William Matthews: Rising and Falling

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William Matthews
523 W. 121st St.
New York, NY 10027

Note from the CAPA webmaster: Certain poems have been removed from the site due to their inclusion in William Mattews's Search Party: Collected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

for my father and mother

Faîtes simple


In the poems about Bud Powell and Alcide Pavageau I've given Powell a heroin habit and Pavageau (by implication) a limp, for reasons the poems developed. They are not necessarily good biography.

Parts of "Nurse Sharks" are based on (and some phrasing is from) passages in The Natural History of Sharks, by Lineaweaver and Backus (Doubleday, 1973).



Spring Snow
Moving Again
Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo
The Party
A Walk
The News
Strange Knees
Isla Mujeres
Living among the Dead


Left Hand Canyon
Old Records
In Memory of the Utah Stars
Bud Powell, Paris, 1959
Foul Shots: A Clinic
Piano Lessons
Listening to Lester Young
The Blue Nap
Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau
Skin Diving


The Icehouse, Pointe au Baril, Ontario
A Small Room in Aspen
Talking to the Moon
The Mail
Sunday Alone in a Fifth Floor Apartment, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Four Poems about Jamaica

Opening Her Jewel Box
A Life of Crime
Taking the Train Home


A Roadside near Ithaca
Waking at Dusk from a Nap
In Memory of W. H. Auden
Snow Falling through Fog
Outer Space
Nurse Sharks


The Party

I don't care if nobody
under forty can hang a door
properly. I'm six and I'm bored.
In the kitchen Lavada
is plucking a turkey
who looks crumpled
and turned inside out
He's full of holes.
I throw my skinny arms in the air
as far as my bones will let them go
and giggle. It's ten years to Lavada's heart
attack and sixty to mine.
Black overweight Lavada tucks
a feather in her hair
and we dance, her triceps
wobblillg like charred wattles. We laugh
until our jawbones sting
as if we'd drunk mossy
cold, rust-flecked water
from the bottom of the well.


A Walk

February on the narrow beach, 3:oo
A.M. I set out south. Cape Cod Light
on its crumbling cliff above me turns
its wand of light so steadily
it might be tolling a half-life,
it might be the second-hand
of a schoolroom clock,
a kind of blind radar.

These bluffs deposited by glaaciers
are giving themselves away
to the beaches down the line, three
feet of coastline a year. I follow
them south at my own slow pace.
Ahead my grandfather died
in a boat and my father
found him and here I come.

If I cleave to the base of the I berm
the offshore wind swirls grit
just over my head and the backwash
rakes it away. If I keep going
south toward my grandfatherís house
in Chatham, and beyond,
the longshore current grinds the sand
finer the farther I go. It spreads

it wider and the beaches sift
inland as far as they can go
before beachgrass laces them down
for now. It gets to be spring,
I keep walking, it gets to be
summer. Families loll.
Now the waves are small; they keep
their swash marks close to home.

A little inland from the spurge
and sea-rockets my tan sons kick
a soccer ball north, against
grains that may once have been
compacted to sandstone, then
broken back to grains, bumbling
and driven and free again,
shrinking along the broadening edge.


Isla Mujeres

The shoal we saw from the boat was fish;
it parted as I dove through, and formed
again overhead, each fish
like a dancing molecule in a rock.
On the flight to Merida we came down
through clouds that looked like brains
or scrambled eggs, but they were only
wisps and down we came. I'd swim
back up a chimney of fish and break,

already squinting, back into bright air.
If love is curiosity, I loved those fish.
Those nights I ate her, she didn't come
so much as she would go.
Her cunt-lather tasted already of memory
and fever-sped loss, as if I would dream
again and again -- and I do --

of falling through her. Sometimes I dream
I'm her, she's me, I'm on my back, she's eating
and falling through me, and as I start
to concentrate and come, my mind
"wanders," as a teacher would say to chide
one of our children, half of whose classmates
come from "broken" homes, should one
of our children stare too long
out a window, imagining he could fly.



