Some Words on Those Wars
by John Matthias
Dos Madres Press 2021 | 320 pp. | $33.00
By Garin Cycholl.
We kill at a distance, complicit both in the act and its reach. Take the distance of Homer’s warriors versus medieval archers, artillery gunners, bombardiers, or contemporary drone pilots with their killsticks. That distance from conflict continues to extend itself with time. The traumas inflicted are cut with time and distance, the filtered, nightly digest of atrocities or unreported violence. The wound inflicted outside of time and human geographies.
We also remember at that distance—memoir and account, short story and chronicle. Narrative curiously upends our sense of that remoteness. At points, narrative chronicles at this distance, Omaha Beach infantrymen as remote as the Iliad’s warriors. In other moments though, narrative can recover the wound’s immediacy. I think here of the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, or more personally, my father’s cousin’s home movies of his time in Vietnam. Images at the base or jungle at helicopter-eye view, narrated within his voice the list of names of men as they move through or beyond the frames.
This objective drives John Matthias’s reflections in Some Words on Those Wars, a collection of poems and essays exploring frames set in recollections of the world wars of the twentieth century. The writer works both as chronicler and overhearer in this collection. He moves with a keen sense of recovery, reconnecting the reader to these conflicts’ personal and geographical legacies. Matthias’s own narrating distance is critical to these reflections. In regard to these wars’ seeming remoteness, he writes,
I say ‘our century’; but I am a twentieth-century refugee who has washed up on a twenty-first century beachhead. (4)
Even in his exploration of poems engaging the experience of combat and its griefs, Matthias admits that he is not attempting to fix a trench-eye view, particularly in “Some Longer Poems about World War II.” Instead echoing George MacBeth, Matthias seeks the perspectives of writers “too young to fight but too old to forget” (213). The effect is how these distances both reframe a human measure of the wars as well as how their shards have been planted in us.
Reflecting on Gavin Bantock’s “Hiroshima,” Matthias recognizes the task of “telling” these wars’ savagery. He asks,
What language is strong enough to return us to blitzed London, Stalingrad, Malta, Cologne, atom-bombed Hiroshima, Nagasaki? What language can call the phantom pilots back to their airfields or resurrect both their victims or our own failing memories? (266)
As in his own work, Matthias utilizes these poems in general as a vehicle into or through time, clotted as it is with image, sound, and feeling. In In Parenthesis, David Jones maps an “Arthurian waste land” upon the Great War’s trench system (50). Nathaniel Tarn’s Avia presents a sweeping history of aviation and its impact on warfare—in his words, “a poetry of fact and thing” (227). Lynette Roberts’ “Gods with Stainless Ears” details the disrupted countryside in wartime where “the real heroes are the heroines… what should be the normal calendar of rural life” (255). Matthias also engages the transl(oc)ations of Christopher Logue, a poet whom Matthais published in his 1971 anthology, 23 Modern British Poets. Logue “translates” Homer through contemporary image, in which “the music of the war was more than elegy for slaughter. It was heroic song” (226). By sounding the distances at which these poems take shape, Matthias blends times and spaces to dazzling effect. He reconnects to a moment where he recognized James Dickey’s 1965 historical conflations in “The Firebombing,”
imagin[ing] myself, like Dickey, dropping my incendiaries on enemy towns. (239)
The poem seemingly exists in two times—1940s Dresden and Vietnam just decades later. The poems’ artistic and temporal distances propel our own capacities to recall or conjure their spaces—grief-wrung, lived, and erased.
It is interesting that the center of Some Words… is in some way Matthias’s engagement of John Edgar Wideman in a piece obliquely titled “A Note on the Pisan Cantos.” Writing within his cage, Pound reports, “and Till was hung yesterday” (qtd. in Matthias 131). The “Till” is Louis Till, who was hanged in Italy by the U.S. military after being found guilty of rape and murder. Louis Till is also the father of Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi just a decade later. In Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, Wideman examines the context of the military’s trial of Till and its sought “truth” and “justice.” Wideman “calls” Pound as a witness as he reopens the case. What Wideman finds is silence. Wideman concludes, “I’m adrift. Nowhere to put it all… Fragments shored against ruin” (qtd. in Matthias 137).
This essay centers this collection because it introduces a set of “Six Poems” by Matthias himself. Within them, he engages similar secret histories within these conflicts’ silence. The poems prod history’s widths. Gertrude Bell’s influence on the drawing of Iraq’s borders. The “coincidence” of a piano concert by Myra Hess during London’s bombing on the same day that Rudolf Hess takes flight from Germany to Scotland in May 1941.
With his usually adept focus, Matthias, like Wideman, attempts to make these moments’ deeper silences speak in the midst of war’s historical roar. One can hear the filmy slap of newsreel and war movie, their effect on how we frame this violence or find ourselves reflected back to us. Matthias allows this silence to speak across the century. On Bell’s mapping, he writes,
And still a graver / music runs beneath… (144)
Closing with that silence and what speaks within or over it, Matthias upholds “Prothelamion,” an unpublished poem written by David Jones on the occasion of friends’ wedding during wartime. As Matthias notes, the poem celebrates song and unity in the midst of ruins and war’s “unmaking” (274). What sings or speaks there? Jones writes, “So have I heard bird-song / beneath the / trajectory zone” (qtd. in Matthias 275). With Some Words on Those Wars, Matthias seeks this song across the century’s distance and violence. Perhaps we can hear it above the silence of drones.
An extract from Some Words on Those Wars titled “The Iron Pier” was previously published in The Fortnightly Review here.
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.
GARIN CYCHOLL’s recent novel, Rx, is a play on The Confidence-Man, a man practicing medicine without a license in a Dis-united States. His book-length poem, prairied, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX.