Blues for Bill

Edited by Kurt Brown, Meg Kearney, Donna Reis, and Estha Weiner, The University of Akron Press, 374B Bierce Library, Akron, OH 44325-1703, 2005, 134 pp., $24.95.

     What may be most extraordinary about the anthology Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews are its triple pleasures and purposes. It is an anthology of uncommonly good poetry, a near-encyclopedia of strong turn-of-the-century poetic styles, and an unusually well-chosen collection of poems about poetry, about the writing and teaching of poetry, the poetry community, and particularly about one very original poet and teacher of poetry, William Matthews himself. What is also rare in such a volume of "attributes" is how little one need know—outside the anthology itself—about Matthews; the New York City community where he lived, taught, and wrote; and his students, friends, and family. All biographical and historical details are described solidly and effectively by the works in the anthology itself, which manages to be, at once, instructive, entertaining, and aesthetically satisfying for any reader and lover of poetry.
    A useful foreword by Russell Banks begins the anthology, and a lively interview with Matthews (conducted in October of 1995 by David Wojahn and James Harms) ends the volume. The poems in between, edited by Kurt Brown, Meg Kearney, Donna Reis, and Estha Weiner (all accomplished poets themselves), provide details that will stick in the reader’s mind, for they disclose certain truths about the ironies and tensions between poet and poem, student and teacher, process and creative art. The Poems section is preceded by Sebastian Matthews’ "Things My Father Passed Down to Me and My Brother," which provides a diverse catalogue, including "The Marx Brothers," "Miles/Trane/Monk," "Lolita", "Rothko Hopper Roethke Hugo Merwin Kinnell," and "Rigoletto," a kind of foreshadowing of details to come and of the quality of poets, who include a number of very well-known names, such as Rachel Hadas, Sharon Olds, Stanley Plumly, Vern Rutsala, Dave Smith, Bruce Weigl, and Baron Wormser.
    Because of the accident of alphabetical order, Marvin Bell’s "Bill Matthews," appears early, but it might serve as a center for the entire collection with its four beautifully executed seven-line stanzas that describe a poet in intimate but exacting detail, in an affectionate but non-idealizing—typical of poems in the volume—and with a paradoxical language that examines and transforms, as in its last stanza (beginning with a nicely quotable remark):

"If you’re invited to dinner, you don’t spit on the plate."
The young Bill was quick and willowy, a Dionysian
Donald Sutherland with experienced eyelids,
at times red in the morning after a nighttime of wine,
by which he loosed the savvy, flowing, woven
verse that bore his classic intelligence, brimming
with blood pumped from a politely gasping heart.

The poem prepares us for subsequent poetry. The particulars of Matthews’ life—the content of Bell’s poem (and most of the anthology’s work)—make up the poem’s language, reveal themselves through its vigorous style, which is also responsible for its invaluable insights. One remembers Bell’s words—"experienced eyelids" when reading Kenneth Rosen’s "Matthews in Maine, 1980": "’Good eye,’ he said at last, / ‘Good eye.’ And that was the man’s genius: he was urbane, / And he knew that everyone was good for something." The poem prepares us for Sascha Feinstein’s "Matthews in Smoke": "All the better that he can walk / from his narrow apartment to the club / now called Smoke, then Augie’s, / half the room on barstools beneath / an olive-green mural of alcoholics / so polymorphically depressing / Bill has to respond: ‘Professors Emeritus’." We are not surprised to learn, in Rodney Jones’s "The Secret of William Matthews," that "Once he [Matthews] wryly admitted, ‘I write only for friends’." We get even closer to Matthews and his art in Melinda Thomsen’s "Ode to Bill’s Vocabulary, 1997":

Hubris, laconic, indolence, shriven,
bathetic, pelagic, impervious, feral,
primeval, unctuous, and quixotic…

    The anthology could provide a dictionary of quotations about the art of poetry, insights so often inseparable from the embedded dramas of the poems. In Meg Kearney’s "Nature Poetry," we learn: "Bill hated the separation implied by the term. / … What was it? Concrete, glass, steel—meaning limestone silica, gypsum, sand, / manganese, sodium sulfur, ore—/ anything unnatural here?" Coleman Barks, in "Bill Matthews Coming Along," compares Matthews’ work to wine: "They say the best French wines have terroir, meaning the taste of the lay / of the land." Debra Fried observes, in "Untitled: For Bill Matthews":

You taught what you knew best:
that the poem is its own reward
for loss, for imperfect life…

    The title of Daniel Halpern’s poem is itself a piece of aesthetic criticism: "The Eternal Light of Talk." In "For William Matthews," Henry Taylor describes Matthews’ poetry: "Like the tunes you wrote about, / your poems do not so much bring back a time // as lift us out of this one toward another / that has never been, not yet. …" "Bill," by Christopher Merrill, offers still another portrait, connecting with the metaphors and themes of many other poems in the collection:

As in a statement of particulars—
A drooping mustache and an aching hip;
A penchant for bons mots and rumpled shirts;
A stand-up tragic, as he liked to say.

    I discovered gems of information in the Wojahn and Harms interview. "Home," Matthews tells us, "is an invented place, not a given" that must "be constantly imagined and peopled." Of his early work, Matthews remembers that he "had one advantage": he wrote in a "period style" that "was short and heavily metaphorical," and his later work had more of an "engagement with narrative." I was interested to learn that Matthews did not think TV was "the devil’s instrument" and that he believed the "plans" that Dana Gioia makes in his essay "Can Poetry Matter" would certainly "fail."
    I heartily recommend Blues for Bill. It should remain as a kind of classic and as a valued reference where the real conclusions about Matthews (multifaceted, diverse, and inconclusive as they often are) come in the poems, all of which, in one way or another, say goodbye to the poet. Andrea Carter Brown’s poem "Blues, for Bill" offers a metaphorical catalogue of the image "Blue." Estha Weiner wishes Matthews " …were buried / anywhere with a place / for words. Instead, / your incomparable talent / to disappear / at will… ." Peter Makuck remembers his last conversation with Matthews in "Last Call" (the title a pun). In "After," Jeanne Marie Beaumont observes: "All our labors, whether for hunger, for / Pleasure, or none of the above, one day wrap up." Allen C. Fischer should have the last word from his poem, "Inspiration":

For if landscape is light taking shape,
then your unwritten poetry may be wind
caught listening, looking for substance:
the cursive that swallows dart,
the map outlined on a maple leaf

—Philip Miller, Home Planet News #58