Old Records

Les shows me his new Braun
tape deck. "After I've played them
three or four times I can hear records
begin to grind down. Now I play
them once, to tape." He's got a wall
of them, uncirculated coins.
Things go by, the summer draining
into the fall; breweries consolidalte,
there's a golf course where the woods
were. We're like a fire
and save things from ourselves.
Furtwängler's too-fast fourth movement
that I love, Coltrane breaking
his breath in the hissing rapids,
Janis in heat, Janis in scratch,
Bjørling's beautiful voice
ruined by whisky --
fuzz on the ripe notes and fuzz
continuing to grow.


Foul Shots: A Clinic

for Paul Levitt Be perpendicular to the basket,
toes avid for the line.

Already this description
is perilously abstract: the ball
and basket are round, the nailhead
centered in the centerplank
of the foul-circle is round,
and though the rumpled body
isn't round, it isn't
perpendicular. You have to draw
"an imaginary line," as the breezy

coaches say, "through your shoulders."
Here's how to cheat: remember
your collarbone. Now the instructions
grow spiritual -- deep breathing,
relax and concentrate both; aim
for the front of the rim but miss it
deliberately so the ball goes in.
Ignore this part of the clinic

and shoot 200 foul shots
every day. Teach yourself not to be
bored by any boring one of them.You have to love to do this, and chances
are you don't; you'd love to be good
at it but not by a love that drives
you to shoot 200 foul shots
every day, and the lovingly unlaunched
foul shots we're talking about now --
the clinic having served to bring us
together -- circle eccentrically
in a sky of stolid orbits
as unlike as you and I are
from the arcs those foul shots
leave behind when they go in.


Piano Lessons

Sometimes the music is locked
in the earth's body, matter-
of-fact, transforming itself.

So our work could seem useless,
even tautological, as if music
were weather, as if there were never

practice, finger-oil on the keys,
dust in the curtains like the silence
that hates music, parents

to disappoint, small frauds the teacher is paid
to endure but endures for her own
reasons. But the garbled, ill-

believed hymns rise from the piano
on payments. And any God I care for
rakes them in and loves them,

though I don't want to hear
the jokes God makes to love them
unless I be one of those jokes.


The Blue Nap

I slept "like a stone," or like that vast
stone-shaped building, the planetarium.
No dreams I can remember:
the dark unbroken blue
on which the stars will take
their places, like bright sheep

grazing the sparse sky.
The night I share with others is cloudy
as if it were groggy from snowing.
On the plains, the lights of Longmont
waver. I begin to re-invent
my life, turning on lights,

grinding some coffee beans -- French roast,
dark enough to shine. The kettle sends up
its flume of steam. The material world is always
swirling away. Six hours ago I lay down
so tired I slept through
an evening I'd have given to basketball

and friends. A snow as dry
as confectioners' sugar has stopped.
I take my dog for a walk
over the sifting fields. To him
it's not midnight. It's dark and snow
smells like the air it's fallen through.


Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau

Walking with Jesus the slow,
behind the beat. Mr. Resistance.
Mr. Ohm, Mr. Exactly Lame.

By some reluctance, some
restraint, if it be a restraint,
by some undertow and stutter,

the halt and lame can strut.
You can hear it yourself. Buy
a few records and think how big

a bass is to a small boy,
his fingers bleeding to grow deft.
Bandages are for amateurs

and they blur the tone, that habit
a bassist and his bass conspire,
the way a couple learns a stride
though the man's taller by a foot.


Skin Diving

The snorkel is the easiest woodwind.
Two notes in the chalumeau:
rising and falling.
Here is the skin of sleep,
the skin of reading, surfaces

inseparable from depths.
How far does the light go down?
Wouldn't we like to know.
I love this exact and calm
suspense, the way the spirit is said

to hover above a deathbed,
curious and tender as it is
detached, a cloud on the water,
a cloud in the sky,
as if desire were already

memory. Just as a diction
predicts what you might say
next, an emotion loves its chums.
But here, in poise and in hard thought,
I look down to find myself happy.



