An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
The New Tourism by Harry Mathews. Sandpaper Press. 56pp, $15.00.
If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with John Ashbery, that prose could be written with the same arbitrariness as poetry. This discovery is traceable back to his initial encounter with the work of Raymond Roussel. Tempting as the separation of genres may be, it constitutes in regard to this writer’s works an absolute error.
Where is the neophyte to begin? There are worse places to meet Mathews than his slender, elegant poetry collections. At first strange steles, when read again the poems disclose moody vistas. One catches glimpses of an unfamiliar place: where? A museum described in half-digested reports, as sleep is wasted on the caffeinated. Any critic could be forgiven for daring to wax that metaphorical. But you surely expect a homelier guide to this aesthetic country.
The subjects of Mathews’ poems will not be unfamiliar to readers of his fictions: pleasures visual, tactile, and gustatory; friendship and heartbreak; writing; rain. While high modernism seems to have left its trace in insouciant disregard for transparency, gnomic pronouncements are often counterbalanced by a sheer pleasure in description. Mathews’ speaker pines in “The New Tourism” for the simplest knowledge; “First Love at First Sight” celebrates the obscurities of such titles (of novellas? operettas?) as The Nutmeg of Consolation and Brand New Cherry Flavor. Poems frequently, delightfully bend and refract minor literary landmarks, like classic engines outfitted with bright new chassis.
Brio launches the poems seaward, a tangy blend of humor and audacity. “Where are the brass islands?” in 1970’s “The Relics” is immediately followed by “These are the brass islands.” The quick, witty writing also rewards slow contemplation. Adjective-packed, dense with alliteration, “The Relics” offers acknowledgment of literature’s limitations. The “tubas” that sound the final, silent note of the poem’s first section hover in a friendly distance. Like Stevens, evoked here with “harmoniums,” Mathews punctuates a mountain with his own tiny jar. Trailing their arcane vocabularies, echoes of distant eras, such poems wind down corridors of an imagination at once enervated and lively.
Clouds of language accumulate. The coast is never entirely clarified. Emphasizing structure over personal revelation, this poetry nonetheless demonstrates just how revelatory a seemingly unmotivated structure can become. Say we encounter blurred reflections in any poet’s constructions. Mathews’ thoroughgoing constructivism lends blue poignancy to those points at which they fiercely approximate life. They say “water” and mean water, the way a drowning person might.
And yet sometimes the attention drifts away. Unlike his hero Mallarmé, Mathews floods the whiteness of the page with thick, almost clotted lines. Even the sestina’s six subtly juggled terms turn heavy through their multiple repetitions. Likewise, the poet’s confectionary pen could poison us readers with its riches. Febrile, inventive, tinged with decadence, this is a poetry of gold: less like the dawn, however, than like the uncanny treasure of the Rhine maidens.
At the outset of Armenian Papers, a 1987 volume gathering work from the previous 30 years, we find a clutch of poems titled Deya, after the Mallorcan village where Mathews spent much of the 1950s. In such an environment, the painterly obsession with sea, sky, and clouds makes perfect sense. Giving us a portrait of the artist as young husband, “The Pines at Son Beltran” (1954) depicts in romantic strokes the “lonely touching” of a couple in an idyllic setting. “At such a table should marriage be broken”: the poem gestures at the Jamesian yearning and complexity that also mark Mathews’ novels. The elegant phrasing here should not be overlooked. Poetry, like music and like marriage, fixes shifting passions in a formal frame. For some, a poem can only be, not mean. “The Pines,” though, reaches with repetition and broken refrain toward a being emerging from half-meaning.
Armenian Papers in toto reflects career-long interests in the Baroque period, extended idiosyncratic projects, and Oulipian hijinks. Learned and given to lyric outbursts, this author’s no square. Nor is he quite Orphic, out to melt hearts of stone. Archness and obliquity, as in the longish “Comatas,” echo his youthful set: Koch, Schuyler, and above all Ashbery. Odd, shapely experiments probe the possibilities of form; 1974’s “The Backstage Abettors,” with its intertwined refrains (“its seals unbroken,” “ominous pleasures”), pitches between incantation and shaggy-dog joke. But it’s in the book’s longer sequences that Mathews most methodically plucks his blue guitar. “Trial Impressions” and the titular series ravish and unsettle, game roasts stuffed thick with figs.
