By IGOR WEBB.
THE LAMENT, UTTERED when love and death are most closely bound, is arguably our most abiding literary form, something like an essential accessory to mortality. It is at the same time the most unsettling, even the most embarrassing form, exposing what we aren’t supposed to see. The Athenian audience at the Dionysia festival of 415 BCE didn’t award Euripides’ searing The Trojan Women, the outstanding lament of Greek drama, first prize, and who can be surprised—the play offers no salve for its endless series of deaths, no tragic resignation, no redemption, no dignified exit. Only lamentation, the wailing arias of Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache . . . But it is not the first-prize play of that Dionysia, by Xenocles, that we are still reading today, because The Trojan Women demonstrates beautifully, if that’s the word, the particular authority of the lament, which is that it offers solace by rendering grief as art.
In the past several years, we have had a remarkable spate of laments, including Naja Marie Aidt’s, When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book and most recently Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie’s Notes on Grief. The Fortnightly Review has just published (10 July 2021) the latest of the poet John Matthias’ laments1 concerning his wife Diana’s Parkinson’s and ultimately her death. I propose here a brief account of this writing in the hopes of establishing at least some preliminary evidence for what makes Matthias’ laments a major literary achievement.
You should know, to begin, that John Matthias and I, each of us completing our Ph.D.s for Stanford, were housemates in 1966, in the north London house of Professor Wisdom—yes, Professor Wisdom, John O. Wisdom, Professor of Scientific Method at the LSE, who was at UCLA that year, and it was at a party that fall that we met Diana Adams. Not many months later, in a small church near Diana’s family home in Hacheston, Suffolk, Matthias (as I will address him) and Diana married. And then, poof, off they went to South Bend in Indiana—far, far from London—where Matthias took up a position at the University of Notre Dame, serving eventually as co-editor of the Notre Dame Review.2
Joseph Brodsky, writing about what once were the most famous (and much loved!) laments in English—Thomas Hardy’s “Poems 1912-13,” on the sudden death of his wife of thirty-eight years, Emma Gifford—says that the unusual metrical diversity of Hardy’s twenty-one startling and disturbing poems might be attributed to “the poet’s grief searching for an adequate form of expression.” But he’s not sold on this idea. What he really thinks is that “craftsmanship was a no lesser issue for the poet here than the issue itself.”3 Craftsmanship is an issue because the lament will not do its work for either writer or reader if it is not wholly natural—an unalloyed confession—and wholly artificial, that is, formally masterful. But the catch, for the writer, is that there is no time left to hazard practice in the discipline: you just have to do it, which is to say you have to trust in muscle memory, as it were, to do the writing.
In the case of Matthias’ laments, we can see an accelerating stress on his craft from the anguishing trajectory of events, and an astonishing equipoise of response, achieved in part, since none of us hold up well in the face of death, by turning for help to the writing of others. “Complayntes for Doctor Neuro,” for example, is accompanied by an explanatory endnote, titled “A Poetics of Parkinson’s,” where Matthias confides that we should read the cycle as “a kind of dialogue with one of [his] favorite poets, Hilda Morley,” one of the Black Mountain poets. Morley’s husband, the Modernist composer Stefan Wolpe, suffered like Diana Matthias with Parkinson’s and it is her powerful and beautiful poems on his illness and his death—What Are Winds and What Are Waters (1983)—that Matthias draws on in “Complayntes . . .” The endnote also tells us that “the writing itself was often accompanied by Wolpe CDs—the String Quartet, The Man from Midian, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano,” and if you sit down to read Matthias’ laments, you will understand immediately that this music is the ideal accompaniment for the writing.
Matthias reaches out for Wolpe and Morley with the first words of his (eleven part) poem:
Help me, music—
somehow in the way I know
that Stefan Wolpe’s music
helped his dear beloved wife
and, one brief summer, my good friend,
to live his illness with him for
a decade, then endure . . .
I anoint myself. What Are Winds
And What Are Waters at my bedside . . .