A Small Room in Aspen

Stains on the casements,
dustmotes, spiderless webs.
No chairs, and a man waking up,
or he's falling asleep

Many first novels begin
with the hero waking up,
which saves their authors
from writing well about sleep.

His life is the only novel
about him. Mornings
he walks past the park:
Tai Ch'i students practicing

like slow lorises.
A room on the second floor.
He'd dreamed of a ground floor
room, an insistent cat

at the door, its mouth pink
with wrath he couldn't salve
and grew to hate. All afternoon
he's a cloud that can't rain.

There's no ordinary life
in a resort town, he thinks,
though he's wrong: it laces
through the silt of tourists

like worm life. At dusk
the light rises in his room.
A beautiful day, all laziness
and surface, true without

translation. Wherever I go
I'm at home, he thinks,
smug and scared both,
fierce as a secret,

8,ooo feet above sea level.
The dark on its way down
has passed him, so he seems
to be rising, after the risen

light, as if he were to keep watch
while the dark sleeps,
as if he and it were each
other's future and children.


Talking to the Moon

A defeated politician is in circulation
again, as we say of coins,
and his mouth is full of words.
His words have all been handled smooth.
They'd shrink, like lozenges, except
some sweat from everyone who's had them
is on them. He could be you,
why don't you support him?

But some people hoard words.
"The year the lake froze all the way
across . . . ," a sentence might begin
and then nod, sleepy in a hot kitchen.
The words are a spell to make the lake
freeze again. The sentence never ends.

Rick used to love to tell how he
and Joanne would creep into her parents'
house after dates, and under
the dining room table he'd eat her
out, he'd say, as if she were an egg
and he a weasel.
His eyes gleamed with grief.
He wanted her back. He told
the story again and again.
The full moon fills the canyon
with pale cream. My huge dog leans
against my knee so hard
he'd fall over if I moved.
Soon he'll go to sleep under the juniper.
The other morning a finch landed on his back
while he slept. He unfurled one eye.
Hmmm, a finch.... I tell him his name.
He goes to the juniper and sleeps.

The moon's so bright
it has no features, button with no holes.
I've nothing to say to the moon.
Still, I want to talk.
I want words to be magic,
some secret I have the way I have
my body, so long as it lasts.
I want words to be food,
enough for us all to eat.
The mild stars shine.
The words I want
are sewing my body to sleep,
the no news that is good news, blood
tying and untying its knots.


Sunday Alone in a Fifth Floor Apartment, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Globe at the door, a jaunt
to the square for the Sunday Times.
Later the path you made has healed,
anyone may use it. A good day

for a fire. Fast clouds tug
their moorings of rain, bent
like a wet field in the wind.
It's almost dusk when you look out,

the sun falling, visible
beneath the curds of clouds.
Open the window. It's like leaving
the door to the shower stall open.

A draft and a few bars
from the Linz Symphony wend
in, like an exact crack in a damp wall
of white noise, the dial tone, the breathing

of sleepers, the dub-dub of a car's left
tires smattering the manhole cover
on Ware St. The music of others
is almost enough, but you can put on

a record to be sure, to make you want
to dance late in the day
in a light that seems to come from inside
the cloud bellies, like the rash that breaks out

just below the skin over a woman's breasts
as orgasm comes on, and on, and goes.


Four Poems About Jamaica

1. Montego Bay, 10:00 P.M.

A chandelier, a tiara,
a hive of lights. A cruise ship

is leaving, the S.S. Jesus
again, the only ship that comes

here. If I watch the ship go
long enough I become the ship.

So rather than leave I look away --
because the sea is a foreign country

and I love to travel, but not
like a faltering heart

set on fire and pushed out to sea
not like a birthday cake.


2. Jamaicans Posing to Be Photographed

Illiterate Esther watched me
closing a book and asked,
Can you hear from the dead
with that box?
God yes.

Today I take pictures.
My subjects are full dress.
My subjects! As the language
I liveby flows through me

it carries so much history
I'm embarrassed, I who believe
in language and distrust
its exact parlor tricks.

