turning on itself, Dowagiac became its former tributary, flowing to Lake Michigan. Kankakee at flood time emptied into the immense abandoned channel, flowed on to St. Joseph, left an ice gorge, then a sand bar and a bluff. I suppose I stand midstream only in a dream, but I am broken to the point that I can’t tell. I hear a bell I know rings from St. Mary’s. I’ve sent downstream all everything except the seven things I now will list. The case is closed. I’ll save this bit of ice right in my heart.
The first thing I’ll save is your magnolia tree
The next thing I’ll save is your Schrödinger cat called Zeitgeist
I’ll save for you your father’s sailing boat
I’ll save you all the wine in Jacob’s well
I’ll save your granddad’s grandest prize: A By God Authentic Victoria Cross
I’ll save your secret whispered in my ear
I’ll save this bit of ice right in my heart
John Matthias, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is also editor emeritus of Notre Dame Review, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman Books published his three volumes of Collected Poems, as well as the uncollected long poem, Trigons, two more volumes of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Acoustic Shadows and a novel, Different Kinds of Music. Tales Tall & Short— Fictional, Factual and In Between was published by Dos Madres in 2020 and The New Yorker recently published his widely read memoir, “Living with a Visionary.” His Fortnightly archive is here.
Note: A “brief account of this writing” by Igor Webb is here.