Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Poem of the Day: "No Return" by William Matthews

I have been rereading William Matthews' last book, After All. I am a big fan of Matthews' work and this book is no exception; there are some great poems here. One of my favorites has always been the poem "The Bar at the Andover Inn" situated just after his son's wedding, and his response to the wedding in light of his own three marriages having failed. The poem is beautiful, touching, and both harsh and hopeful at the same time.

After All is not Matthew's best book. It suffers a bit from appearing to be thrown together from whatever he was working on towards the end. Some poems -- although on completely different topics -- seem like versions of the same poem, aiming for the same goal. Many are short, small poems... But the fact is that Matthews is so good, so precise, the book is still ten times better than 99% of the poetry printed today.

If anything, the book has the same problem all of his books have: it is too good. Matthews writing is so beautiful and seems so effortless, it is easy to dismiss his poems as "light" or off-hand, the feelings as put on for the occasion. No one could describe their feelings this clearly. That is both his talent and his curse.

The fact is that he is one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century and because of the perfection, clarity, and off-handedness of the poems, he is often overlooked. But back to my point...

So I am rereading the book and come across a poem I must have read before, but not noticed. Another gem, like many of his poems, but different. "No Return" is short (3 stanzas) and precise as always. Here's the opening stanza:

I like divorce. I love to compose
letters of resignation, now and then
I send one on and leave in a lemon-
hued Huff or a Snit with four on the floor.
Do you like the scent of hollyhock?
To each his own. I love a burning bridge.

What makes this poem stand out is its lack of motive, its abstraction. Many if not all of Matthews' poems tend to focus on a moment, an event, as a launching pad for reverie. "No Return" has no such catalyst, no story behind. It is Matthews vs. Matthews duking it out over his soul.

The poem is both the epitome of his writing and completely different. It is light-hearted, but in all probability truthful. And exquisitely crafted. Besides, he uses the word "doomily" and makes it work. Don't worry, its a real word (it's in Webster's, I looked). Yet it is so utterly a fabrication, it fits perfectly into the over-drawn metaphor he applies it to. It should be included in every dictionary, even if just as an homage to Matthews' use of it in this poem.

I could go through the day singing this poem for weeks (muttering "I love a burning bridge" to myself). That is the effect of Matthews' work: the reaffirmation of the uselessness of life in general and the invigorating epiphany of the individual's existence.

If you haven't read any of Matthews' work, I recommend any of his books. A Happy Childhood is my favorite, if you can find it. Or his collected poems Search Party may be a good starting point.

1 comment:

mkdiehl said...

Just found your blog while googling Matthews' poems (I'm not at home with my books). Thanks. I didn't find the poem I wanted but just reading the stanza you quoted made me happy.