By JOHN MATTHIAS.
1. The Scent of Smoke.
Seeking a quote, I reach for an old
Shakespeare volume on my shelf, and
Open it on the desk. Two others
In the old Collins series, 1958 or 1959,
Fall on the floor. Picking them up
And putting them beside the volume
I had sought, I distinctly smell
The scent of smoke from a wood fire
Somewhere. It is from the books.
I take a volume in my hand and open
It wide, and rudely poke my nose
Into the crotch of the breaking spine.
That sends me spinning back in time
To early visits in a Suffolk house
In Hacheston. Memory aroused, I
can see where these four books had
Rested on the high, wide mantle
Of the central fireplace in this house
Where one still prepared wood fires in
Individual rooms when it was cold.
The mantle was formed by a large beam
On whose terms the room’s structure
Organized itself. On it rested medals,
Gold plates memorializing campaigns
In two World Wars, a small sword with
An engraved blade, and the four
Collins Shakespeares. It seemed then
A temptation to recite a monologue
From Henry IV or V. The open fire
Had scorched the leather covered books
Until they smelled so much of smoke
And fire they seemed an invitation
For a winter’s truce, a Christmas Eve
Fraternization like the famous one
In World War I.
Sat on one side of the fire, the evening
Paper in his lap, and cleaned his pipe.
Mrs. Adams could be heard preparing
Dinner with the daily help, Miss Revel,
I sat facing the Captain. Then stood up
And chose the Collins volume that held
King Henry’s speech at Agincourt. Then
As now, I was seeking a quote. It was
A passage that a Brit most likely would have
Know by heart, obliged to memorize it
In his primary school. Silently I read the speech,
Remembering Olivier in the film I’d
Seen in my own elementary school where
Movies came to replace our memories of
Things we’d been told, and stories
Well-remembered by the old.
On the carpet
Well behind the fire, but still in its glow,
My two daughters played with their mother’s
Toy farm. One of them complained that there
Were too many cows and insufficient pigs.
Diana, my wife, was upstairs looking for
The pigs. But there were just enough hens
For the chicken coop, and there was one
Fine rooster to announce the dawn. As this
Was Christmas Eve, my daughter Laura
Had somewhere found a small box and made
A manger in a corner of the farm. Cynouai,
Her sister, could not decide which animal would
Make the best approximation of the Human
Child divinity who ought to lie in it. The farm had
Donkeys, but neither girl could find a camel
Or a wise man, so Farmer Jones and an old horse
Were made to serve. Eventually, a lamb
Went in the manger.
Diana said as she entered the room,
And everyone looked up. She gave the room
A sense of purpose and of art. The Captain
Smoked his pipe, I closed the Collins Shakespeare,
My daughters reached out hands for pigs, and
Mrs Adams said that dinner had been served
Next door. All of this at once!
At some point, I brought back
The set of Shakespeare to our Indiana home–
The Suffolk house
Was sold, and Hacheston itself became
A village haven for London commuters.
The books have
Rested on some high shelves for
Many years, but I’d not much consulted them.
The print’s too small now for my failing eyes
And I’m as old as Captain Adams was
That Christmas. There are no children in my house
And my wife died two years ago. But now
There seems to be some smoke in every room
From something not contained as fire was
In that Suffolk grate. I breathe it in like poison
Or like smoke from lotus flowers. The book
Itself seems like a fading coal in my hands.
I find the passage I was looking for, but have
No longer any need to write it down.
2. A Memory.
Times past I was proud of my memory.
I could reconstruct both sides of a conversation
That occurred fifty years ago; I could name
The authors and titles of the first couple of dozen
Books on, say, the third tier of my bookshelf
On being challenged to do it. And I was sometimes
Set other tasks: Remembering why I was in pain
For example; remembering why I had been happy.
A friend remembers an early death among the
Group of people we knew in California, a suicide.
Shall we all say his name? “Thrice blessed,”
Said Mandelstam, “is he who puts a name in
His song.” My friend does not remember the name
Of the man who died (who killed himself) and
Substitutes the generic “student.” I, too, remember
Roughly the circumstances of the tragedy.
A grad student in classics left a note and drove
Out to the beach and drowned himself. All of
This fifty years ago. After reading the poem I
Start thinking of all those who have died from
My years in California. Some went to Viet Nam,
Some to Canada as exiles, some kept at the grind
And ended up as professors. But this young man
Only drove as far as the ocean and swam out to the
Point when he knew he could never swim back.
I cannot think of his name. I write an email to my
Girlfriend of those years because she was a major
In classics and surely knew him as he was a
Fellow student in Greek and Latin classes. He was
A wealthy easterner, my friend’s poem recalls.
My girlfriend was from Bettendorf, Iowa. She
Writes back that she has no memory of the event
Or the person whose death I describe. I fear
She thinks I’m confused, but I’m not. I remember
With great clarity her account of the death, I
Remember her tears, I remember everything
Except for the young man’s name. She had been
A friend of his, I remember that with certainty.
I write to the poet whose poem set all of this in
Motion by publishing his poem. What, I ask, was
Our fellow student’s real name? He writes back
That he doesn’t remember, and that’s why
The name’s not in his poem, but only an
Account of the death of a “student of classics.”
Two years ago, a year ago, I could have
Supplied the name. At least I remember my
Girlfriend’s tears, the department closing down
For a day in his memory, an old professor’s
Aching grief as he spread the word. What was
The name? The name has become Anon.
A non-named in hey nonny no a noman poem.
Blessed is he who puts a name in his song.