The former offers variations on a theme by John Dowland. This young lutenist published his song “Deare, if you change” in 1597 (though Mathews misattributes it to Dowland’s Second Book of Ayres.). His desired bride is first implored to be faithful, and then offered a corresponding plight of troth. A combinatoric pattern hiding in plain sight likely caught Mathews’ authorial eye. Initial words reappear, reset among the other contents of each stanza’s fifth line. Just as old sailors match red skies to delight, Dowland conjures verbal music to double his song’s polyphony. Seemingly straightforward lines turn into false-bottomed trunks.
The series that results is a tour-de-force, running deftly through twenty-nine transformations of the Dowling original. Mathews rewrites it as a Mallarme poem, as a Schuyler poem, as a palindrome, as a sestina. Decades before the Oulipo Compendium, “Trial Impressions” constitutes a little encyclopedia of procedural techniques. Several sections suggest allegories of the larger piece; number 13, with its choose-your-own-adventure architecture (“optimists/ Go on to 7, pessimist to 8”), highlights the reader’s contribution to the overall effect of the series. While its intricacies mirror the labyrinth of “Trial Impressions” itself, the naked pathos of its two conclusions underscores the emotive force beneath the lacework. Love, this section tells us, brings either blissful consummation or loss of legs: “She feels as though some part of her body has been severed.”
Sea-mirrored mountains achieve dark depths; likewise, the myriad reconfigurations of Dowland’s poem accrue a narrative force beyond the gloss of their individual surfaces. Storm clouds loom as the tone sours in later sections, bringing out the latent threat in the original’s erotic devotions. Such moments are still leavened with Mathews’ shrewd wit, as in section 19’s “by ‘intelligent sympathy,’ your pressing his pants was not what I had in mind.” Though things get heavy, the ultimate point seems neither deconstruction nor celebration, exactly, of the source text. The piece is saturated with doubleness. Section 15’s dazzling equivoque encapsulates our own readerly position; arrayed to form either an encomium or malediction of the beloved, it’s an emblem of the fascination and aggression implicit in both romantic relations and the textual operations of the poem. Its virtuosic reconstructions dramatize both the loss and the fantasized, perfected recovery of its source.
“But concepts are ambiguous,” we’re told in the second stanza of section 19. Today’s conceptual writing seems to dream landscapes without pines, a clear-cut literature. Whether flattened by capital or simple will, such works incline toward encapsulation. Perhaps they epitomize the longstanding avant-garde aspiration of writing that’s for nothing and no one. Austerely quirky productions such as Goldsmith’s Day, say, are presented as another iteration on the road to art’s future. Avowedly assured, even brilliant, they fling themselves into the net of historical reason.
Toward the end of a 1988 interview with Lynn Tillman, Mathews offers a very different motive for his elaborate procedures: “My books have always been written out of passion, concern, and love.” The water seldom appreciated by fish often figures language. The passion that Mathews cites here may well be inextricable from the ambiguous life of concepts. Our experience, that is to say, emerges out of the troubled bounty of words and sentences: their slippages and odd associations, their yen for elegant patterning, the fragile bonds they form. The mind can be pulled along by phrasing into glimmery profundities or hideous confusion. Grammar subtly slices off the blue from the sky. Or the sound of the word silk becomes a cool, economical reflection on its own meaning.
What response could hope to adequate this ermine-edged muff, this linguistic nautilus? Mathews outfits his procedures with fur and kink, wrinkled passages to nudge the mind into a sweeter attentive state. It might sound naive to envision a polity reconciled by nothing more than reading. Nonetheless, the giddy mechanics of this poetry could craft a mountain from isolate molehills. Its celebratory display of idiosyncrasy and skewed principle cuts like icy wind through our antiseptic, corporatized culture.
She who regards such utopian intimations skeptically might look to “Armenian Papers,” the book’s eponymous sequence. Mathews has presented this piece as a “palimpsest,” prose trots for a non-existent poetry. As if run through a Borgesian translation program, the twenty-two sections purport to reconstruct a medieval Armenian poem. From that distant past, Mathews could recover only a nineteenth-century Italian version during a visit to the Venetian monastery of San Lazzaro, or so he tells us. A significant clue to the character of the piece’s elaborate frame is suggested by the name of the monastery’s superior, Padre Gomidas. Neither the birds nor the trees contemporaneous with Mathews’ 1979 visit would have recognized such a figure. The connoisseur of realism who dips into William Dean Howells’s 1867 memoir Venetian Life, by contrast, will. The future Dean of American Letters describes a brief encounter with Gomidas Pakraduni, somewhat better known as Arsen Bagratuni, monk, epic poet, and translator. In his Hayk Diwtsazn, hero Hayk takes the field against the mighty hunter Nimrod. The counterfeit Gomidas supposedly conveys to Mathews the translation of the aforementioned lost manuscript by Arturo Graf, an Italian poet whose numerous infidelities render the original available only conjecturally. (Mathews’ prose sections also replaced, like a film reshot after rushes, an initial set of verse drafts.)
The piece itself gives an unnamed tribesman’s account of his assimilation or betrayal. His nomadic people having been subjugated by so-called Settlers, he is offered some respite in the home of nobleman Parno on account of his proficient distillations. There he, with the reader, receives a thorough verbal and practical initiation into other, more ascetic ways of living and viewing the world. His encounters with pollian (solitude), ganarah (refusal), and so on are seasoned with the sea-grass of erotic dalliance. Sirvan, his lovely compatriot, has also taken refuge in Parno’s household; they briefly share bliss, but martial bitterness soon parts them. “Our fellows” (it’s unclear whether he means nomads or settlers now) think Sirvan a traitor and she does not survive their attentions. The fate of the narrator, caught as he is at the border of two forms of life, is not revealed. Two lacunae in the text, mirroring gaps in the putative original; a hymn attributed to St. Gregory; he’s gone.
Who can read this lapidary, haunting text without thinking of the last century’s crimes against Armenia? Genocide waits underneath the poem’s harvests and massacres, its ferocious renegades and anxious civilizers. Personal reasons for the elegiac tone may be signaled as well in the frame tale. Carole Viers, in her dissertation on Mathews and the Oulipo, cites his antic collaboration with Georges Perec, “Roussel and Venice.” Perec’s tragic death in the spring of 1982 was followed four years later by the loss of David Kalstone, who appears as Mathews’ traveling companion in the poem’s prologue. No one eludes the frigid stone of death, “a sea too inaccessible for naming or pilgrimage.” What survives, like Graf’s fictional manuscript, is a patchwork onto which writers and readers project their own fears and desires. “Armenian Papers,” acknowledging its own condition of bare contingency, thereby constructs a memorial to its catastrophes, all the more eloquent for its fragile absurdity.
More than two decades later, Mathews’ recent collection The New Tourism creates a sense of elegy at once narrower and more pervasive. Some older poets rage against expressive limits (In the Pines by Alice Notley, for instance). Mathews here is more austere, somber, yet his limpid poems are playful even as death shadows them. The slim collection contains work spanning a variety of free and fixed forms, most notably an extended series of haiku. Well over a hundred seventeen-syllable sketches of visitors and environs are gathered in “Haikus Before Sleep.” Serving as a kind of abbreviated nocturnal counterpart to his earlier 20 Lines a Day, the poem seems at first hit-and-miss. Throwaway lines—“but what was that bird?”—leave an impression like a mansion whose seaward prospect has faded after years of brining. Is there a way of engaging the poem at a level beyond what its casual posture invites?
Marriage becomes an insistent theme. There is frequent reference to old, beloved friends. Yet a separation haunts the writer, a sense of a self often absent among company. Visits imply departures, and the thrum of evening rain falls on roads and on graves. A narrative develops that we might see as a twilit, chiaroscuro self-portrait.
The haiku may disappoint those who thrilled to the pyrotechnics found in Mathews’ earlier poetry. The volume contains shorter pieces that are more in keeping with that former gamesmanship. We devotees of the sestina can immerse ourselves in the richly bizarre narrative of “Waiting for Dusk.” Shuffling pomegranates through myth and architecture, it avoids most of the pitfalls that trap even accomplished practitioners: lassitude, imbalance, sheer ludicrousness. We have just accustomed ourselves to its frenetic tale when the poem takes on a mournful, philosophic cast. “Can my face ever be as actual as a pomegranate?” we are asked, and a series of ever more pressing, more serious questions follow. We, like the interlaced words, have changed while remaining identical: the kiss of knowledge that the form promises and rarely delivers.
“Practice translating to develop poetic skill” is a traditional admonition that Mathews has taken idiosyncratically to heart, as in “Trial Impressions.” Aiming for a similar, if more understated, effect, “The White Wind” paraphrases Wyatt’s Elizabethan sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt.” Repeated statements that “you are like me” relate writer to reader, and at another level, Mathews to Wyatt: all fruitless pursuers of the wind. The pursuit’s nonetheless lonely: “I feel I’m about to lose everything,” runs this new plainspoken version. Seeking to touch where touching is prohibited, or worse yet, impossible, this little gem, like the king’s deer, conceals dangerous depths behind a placid appearance.
A colloquialism is also evident in the volume’s opening poem, “Butter and Eggs.” This self-described didactic work makes no voyages more exotic than those to the refrigerator and range top. In precise, clear terms we’re given instruction on scrambling, boiling, and poaching eggs. Those who discern the yolk of meaning in the poem’s literary albumen might rely on the final section. Its methodical description of clarifying butter, the clear oil sheeted with a layer of fat, concludes: “It is the word blessing clarified.” What better apothegm for a writer whose sole divinities are sea and rain, friendship, sex, and good restaurants?
Toward a fuller appreciation of the poem’s significance, though, the way runs through Mathews’ prose piece “Country Cooking from Central France.” Least unknown of all his fictions, the 1977 story details the preparation of farce double, a mythical dish of lamb shoulder stuffed with fish balls, themselves stuffed with sweetbreads and milt. On Mediterranean islands, tourists and locals alike tuck into fish and lamb, but never prepared so elaborately. The recipe requires that clusters of trained cooks lower the meat into a pit reserved for the purpose, with traditional communal songs sung during the roasting. One such song, as must be anticipated, provides a metaphorical stuffing for Mathews’ own tale, a story within a recipe within a story. (A similar recursive pattern can be seen in “Armenian Papers,” one warrior trapped by a platoon itself trapped in a canyon.) A remarkable creation, though one who found its Byzantine riches unappetizing might not be altogether blamed.
“Butter and Eggs,” by contrast, could be mapped on a napkin. While the earlier story revels in arcana, simplicity and common experience are the new poem’s hallmarks. But what might be a mere culinary lesson is redeemed by its subtle interplay of solitude and community. The various egg recipes seem offered for the benefit of the lone diner. The perfected techniques on display, though, reflect centuries of repetitive refinement, laden with culture like the rest of daily life. If you pick up on the implicit joke on “Country Cooking,” it clouds the superficial clarity further, underlining the myriad connections that might ramify from a single shattered shell.
Glide as the eye might over these late poems’ slight contours, it will often feel the tug of subterranean mass. Akin to the relation of “Country Cooking” and “Butter and Eggs,” the bond between such “translations” as “The White Wind” or “In Pursuit of Henry Vaughan” and their originals invokes the whole sweep of literary history. In its romance of originary ignorance, Vaughan’s poem “The Retreat” wishes literacy away. With alphabetic wit and misdirection, Mathews’ version offers at once artful mask and confession. Like tears in the rain, an n morphs into an m: “I attained my teenage acme.” Mathews adverts to past selves, but also to his Metaphysical predecessor. “Happy those early days!” Vaughan exclaims; the corresponding question for Mathews is, “Can we, can I remember happiness?” A shadowy doubt replaces the older poet’s virgin faith. The past entrances and repels us, like the bride of Frankenstein beholding her monstrous lover.
The beguiling sestina will keep coming back as well, will gladden us with its trick of apparent motion. Or is it a form, honestly, that we can hardly bear? Mathews, abetted by his fellow Oulipian Jacques Roubaud, has elsewhere crafted a variation on the hexagonal pattern: a septina, permuting seven number words. In this book, he presents a sestina half-buried in prose, as a child might cling with misgivings to a long-cherished toy. The paragraphs of “Crème Brûlée” constitute a recalcitrant, almost forbidding dark crust, beneath whose brittle surface lurks the sweetness of repetition. Perhaps, though, it’s that circulation that must be broken through to graze “the new name for caramel custard.” Fresh vistas of travel, fine meals in restaurants, nightfall: each one is singular, and each is a repetition. Form is the medium of Mathews’ thinking, and the union of form and content is its love. The puzzle, in other words, that according to this quasi-sestina “will addle your contentment” awakens your wonder and courage. As you approach the end of the highway, you realize that it’s made of words, though words themselves die.
And so we’re back to the haiku. If the first aspect that strikes one is their haphazard quality, the second is their knowingness. Often the white of the blank page almost wins: “No haiku tonight”; “I can’t write haikus tonight”; “No time for haiku!” But as the thighs of a long-distance runner pay tribute to the months of training, the haiku claw out their utterance in the face of darkness. When the day is gone, what’s left to mark it with? Beyond the meals and walks in the mist, the act of marking itself looms largest. “Haikus are diffic,” we read in the opening line of one, which ends with “One haiku is diff.” Still difficult, or simply different—the shifting sand of language aptly suited to our moody and mutable lives. One haiku after another builds up a sketchbook and catalogue of questions, pleasures, yearnings. Sometimes essential, sometimes banal, they garland the pages like eel-grass sustaining the seabed’s ecosystem.
Struggling to preserve—
What? This . . . this . . . this piece of shit?