Morley wrote according to the principles of “composition by field,” following Charles Olson’s ponderous but hugely influential program to supplant meter and metrical forms by “projective verse” based on “certain laws . . .of the breath,” and using typography to manifest those “laws” on the page. Matthias doesn’t write projective verse but one of the great pleasures of his poetry from the outset has been his gift for very fine, and elegantly paced, phrasing, which he deploys with expert delicacy in “Complayntes” to evoke the pressures, dislocations, and also something of the visions—of distress. The poem cycle contrasts the language and outlook of the physician and the poet, and aims its complaints at the helping industry, as here, writing about exercises recommended for Parkinson’s patients:
Stick your tongue out. Now look mad.
Now look sad and know the difference between
Sad and Angry, girl. Make it clear
Twist and sneer. Tongue it sister if you can . . .
Two of the poets most important to Matthias—the great British (Welsh) Modernist David Jones,4 and John Berryman, Matthias’ first writing teacher—will have alerted him to the possibilities of writing in the aftermath of trauma. T.S. Eliot, in his introduction (1961) to the paperback reissue of the Jones’ masterpiece In Parenthesis (1937), notes that “The work of David Jones has some affinity with that of James Joyce . . . and with the later work of Ezra Pound, and with my own . . . . The lives of all of us were altered by [the First World] War.” Looked at as the work of writers “altered,” as Eliot puts it, by the First World War, Modernist writing can be cast as a registering of, a working through personal and historical PTSD: the language bends, strains, and cracks in the collision with the world-trauma.
MATTHIAS HAD READ John Berryman before he ever came across David Jones, and everything about Berryman and Berryman’s work, especially the “Dream Songs” is important to Matthias. Michael Hofman puts it perfectly: “Who knew English could encompass that flux,” he says of the “Dream Songs”; “that whinny; those initially baffling, then canny and eventually unforgettable rearrangements of words; that irresistible flow of thoughts and nonthoughts of that degree of informed privateness?” Also: “I love the extremes of courtliness and creatureliness in the Dream Songs” which he observes “vary through every degree of lucidity and opacity”5 All of which could be said of Matthias. In particular, I’d point to the easy mixing of registers, which appears everywhere in Matthias’ writing, and the location of the writing, almost always, in the implicit setting of the long tradition of tales and Romance (especially important in “Some of Her Things”), with their courtly rituals and diction.
Both Hilda Morley and Matthias most invoke ancient Greek, and to a lesser extent Roman, mythology, because in the Western tradition those tales say all there is to say about Fate, that is, about how to live with what, because we are human, befalls us. This struggle—to come to terms with what has happened—marks every word of Matthias’ laments. How is he to do it? In the last poem of the “Complayntes” cycle, he does it by reimagining Ovid’s account of Baucis and Philemon. Although Ovid, as Matthias says, “can be as cruel in his metamorphoses/As some malign neurologist” his story of the old married couple Baucis and Philemon, poor peasants who are the only people in town to do right by the two disguised strangers Zeus and Hermes, is an unusually “gentle, generous story” (well, gentle and generous to Baucis and Philemon: Zeus kills everyone else in the town and burns it to the ground!). By the time we come to this last poem, Diana has been tormented in any number of ways by what has befallen her, the Parkinson’s that steals her sleep, wrenches her limbs, scripts obscenities in her speech, embeds her in illusory worlds of both pain and joy—though worse is yet to come—and so it is hard-earned by the poet and especially moving to the reader to come upon the poem’s lovely close:
And I was standing in a marble temple, and I
Was not I. Beside me Serpent Aesculapius arose
In flaming cloak. Diana spoke: I am a linden tree
And what I was replied: I have become an oak.
“Living With A Visionary” is the poet’s account of his, and Diana’s, descent into hell. Her physical and mental afflictions worsen; what she once could recognize to be illusory apparitions and visions overtake her; she cannot be left alone. She does not sleep and does not eat. Covid strikes. Imprisoned at home Matthias and Diana sink into an exhaustion and confusion that must have beset, must be besetting many, many families. Both Diana and Matthias land in psychiatric wards; because of Covid they cannot see each other in person. Matthias only manages his release with the help of a “personal health-care advocate.” Diana meanwhile is whisked off to a home near her daughter, which, although doubtless the right place for her, is far from South End. Matthias can only speak with her by phone. She contracts Covid, seems to recover, then relapses suddenly, and dies. Matthias never gets to see her.
