Not until the day he died, 12 November 1997, did I know that Bill Matthews shared the same birthday as my brother. We, like my husband Stanley Booth, are believers. Though Bill was not, I’m confident that he floats among clouds, seated in a nebulous Roman temple and listening to jazz or classical music. I’m also confident that, around this time of year, Bill grimaces with the wry lust and rage -- but not the terror -- that fuel his best poems.
Once, during a weeklong stay in 523 W. 121 St.’s guest bedroom -- a privilege I was told had previously been extended only to his children and Stanley Plumly – I asked Bill if his elder son was named after him. Bill drew himself up to his full six feet plus and said, sniffily, that he had named his sons after his own heroes: the Bard and Bach.
I keened and howled and all but scratched my cheeks and rent my tunic when I learned of Bill’s death. It feels a bit unseemly to mention “Afterwords” in Cities of Flesh and the Dead, but it was written with grief and fury and responds directly to Bill’s “The Wolf of Gubbio” in Time and Money.
Few things in life are as devastating as receiving a posthumous postcard. Especially, in retrospect, one with lupines on it. For Bill was no wolf; rather, he was an overgrown puppy with an insatiable mind and need for love. The word “blackened” as used to describe his current reputation is another loaded term, considering we were both primarily raised by our grandparents and their domestic “help.” The accusations of Pavlovian predation are absurd and insulting, not only to Bill but also to the many, many women he knew and loved as friends during his life.
I am neither stupid nor naive. I’m aware of the sexual harassment scandal at the University of Washington. I’m aware also of certain women who felt and feel cruelly abandoned by Bill. But Bill and I exchanged letters and postcards constantly for almost fifteen years, and among these is one in which he made a “startling” suggestion. I replied that I held us both to a higher standard and we would never again have the same easy comfort as friends, all the while greatly fearing that I would never hear from him again. Au contraire. Bill replied by return mail and We Got Over It. Quickly. In fact, without the exchange, the level of intimacy we attained probably would not have happened.
In my experience, there are two kinds of womanizers: those who hate women and punish them by sleeping with them and then placing as much distance between themselves and their sexual conquests as quickly as possible; and those who love women and are helpless in the face of their own neediness and inability to express affection other than sexually. Bill belongs to the latter category. Look at his poems, especially “Mood Indigo” and, going farther back, “A Happy Childhood” and you will see that certain of his compulsions derived from his own family romance, and whose don’t?
His occasional pleas to me were never sexual.
The most illustrative and urgent of them occurred in the summer of 1997. Bill wanted reassurance that his new “sweetie” wasn’t going to find the Other Man she planned to meet for dinner more attractive than he was. He sounded like a nervous wreck, and why not? Love is probably dangerous, in terms of neurotransmitters and cortisol when one is of a certain age, has a family history of heart disease, and has been a heavy smoker. Bill had nearly died the previous summer when he underwent a hip replacement: eighteen hours on the operating table. The problem? His arteries were diseased, he told me, echoing one of his physicians, from “smoking, smoking, and smoking.” He quit.
On previous anniversaries of his birth and death dates, I have bought a good bottle of pinot grigio or white burgundy, opened it, drunk a bit, then poured the rest on the ground. It’s the least I can do, other than take the fullest advantage possible of the opportunity to write this piece, even as I glance down at the word count and notice how far I have surpassed my limit.
If I’ve gone on too long, it’s because, in part, Bill loved being praised, and how little I understood, until almost too late, how insecure and overlooked he felt. Most poets feel ths way, yet Bill felt it with particular poignancy and was able to talk about it only occasionally and jokingly. I never write anything without feeling his eyes peering over my shoulder, with avuncular charm, yes, but also with careful intent and coolly detached scrutiny.
Dear Reader, of course I did not marry him. But my life has been immeasurably enriched by the love he gave me, the love he led me to accept, and from the circle of people who call themselves FOBs. Friends of Bill. And not Clinton. And not Floozies.
-- Diann Blakely