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"One Thousand Words about Harry Mathews" [by Mary Maxwell]

      Harry Mathews 2
    In some sense he brought it on himself.  Given his predilection for complex games of identity, why would anyone take Harry Mathews seriously as a poet? Yes, he was there at the beginning, with Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler and Locus Solus (funded by a modest inheritance received by Mathews).  And he was there in the early days of The Paris Review, so that his fictional My Life in CIA carries a certain plausibility, the underwriting of mid-century modernism by the U.S. government a real-life thriller not fully resolved.  In that particular case, the sheer marvelousness of Mathews’s imagination (details ringing exactly right, both vague and specific) is such that there are those who still truly believe he was a spy.  He certainly lied as one trained in espionage.

          As a novelist, he was inspired and egged on by the great Georges Perec. He was close pals with Perec, Mathews’s sublime The Orchard being a most perfect remembrance of the Frenchman who remembered.  For many years Mathews was the only American member of Oulipo, although in relation to the poetry that affiliation has become a red herring of sorts, with formal ingenuity being the focus of the introduction to his posthumously published Collected Poems (Sand Paper Press). The emphasis is deceptive. Oulipo meetings and practices served as preliminary ten-digit exercises rather than true literary performances, a distinction the musically trained Mathews readily acknowledged. Modes of composition are not the same thing as “Verdi’s vindictive fugato” or “an astronomical consort fructifying a preordained basso continuo.” (Close examination of such phrases show how Mathews’s seemingly flighty wordplay is unexpectedly grounded.)

          Brought out in mid-February 2020 (with an especially winsome cover by Trevor Winkfield), “inventive” and “unorthodox” printed on the front book flap attempt to offset the seemingly intimidating verse oeuvre within. The collection (apparently with Mathews’s approval) starts off with a late poem, a self-invented form of the sestina, “Cool Fans the Glade,” written in 2013.  The poem’s end-words grow by one letter with each enjambment (at/fat/fast/feast/afters/rafters), beginning, “But how choose the appropriate sticking point to start at?”  A second late poem, “Quiet Moon,” follows.  A third, the unfinished “The Politician’s Antic Spoil,” is accompanied by reproductions of Mathews’s handwritten notes of the work’s procedures. As an appendix put together by editor and publisher Arlo Haskell explains, this planned double sestina would first proceed by diminishment, with letters subtracted rather than added with each end-word’s iteration.

          At the start of a volume spanning seventy years, all this feels a little like explaining the mechanisms of a magician’s equipment just before his tricks are about to be performed.  Such emphasis on scaffolding at the outset tends to distract from other kinds of prestidigitation.  For while a certain kind of reader will approach his poems as cryptic escape rooms, there are other routes in and out of the poems. To parse the vastness of Mathews’s “discernment” and “appetite” (as Daniel Levin Baker exactly identifies but does not elaborate upon in his introduction) requires a subtle advocacy.  Understanding the elaborate processes leading to the poem does not necessarily make the reader more appreciative of the result.  Mathews’s confections can be as intense as fruit confit, perfect fruits dipped in syrup over the course of days and weeks and set out on racks in order to become edible jewels for holiday consumption. Not everyone likes them.

          And so the Collected Poems (now out for the course of a year occupied by other matters) have been subject to a certain neglect, if not suspicion. They couldn’t possibly taste as good as they looked.  If Mathews was really as marvelous as his friend John Ashbery and others said, why was he so often (with a few notable exceptions) excluded from the New York School grouping? As in Ashbery, there are strong whiffs of French syntax in the lines, distinctive as the scent of Gitanes. (As it happens, included in the Collected are some truly delightful poems written in French.)  Taking Parisian boulevards as a starting point, perhaps the best way to present his poetic work is as a sort of extended flirtation taking place at an outdoor cafe, formal stricture functioning as mere frame, the way extenuating circumstances of vehicular traffic and passersby impinge upon conversation.  His lines often throb with the intensity of being abroad (The New Tourism being a matter of sensibility as much as actual travel), experiences lit by unfamiliar skies and therefore glowing with an enchanted alienness., “if life is a puzzle, then travel is another.”

          And yet, in all fairness to the Collected’ s procedure-focused editors, Mathews liked to share his recipes (often quite literally, as in “Butter and Eggs”). Parting the curtain was part of the tease. While there’s a consistently sybaritic, erotic buzz that runs through his tightly bound lines, analogous to the after-effect of excellent cuisine and good bottles, to dismiss him as a mere bon vivant would be an error; his poems encompass a range of constrained pains and pleasures. As in “Waiting for Dusk,”

          This is a moment between here and there, between the face
          of worldly things and their unstable reflections which in the basically sunny weather
          suggest reveries tending to sleep, and then sadness.

Along the lines of Catullus, Mathews engaged in that most serious play of all — the production of sophisticated love poems, praising how the eyes of his beloved “rekindled my perception of a jaded world,” or how her “hair muddles / The real and the false in such ambitious copulation.”  In Out of Bounds he confesses

                                      … most of all
When you conclude and speak the blessed words that once more conjugate your love for me
Do I find my body wincing at this possibility.

That Harry Mathews was born on Valentine’s Day confirms the nature of his genius. As he records in his prose Autobiography, for him the writing life was above all an exploration of “how formal pretexts lead into intimate experiences.”  


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