The first two lines of the final haiku strike a desperate note. Freud might have revised Stevens to make shit the mother of beauty. Nonetheless, the baby could use a little bathwater even if the doctor was right. The stutter in the second line disrupts the claim to preservation, as if there could only be shame in writing. And when the final line replies, “Utterly worth it,” declares the series vindicated, can we trust it? The affirmation appears heartfelt, but even more significant is the implicit claim that the haiku can withstand division. Mathews can take a form renowned for its ability to compress landscapes into singular diamonds and ask it to render internal and external dramas. Restlessness infects these haiku, a motor propelling them through daily routine into vibrant evocation of a world no death can extinguish. Quietly, they sum up the book, just as the book sums up and distills Mathews’ prodigious literary career, more effectively even than some less diffident monument might.
But how should we connect what’s been said to Mathews the prose writer? And where must we situate his work among poetry’s ambitious, warring camps? And how shall we understand the particular role that narrative plays in these books? And when can we confidently distinguish traditional form in these poems from more idiosyncratic constraint? And why might we meet with confusion if we invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s “minor literature”? And what will we read again when we return to The New Tourism for the nth time? And who would we forgive if, on a later visit to the Mediterranean, we have a hankering for fried egg? And what could we repeat if, on the first round of questions, we refuse to countenance answers? And where do we end up if, reading far into the distance, we start to wonder if we’re who this writing is for?
Language depends on its constraints, to put the plainest face on what might be the most complex of phenomena. And theorists of many stripes define art as a matter of binding oneself to odd and arbitrary rules. Sonatas, mazurkas, pietas, or sonnets: systems of prohibition and permission enable the expressive registers of any such form to emerge. The confluence of these normative realms accounts for poetry’s uncanniness, its second moon in the sky. But the moon, not the rule, is the goal; when the writer aims at some impossibly demanding task, it opens the space for novel communication. It’s not so much a new kind of message as a different relation between the reader and the page. Still, that entails a corresponding shift in content, just as knowing about the precession of Earth’s axis revolutionizes one’s own place in the world. Becoming a stranger to one’s own language, whether as author or hermeneut, brings with it an eclipse of habitual understandings; the system dethrones the system.
Or maybe that’s overstated. We never quite finish qualifying what we’re trying to say, and still we have to come to the end. Harry Mathews, or the author by that name, is a novelist who’s written many exquisite poems. But we go some way further, I hope, when we see how continuously poetic his various efforts have been. Whether encouraging a lost afternoon puzzling over the pidgin inventions of The Sinking of the Odradek Station or chronicling masturbatory episodes, he consistently stretches the language to rekindle its power for us. Narrative threads can be traced in his most recondite poems, while his novels frustrate neat expectations of closure. His work’s one piece, just as Budapest makes a single city out of two plus one rushing river.
The river in his case is dailiness, or its approximation through extended projects. “Haiku Before Sleep,” The Journalist—such works accrue at their own irregular pace. And the tangled stories of their own construction becomes a driving principle of their movement. The incessant flow of events erodes the corners of the square grids with which we try to tame them. The sense of ultimate futility might be inescapable, whether the medium’s stone or sentences. And still we set out meals, invite one another to the laden table. The conversation and the unexpected flavors may shock or delight us: still we set out meals.
With the willing connivance of the reader, and only with that partnership, Mathews assembles poems that travesty and genuflect. Their blue surfaces can seem as transparently impenetrable as those of the sky or sea. But the imaginary depths above or beneath remain no less profound for their ephemerality. Letters sweet as figs, words spherical as rain, lines gnarled as ash, sentences as sharp and cold as shale: behind the fruits of artifice, a second nature glimmers.
After the effusive essays and envious sniping, a body of poetry survives through its inspirational power. I don’t mean by this a saccharine consolation that papers over social malignancies. What I want to have in view is something like the Transcendentalist idea of genius: not specialness so much as commonness writ large. The writer who charts a new way of articulating the agonies and sprigs of happiness that fill up days is like the potlatch chief who wins by giving. No Mathewsian school of rhymesters has sprouted, but the model of his work has much to teach. He’s downplayed poetry as what he writes for fun, water music to counterpoint his novelistic oratorios. Its rococo achievement, though, is matched by few poems published under American or European skies. You’ve heard plenty about the supple games with form and tradition these pieces play. Above all, they reach out for beauty, attending to tone, sound, and bending or gracefully plain syntax. They open a world, with “a view of the water under these bending trees” (“The Pines at Son Beltran”).
John Beer is the author of The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium, 2010), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. In the spring of 2010, he staged Raymond Roussel’s play The Dust of Suns, in Harry Mathews’ translation, with a cast of over 20 Chicago writers and artists. He lives in Portland, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Portland State University.
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