Tag Archives: trigons

John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ and ‘Trigons’

In May I wrote about using poetry as some kind of therapy, now that I’m beginning to get some respite from the bipolars I’d like to expand a bit more on the above two poems which are both important contributions to the late modernist vein and need to be read more widely. Incidentally, Salt has just published its Companion to Matthias which has an impressive range of contributors and only costs 12 quid.

As a reader and occasional writer of poetry I always try and work out whether I could write something similar. For example, if I spent the next five years in a dark room practising really hard I reckon I could produce something that read like a pale imitation of ‘Stress Position’ ‘Streak Willing’ or ‘Comus’ This may be misplaced vanity on my part but I do know that I will never have Matthias’ skill and technical ability. This has been confirmed by my recent re-reading, I know what Mathias oes but I don’t know how he does it. The poems are deceptively conversational but succeed in making very complex points almost by stealth. As I said, the other day, the recent sporadic bouts of depression have caused me to be intimidated by some poetry and to view the rest as either too mannered or pretentious. This wasn’t the case with Matthias, in fact the above two poems enabled me to keep faith with poetry an to see the point of my own interest in it.

I wrote about ‘Trigons’ at some length last year but now realise that I din’t come close to doing it justice. ‘Kedging is equally remarkable in a very different way.  The former is ‘about’ collective and individual cognition whereas ‘Kedging’ braids together different cultural and historical elements from the early 20th century. This might sound very abstract and boring but it isn’t, both are also written within the ‘scope’ of David Jones and attempt to develop his notion of the function and purpose of poetry.

The other thing that’s important to mention is the fact that Matthias is incapable of writing a bad line or using a naff image. I take some pride at being able to spot the clunky and the weak at some distance yet I am thus far unable to identify a single inept line.

I’d like to deal with ‘Kedging in Time’ first. This is ostensibly an affectionate tribute to Matthias’ mother-in-law but also manages to construct something solid out of a wide range of historical elements and characters. The main period covered is the first twenty years of the last century, taking in the Dardanelles campaign, the Easter Rising and subsequent Irish Civil War, the perpetual national neurosis about Germany and German intentions, the scuppering of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow and the exile of the Russian Imperial family to Ekaterinberg. The characters that are braided into the poem range from Churchill and Tsar Nicholas to Hannay and Mr Memory from ‘The Thirty Nine Steps”.

The following is a longish extract (with apologies for the formatting- WordPress doesn’t do long lines) but I do want to try and show how Matthias crafts an important part of our cultural landscape:


Trafalgar Lodge establishes
another atmosphere in days when wildest fictions are more probable
than facts.
No one shouts there around the tennis lawns or in
the smoking room among those gentlemen the spies. Them roundels
on the fuselgae is us.
The fact is Hannay's Buchan worked in codes
for Captain Hall. The "Blinker"- man of penetrating heavy
hooded eyes- while Buchan's Hannay found himself employed by
Alfred Hitchcock in the run-up to another war. Just ask
Mr Memory whose paratactic act will be the death of him
at the Palladium: When was Crippen hanged? What's the measurements
of Miss Mae West? When was General Gordon at Khartoum?
Who swam Hellespont? What's a monoalphabetic cipher what's
sunk off the Ulster coast where's the veldcraft chap who o'er
the hill and moory dale pursues Arimaspian in Schicksalskampf? What's
the perepeteia of the anagnorists? What's the number of steps?

David Jones in his important but much overlooked introduction to ‘The Anathemata’ says: “When rulers seek to impose a new order on any such group belonging to one or other of those more primitive culture-phases, it is necessary for those rulers to take into account the influence of as recalling something loved and as embodying an ethos inimical to the imposition of that new order.” He goes on to quote St John Chrysostom defining anathemata as “things…laid up from other things”. When I was a child, the Thirty Nine Steps was part of my cultural background as was the death of Gordon at Khartoum, the appalling waste of the Dardanelles campaign and the execution of the Russian imperial family whereas Erskine Childers was just a name although memory acts were still part of variety shows.
When I first encountered Matthias, I expressed the view that he drops more names per line than Geoffrey Hill and I stand by that view but now I’ve come to appreciate that this ‘braiding’ of figures is in part to recall things that are inimical to our current rulers. Throughout ‘Kedging’ there’s also this sense of things been laid up from other things.
I’m not suggesting that the above is absolutely perfect, ‘the perepeteia of the anagnorists’ is alittle too clever for my liking but the play on Hannay and Buchan is excellent as is “those gentlemen the spies”. The other point is that this is really complex stuff and yet Matthias makes it sound really straightforward until you start to think about what you’ve read.
The blurb on the back of ‘Trigons’ quotes Mark Scroggins who describes it as exploring Matthias’ “usual historical and literary obsessions, this time revolving much around the Second World War” which is neither accurate nor helpful although the blurb concludes by pointing out that “both music and neurology play a highly significant role”. Whilst music is certainly central, there is more focus on the way in which we perceive it rather than on neurology per se. The following is taken from the ‘Aruski Rehab’ which is set in Moscow during the Cold War:

pitched at 440 cycles every second and
an amplitude of 60 decibels you see
the credits on the screen the rolling titles pitched at
523 cycles amplitude of 90 decibels the view from the Pereyaslavi
and the frozen lake pitched at 622 cycles amplitude of 120 decibels
a flash of lightening and the Teuton cavalry advancing
like a Panzer unit on the ice 880 cylces amplitude of 180 decibels
the ice breaks and Comrade Stalin with a perforation of
your eardrums and a sunblast on your retinas transmutes the cycle
into cyclotron amplitude to grim necessity
black and white to work and war the minor keys to minor's fees
and Tatiana's exite to a steppe flower swallowed by
a Tuvan watching movies in the Urals in the moment you write down
the name they wanted an the psuedonym as well.

As can be seen, this is complex stuff but it’s also expressed in the most relaxed and unintense terms- unlike the vast majority of experimental or innovative verse. The repetition of amplitude/decibels complements the difficult things being said rather than adding a further level of complexity. It’s also worth pointing out that the entire sequence ends with Matthias meeting another John Matthias who creates music from brain activity which serves to bring the disparate strands and places together in a satisfying (but provisional) whole. Again there are bits that don’t work, I don’t think the California sequence should have been included because it seems markedly weaker than the rest but it’s still head and shoulders above most of what passes for contemporay verse.

John Matthias and cultural geography

A short while ago I wrote a piece on poetry and map-making which was both ill-conceived and poorly expressed.  I’ve now had the opportunity to think this through some more and will attempt a second stab.

The first premise is that space is constructed by us as individuals and that the spaces that we create in our heads are far more important than the physical dimensions/aspects of a physical space that actually exists.

The second premise is that poetry is particularly good at creating the idea of a particular place, that verse can best express how it is (or was) to be in a particular location.

The third premise is that our cultural background is tied in with how we put space together in our heads and that this is intricately linked with our sense of time.

Some of John Matthias’ work is a prime example of the above. I don’t normally pay much attention to blurbs on the back of books but I think Guy Davenport gets it about right when he says- “Objective and clear, his poetry is a splendid fusion of engaging subjects and masterful technique. He has refined the narrative and speculative poem, giving it a lyric integrity of great strength and beauty.” I’d also like to add that Matthias is the best ‘poet of place’ that we currently have. The ‘A Gathering of Ways’ collection contains poems about East Anglia, the American Midwest and a remarkable long poem about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

“She maps Iraq” is a brilliant, eloquent poem about the nature of political power and gender relations and the making of space whilst the ‘Trigons’ collection takes us from 1939 to the present and includes the Greek Isles, London, Paris, Moscow and California.

I’ll try and give an example of why this stuff is important, when we think of London during the Blitz, we think of London in flames, of many thousands dead, of the physical destruction of the East End but Matthias writes of a series of concerts given during the Blitz by Myra Hess in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery and does so in such a moving and evocative way that my cognitive map of that time and place has changed.

His ‘East Anglian Diptych’ has had a similar effect- in the past I’ve always thought of East Anglia a rather damp backwater but reading this has made me aware not only of the vibrancy of the place but also how that particular place has been created and re-created through time. The inclusion of Edward Thomas and John Constable also add to the cultural component in space creation. I’ve said before that Matthias is a very intelligent and skilled poet, he is able to do difficult things whilst making them seem easy and I wish I had this gift.

So, poets make place and some poets do this with a great deal of care. John Milton went to enormous lengths to ensure that the spatial relationship between heaven, hell and earth was feasible. Dante creates specific geographies for each of his various levels whilst Spenser’s spaces in the Faerie Queen are a weird (but considered) blend of the real and the imaginary.

My own current attempts to write something reasonable about the Saville Inquiry are currently floundering on the space issue. The place itself is contested because it has two names (Derry and Londonderry) and the places where trauma occurred during that Sunday afternoon continue to be constructed in equally different ways both culturally and politically (with a large religious dimension thrown in) and I know that I should reflect this but can’t yet do it with ease.

One final thought, Matthias’ description of gendarmes using their clubs like swords has changed irrevocably my mental image of the barricades from 1830 onwards- is this what the strength of poetry (in a few lines) can do?

John Matthias’ Trigons

A few weeks ago I wrote extolling the virtues of John Matthias’ ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestoes’, throwing in a few gratuitous observations along the way. Once this was posted Matthias responded, gently correcting me on one point and offering to chat via e-mail. We’ve chatted since and John has been incredibly generous with his time. I also met him recently at the London launch of ‘Trigons’ his latest collection.

I’ve since read ‘Trigons’ several times and it is very, very good and I’m not just saying this because I know Matthias. It deals with issues of history and place in a way that is both intelligent and poetic (a difficult mix). The blurb brackets it with two earlier sequences which it describes as extravagantly inventive and experimental. Matthias sub-titles the work as ‘seven poems in two sets and a coda’

We start just before the outbreak of World War 2 and proceed on through to the present taking in a diverse range of characters and places along the way. The coda is about Matthias’ encounter with another John Matthias who is using (this is a simplification) brain waves to create music.

The poem is inventive and experimental in that urls are used, musical notation is used and some words have some letters missing but that does not detract from the sequences’ readability  and the pleasure that this gives. Matthias is one of those rare poets who can make the technically difficult look and sound easy. Like Olson at his best, he has this uncanny knack of making complex points in a casual and almost conversational manner.

Matthias has pointed out that the frequent use of proper names also makes use of the sound of those names and I can now see what he means but this also has the effect of making the reader want to know more about those names. As a result of reading ‘Trigons’ I’ve found out more about Myra Hess, Harvey Goldberg,  Charles Newman and many others.

The subjects covered range from World War 2, the military coup in Greece, the Cold War, Berlin in1961, Paris in 1968, California and contemporary London.  All of this is presented in a series of striking images and asides.  There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between Myra Hess “looking like a cleaning lady not like / our contemporary babes who graduate from Juilliard / to make debuts like MTV madonnas on the move”. There’s also a tone of self-deprecation which is refreshing: “What Sailor was it like in U-Boats what Pierre this / song sings Jean Paul Sartre / we all knew next to nothing in those days / and probably still do.”

The section on Paris in ’68 is particularly well done. The events in France of that year were particularly formative for me. I was just 13 when the protests began and was immediately converted to politics, attracted (as many of us were) by the idea of indignant young people bringing the state to it’s knees. I’ve carried this image of youthful but potent rebellion in my head ever since and was a bit concerned that this image may be trampled over by the poem. Instead Matthias (who was there) treats us to an extended riff on French history and manages somehow to conflate this with the Simenon’s Maigret in a way that is complex without being in any way pompous.

I read poetry because it makes me think and ‘Trigons’ has given me plenty to think about. Like Hill’s Comus, there’s plenty of Matthias thrown in and the style is conversational but it it also technically confident and adept. I’ll give one example from the Paris section:

at 84 years old he said the hero of Verdun is in good shape
and married to a girl of 21. He’s got just
two passions left the infantry and sex
although suffice to day he’s rather ga-ga as a leader not quite
with it really, not quite there he goes to sleep
in meetings about marshalling the tanks and then wakes up
to talk about how well the use of homing pigeons
works when all other forms of contact with the high command
have been cut off from Faure’s belle epoque
which morphs easily (“Description of Petain”) into
Harvey’s archived lectures just as well from La Louisiane….

We then get a reference to Charles Olson and typewriters and ‘Projective Verse’ but what I want to highlight is the way Matthias uses the poem to comment on itself- “Description of Petain” this may well morph easily into Goldberg’s lectures but Matthias has the confidence and the panache to tell us so.

The Paris section also has Sartre as a poor dialectician and the French police behaving as if they were musketeers or Roman legionaries which is very funny in a sinister kind of way.

In the section on making music from brain waves Matthias starts to explain the process and the instructs the reader to ‘look it up’, gives the url and comments “it’s all pretty complicated”. I haven’t yet looked it up but I do admire him telling me to do this in the middle of the poem.

So, ‘Trigons’ may be ‘extravagantly inventive’ and experimental but it’s also immensely pleasurable to read being both instructive and entertaining. I remain astonished that John Matthias is not better known in the UK.