3. A Late Style.
i.m. Peter Taylor and In the Tennessee Country
She, your mother, was only just fourteen
When she fell in love with your grandfather’s ward,
The natural son of his dead brother who spent
His summers in a Tennessee mountain shack and
His winters reading Kant and Schopenhauer
To educate himself for the menial tasks he performed
In the D.C. office of your mother’s dad, who was
The U.S. Senator from Tennessee. The ward’s name was
Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw, and in that year when
Trudy was fourteen, he was twenty-one.
When I say your mother, your grandfather,
Your this or that, I’m often thinking of the narrator
In the last book you managed to write, working
With an amanuensis and slowly dictating
Between strokes and with other infirmities a prose
One critic called “so graceful and lucid one has
The impression that it simply happened,
Dropping from the heavens onto the page” –
And when I say you, I also mean “you the author,”
And willingly conflate the maker of the book
With a character, something we’ve all been
Taught not to do since school days and for the
Best of reasons –
Your mother, then,
The Senator’s daughter and
Kin to her early flame, Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw –
Bradshaw the name of Aubrey’s mother
Whose lover died and left the first family of the state
An illegitimate son, cousin to the Senator’s
Three daughters and enigma to his
Grandson – you – insofar as all of this is told
By the narrator whose memory we cling to in
Our confusion, saying you, you —
It all starts on a train. The Senator has died
And his body, resting in an elaborate coffin, is guarded
In turn by his three sons-in-law and sometimes
By Aubrey, whom all the others disdain and who
In their turn are disdained by him, the ward. The train
Includes a baggage car for the coffin and
Two pullmans for the Senator’s three daughters,
Their husbands, and the child-version
Of the grown-up narrator who’s inspired
In large part by the dead man’s famous “stories”
Which have been re-told, with variations, down
The years—but not, of course, told on the journey
Bearing “the most popular man in the Senate” and a friend
Of William Howard Taft, president at the time – 1916 –
And himself an eager audience for the dead man’s tales.
The train’s sorrowful ride is from Washington to Nashville
And people line the tracks, just as they had for Lincoln.
In Nashville he lay in state, and then resumed his
Journey to Knoxville station, during which, or maybe
Shortly after the arrival, Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw
Simply disappears —
“Train of thought,” we say,
“Flowing River of Words.” From Aubrey’s disappearance
You could tell your tale at leisure, follow parenthetical
Associations out of bounds to non-sequiturs if it
Should please, wait with patience while your mother
Said her poems — “Trudy tell us ‘Laska,’ ‘Snowbound,’
‘Locksley Hall’ — but don’t place a jar in Tennessee
The way some modern poet might, breaking it
To signify the lost state of Franklin, ghosting still
In isolation after war with North Carolina, place in which
To disappear that might, like Brigadoon, only come
Alive again on one day of the year.
Hiding in that figurative Franklin of his mind,
Aubrey was sometimes glimpsed or heard about –
A name spoken in a restaurant coming from
A conversation’s reference to a Colonel Bradshaw-Tucker;
A colleague’s recounting of a story he had heard from
A man called A.N. Bradshaw, “an urbane and
Distinguished-looking person with a Van Dyke beard
And wearing a kind of Prince Albert coat with tails;”
A presence in the house of a Rhode Island socialite
Who passed through a door with his double on her arm;
Even in a bit of newspaper – the Washington Post –
Used to wrap up lettuce from a visit to the marketplace
Which revealed, when unwrapped and laid down flat
An aging but familiar face. It was like discovering
A Sappho fragment on the unwound winding cloth
Of a mummy —
In the course of this you passed your final years,
You the author, while the you who is
A character traces his own life from would-be artist
To a narrow art historian working on the Pre-Raphaelites.
Through it all, Aubrey’s still spotted at the edge of things
From time to time.
It’s mostly at funerals when
He appears, lurking at the back of the funeral home,
The church, the grave side family group, as one by one
The daughters and the sons-in-law of the Patriarch
Begin to die. And so time passes, and you – both character
And author — age into your final postures, crouched
Over a desk with pen in hand, one writing on Pre-Raphaelites,
The other on the family for which the first both champions
And laments archaic habits and old traditions in which
A man could find himself a ward –
And you, my own
First teacher of the reach of an imagination and
The possibility of breaching conventions which the
Public life of old families, mine as well as yours, might
Wish upon their young, finally summoned Aubrey back
At the end of your book. Wearing electrodes on your
Legs to kill the neuropathic pain, leaning on a cane,
And fearing yet another stroke, you ended by
Dictating Aubrey’s reappearance as transfigured man,
Freed of his wardship, but also invalid like you,
Weird of expression, hyperbolic in his speech, fierce
In his strangeness – his history of moving through
His secret life as thing self-created –
And so, like
Your hero Henry James, you’re forced
To dictation at the end, spinning sentences that
Your amanuensis strains to gather on the page.
He sees that your eyes are looking not at him
But vaguely into space, and that your story’s
Left the realm of ink and paper and begun to
Take possession of your body. “Often,” your
Amanuensis wrote, “Peter would suddenly laugh
And turn to me and look with sudden joy in
His face, delighting with the hapless teller’s
Misunderstanding of his tale, struggling with
His vain attempts to untangle tangles of his
Own delusional musings.”
You and you I praise.
The tangler and untangler both. Teller and the told.
Who, a critic said, would ever guess that such
A frail old man could write such a vital book. And who
Would think that such a book could write
In its strange written way such a youthful, vital man.
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, followed by his 2020 New Yorker memoir, “Living with a Visionary.” His latest collection, Varieties of Homage, was published in 2022 by Odd Volumes, the Fortnightly’s imprint. His Fortnightly archive is here.