It is paradoxical, one of the (many) ironic gifts of art that this harrowing story is narrated in Matthias’ lucid, sinewy prose, his sturdily American and brilliantly managed English (he comes from a distinguished legal family in Ohio, the state whose language linguists once said embodied Standard American). But it’s in “Some of Her Things,” a fable in the form of a long prose poem, written shortly after Diana’s death, that Matthias’ most powerfully, and poignantly, deploys his language and his craft. To borrow Michael Hofman’s word, it is a courtly threnody for lost time. Brodsky says that the heroine of Hardy’s “Poems 1912-13” “is not the wife Emma Hardy but precisely Emma Lavinia Gifford, the bride,” and he speculates that this is so because, by the time of her sudden death, the marriage between Hardy and Emma had long been cool if not over. Brodsky may be right, but I think the truth lies elsewhere. Don’t our memories—in old age, and after the death of someone we have loved for a lifetime—inescapably hark back to when we, and they, were young? It’s falling in love that stirs the heart and memory, not decades of washing the dishes (though there’s some great writing about dailiness). Even more, writing about the loss of someone we love can’t easily be limited to writing strictly about the loss of a unique person; it tends rather to encompass the circumstance that troubles us all while still living, which is the loss of time itself: Ou sont les neiges d’antan?
And so, as I’ve said, “Some of Her Things” is a courtly threnody for lost time, as though Arnaut Daniel had taken up prose. It recalls Berryman’s “Dream Songs” also insofar as its great effort to hold steady, to hold things together, to write subjects after verbs, intermittently breaks down, and a manic or unmoored association kidnaps the writing. Matthias finds he is in the middle of the Saint Joseph River, bound to save just seven things from a huge case containing all of Diana’s clothes and favorite objects and memories and qualities of mind and person. Each of the poem’s seven sections is devoted to one thing saved. At the outset Diana tells him to “Do like Henry James” who apparently had to dispose of Constance Woodson’s things after her suicide.6
Woodson may have been 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.” Because Matthias is in the river, and beside him is a giant case, his puns on “the case” (and his play with Wittgenstein) become a kind of meme in the work, an outlet, a permission to howl and bellow. “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.” In the seventh and last section of the poem, there’s a moment of final clarity:
I suppose I stand midstream only in a dream, but I am broken to the point I can’t tell . . . I’ve sent downstream all everything except the seven things I now will list. The case is closed.
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 for you all the wine in Jacob’s well
I’ll save your grandad’s 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.”
This saving is the work of the lament, waging craft, imagination, song, devotion and heart’s ache against loss, or maybe I should just say hope against hope. “Hilda Morley,” Matthias writes, “called her Collected Poems Cloudless at First, and so it is for most of us. But the heavy weather will come.”
Igor Webb was born in Slovakia and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, and Notre Dame Review. He is Professor of English at Adelphi University. His most recent book is Christopher Smart’s Cat. (2018). His Fortnightly essay ‘On Longinus and Bread and the Sublime’ is here.
- I will be discussing “Complayntes for Doctor Neuro” from Complayntes for Doctor Neuro & other poems (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016), “Living With a Visionary” (The New Yorker, February 1, 2021), and “Some of Her Things” (The Fortnightly Review, 10 July 2021).
- Matthias, now a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, has long served as an essential two-way ambassador for the American and British poetic traditions, in particular providing British (and for that matter, international) poets access to the U.S. audience through The Notre Dame Review (in 1976, Matthias, too, became a fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, a connection he has maintained ever since). His extensive body of work is published by Shearsman Books (Bristol), including three volumes of Collected Poems (2011, 2012, 2013).
- The Essential Hardy (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1995), 44.
- See Matthias’ Introducing David Jones (Faber and Faber, 1980) and David Jones: Man and Poet (The National Poetry Foundation, 1980).
- “Introduction,” The Dream Songs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
- Woodson famously traveled everywhere with a huge array of objects, including:
her tear vase
her collection of ferns
a picture of yellow Jasmine (her favorite flower)
a weighing machine
a stiletto from Mentone
etchings of Bellosguardo and a red transparent screen used there
a 1760 edition of the poems of Vittoria Colonna
seven old prints bought by [her great-uncle James Fenimore] Cooper in Italy
an engraving of Cooper
a copper warming-pan from Otsego Hall given her by one of Cooper’s daughters, Mrs. Phinney
and a photograph of her cherished niece, Clare, which she hung in every room she occupied.