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The poems in this collection represent the best of William Matthews"s ten
original books of poetry, almost thirty years" worth, beginning in 1970 and
including the posthumous After All, 1998. There are some hundred and sixty-
five poems here, twenty-six of which are from work previously unpublished in
a book. In the course of his remarkable career, Matthews placed in various
magazines— from the ephemeral to The Atlantic Monthly and The New
Yorker—more than eight hundred poems. He was prolific, but he was also
selective. When it came time to assemble a new volume, he was severe.
Either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or
it didn"t. Fewer than half the poems he wrote made it into books.
With the help of Michael Collier, Houghton Mifflin"s poetry
consultant, and Peter Davison, Matthews"s longtime friend and editor,
Sebastian Matthews and I have followed the author"s model in producing a
collection we feel he would be proud of, a selection he himself might have
made. Matthews died on November 12, 1997, the day after his fifty-fifth
birthday. He had, just days before, sent off the completed manuscript of After
All, in accordance with a creative schedule that presented a new book of
poetry every three years. Added to this calendar were any number of critical
essays, commentaries, memoir pieces, reviews, and interviews, many of
which have been gathered into Curiosities (1989) and The Poetry Blues
Matthews"s marvelous letters make up yet another category. His
correspondence with the world, through his masterly poems and graceful
prose, was rich and varied; his correspondence with his friends and
acquaintances was loving, engaging, and always on point. All of Matthews"s
writing, regardless of genre, reveals the man, both the persona he wished to
disclose and the person he almost successfully kept to himself. His brilliance
and volubility are inseparable from his reserve—the tension between them is
the core dynamic of his kinetic mind and demanding language. His
announced self and secret self parley not only the precision of his diction and
imagination but the spoken music of his sentence. His poetry, like his prose,
can seem impromptu, when in fact it is written in astute, rehearsed internal
conversation within a form itself being addressed. Matthews"s buoyant feel for
analysis, his restless curiosity, his refreshing range of knowledge, his quirky,
often sardonic take on memory, his insistence on the invisibility of his craft—
these elements and more set him apart as a maker.
To paraphrase, however, is only to suggest Matthews"s depth and
resonance as a poet. The implicit chronology of this careful selection of his
poems conjures a narrative of work that moves from the imagistic, aphoristic
seventies to the more directly autobiographical eighties to the more
meditative, introspective nineties. All the while the poems grow in size,
texture, complexity, darkness, and acceptance of the given situation—or, at
the least, a reluctant reconciliation. The full heart behind the poems becomes
more and more available to the luminous mind making them. Too often
honored for his wit alone, the Matthews throughout these pages is a poet of
emotional resolve, enormous linguistic and poetic resources, and, most
especially, a clarifying wisdom. Here he is reinforced as a writer of
responsibility to form and tradition as well as irony and idiom, whether that
heritage refers to literature, jazz, and epicurean delight or elegiac testimonies
for those he has loved.
Reading Matthews you get the impression that his insights and
images and the syntax created by his inevitable ear have traveled great
distances to the page. They have. They arrive distilled from a metaphysics in
which thought is not only feeling but a coherent language, a language that
must be mastered before it can be made. "Snow Leopards at the Denver
Zoo," from the seventies, is an early example.

Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo

There are only a hundred or so
snow leopards alive, and three
of them here. Hours I watch them jump
down and jump up, water being
poured. Though if you fill a glass
fast with water, it rings high to the top,
noise of a nail driven true. Snow
leopards land without sound,
as if they were already extinct.

If I could, I"d sift them
from hand to hand, like a fire,
like a debt I can count but can"t pay.
I"m glad I can"t. If I tried to
take loss for a wife, and I do,
and keep her all the days of my life,
I"d have nothing to leave my children.
I save them whatever I can keep
and I pour it from hand to hand.

The connections in this poem easily surpass discrete metaphor to
become the total medium—submersion—through which they move: from the
snow leopards to water to snow to fire to consuming debt to loss; from
jumping to pouring to filling to counting to pouring . . . the concentric circles
derive from and return directly to their common center of gravity in a flow and
speed almost preternatural. Then there is the touch of the "nail driven true,"
the exquisite understatement of the soundlessness of the leopards,
landing "as if they were already extinct," and the reality of taking "loss for a
wife." The fragility of the poem is also its subject, the balance of
saving "whatever I can keep" against the perishability of losing it all. Behind
the poem is the certain knowledge—which is a theme in Matthews"s poetry—
that it will all, always, slip through our hands. This genius for turning the most
familiar materials into something extraordinary—both smart and moving at
once—comes from his gift for making connections and exploiting them to the
limit their language will bear.
For all the normal changes in his writing, as Matthews matured he
never surrendered his talent for the fragile, mortal moment that quickens the
feel of things. At times his tone may have sharpened— he loved Byron as
much as he loved Martial—but he never gave in to the fragmentary, the
broken, the piecemeal hard emotion. He was continually a writer of the
controlled but complete embrace. I think the soul of his work is closer to the
toughness and sweetness of Horace, to the passions of mind of Coleridge,
and to the nocturnal blues melancholy of all those jazzmen he revered. He
grew up in Ohio, within the margins of both country and small city, pastoral
and postwar urban. His father worked for the Soil Conservation Service. He
rode a bike, had a newspaper route (the Dayton Daily News), went to the
county fair, played baseball and basketball, moved back to Cincinnati (his
birthplace), then later to a larger, eastern, Ivy League world. A not uncommon
midwestern American story. Yet he never lost his sense of humor about
himself nor forgot where he came from. His complexity combined the Ohioan
and the New Yorker, the boy and the man, beautifully in his poetry.
In the transitional sixties, when he was a graduate student in
Chapel Hill, Matthews met Russell Banks, also in graduate school and also
starting out as a writer. They soon collaborated on what became one of the
exceptional small literary magazines of its era, Lillabulero. The collaboration
would fade but the friendship would last a lifetime. Matthews"s commitment
to the small magazine would not fade. It says everything about him that a
good portion of the poems in this collection first appeared in journals of often
very short shelf lives. He became one of the premier poets of his generation,
yet he remained faithful to the idea of where literature can find its first
expression. His democratic instincts never failed him. Matthews was
preeminently fair-minded, and this egalitarian spirit informed every part of his
personality and permitted him to serve vital roles in American poetry culture
at a vital time, from the Poetry Society of America to the National
Endowment for the Arts. And his tireless support of younger writers, it goes
without saying, began with his superb teaching.
It is still difficult, for many of his friends and admirers, to believe
that he is gone. The poems represented here are alive in ways and at depths
that most poetry can at best aspire to. The intimacy is never too familiar, the
conversation never too friendly, the imagination never too busy, the wit never
too sterling. The fault lines of heartbreak are everywhere, yet they map an
intact emotion. Every gesture, every turn, every reverse is guided and
governed by a classicism that values moderation, generosity, and, at just the
right moment, an utter truth. Timing, indeed, is essential to Matthews"s
internal music: he knows just when to smile, when to open the window, when
to change the pace, and when the last line is the last line. And he knows he
knows, without display. Reading this collection, front to back or intermittently
at leisure, we love his mind, we celebrate the skill that lifts the quotidian to
meaning. And we love, even more, the man whose life was so much at stake
in the words.

Copyright © 2004 by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly. Introduction
copyright © 2004 by Stanley Plumly. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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