No poet I know of has explored the poetic amplitudes of place as thoroughly as John Matthias. Poems that begin in immediate experience reach, inevitably, into their places’ pasts—to history, folklore, archeology, science, proto-science and language.
For Matthias, articulation is always a kind of exploration, a form of discovery. “Double Derivation, Association and Cliché: from The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster” begins in a medieval text and, against the impingements of the present, holds the text in view with recurrent middle English phrases, though there is no mistaking the poem’s present, “I reach for words as in a photograph/ I reach for costumes in a trunk.”
“Clarifications for Robert Jacoby” (reprinted here) is a poetic reprise (I was about to say commentary, but that won’t entirely do) of “Double Derivation,” reaching into the poet’s childhood—a trunk full of costumes and an old photograph and the enacted heraldry of play recalled—but set firmly in a present Suffolk, a meditation on sight and vision addressed to an old Arthurian playmate who’s become an ophthalmologist.
In poems set in East Anglia, Bosnia, Austria and Spain and poems set, as well, in the American Midwest—the Ohio of his childhood and the Indiana of his years at Notre Dame—the archeology of language in place is what is essential; words and phrases, lifted from archaic texts and family anecdotes alike, are held view like carefully unearthed artifacts, tangible instances of the past, both near and far, in place. That is, at least partly, the sense of the title of Archambeau’s critical book on Matthias, Word Play Place, a complex compound—wordplay, play-place and word-place, plus, of course, that other sense of play, the flex of things, the tension and slack of language and place in play.
Photo By: Rob.