Full dress, historical
posture, as if they were running
for office or these were wedding
pictures, since white folks care

about weddings. Somber Ronald,
age three. And Esther, archival,
though the dead don't live in boxes
and nothing keeps in the heat.


3. A Hairpin Turn above Reading, Jamaica

for Russell Banks

Here's where the fire truck fell
beached on its side, off the road.
So when the fire fell into itself
we came down the hill to watch
the fire truck get saved. Only

the rich live this high, with a view
of the bay, and the rich
will be with us forever,
though the pump at the base
of the mountain burns out

and the Socialist party, in power,
is sorry. The rich buy truckloads
of water and hire the poor
to drive them up. Water will go
uphill if money will go down.

Today there's a goat in the bend,
stolid and demure. She'll move
soon: there's nothing to eat in the road.
A cow and two egrets tack
into the shadow of a mango.

It's noon. Above the bay, turkey
buzzards sift the thermals.
At dawn they perch and spread
their wings to dry, like laundry.
My friends and I are the rich,

though the house is rented. We'll fall
away, the goat will loll off the road,
the bad clutch in the van will slur
but we'll make it up, and we do,
heat-steeped, thoughtful, and sleepy.


4. Kingston

No photograph does justice, etc.,
but what does a photograph care
for justice? It wants to be clear,
the way an angel need not mean,
but be, duty enough for an angel.

No angels here. Hovels seen from far
enough away they look picturesque.
The blatant blue sky so cool in pictures
is gritty with heat. The long day stings.
We squint at the lens. Though the lines

in our faces are engraved by the acids
of muscle-habits, not by tears.
Sympathy we have to learn. Here's
a family of three living in a dead car.
The guidebooks warned us away

from this, and so we came,
ungainly, spreading
our understandings of sorrow like wet wings.
We turn and turn, but everywhere is here,
a blurred circle of wing scuffs.



A few rats are gnawing
along the floor of the silo,
but what are a few rats
against this tower of food?
It takes 75,000 crocus blossoms
to make a pound of saffron.

And after today out there
in the heat, nobody dreams of food.
In our dream, Mary Slater
swings higher and higher
on the vine over the Haskins'
creek, and disappears.


Opening Her Jewel Box

She discovers a finish
of dust on the felt drawer-bottoms,
despite the long time
it's been since she opened it
or wore lipstick. Sometimes she's asked
"What are you thinking of?"
and she's so startled she says
"Nothing," rather than describe
a mug with a bite-shaped chip
in its rim, or years ago
killing a cat with carbon monoxide
for love of a medical student.
It thrashed as far from the tailpipe
as the sack would stretch --
ball of fur in a taut lung
that wouldn't work. The cat grew slack
and then grew stiff.
In biology class she'd used corpses
cold from formaldehyde, but
when they cut the cat it was warm
and the heat ran into her wrists.

There used to be two of these earrings.
Erotic memories, how they all
survive, though most of them
need a sentimental past
for a context, or have none,
chunks of space debris
turning in an icy light.
"Nothing in particular,"
she corrects herself out loud,
stunned by the speed of life --
she who used to curse boredom
"Daddy drive faster," she'd urge
because he wouldn't. Time
to brush my hair, she tells
herself, then time to work.
Her hair pouts in clumps.
It's always been thin, slow
to unsnarl. Easy does it.
She begins to sing, softly at first.


A Life of Crime

Frail friends, I love you all!
Maybe that's the trouble,
storm in the eye of a storm.
Everyone wants too much.
Instead we gratefully accept
some stylized despair:

suitcoats left hanging
on folding chairs, snow falling
inside a phonebooth, cows
scouring some sad pasture.
You know the sort of landscape,
all sensibility and no trees.

Nothing but space, a little
distance between friends.
As if loneliness didn't make us
responsible, and want accomplices.
Better to drink at home
than to fall down in bars.

Or to read all night a novel
with missing heirs, 513 pages
in ten-point type, and lay my body
down, a snarl of urges
orbited by blood,
dreaming of others.



A Roadside Near Ithaca

Here we picked wild strawberries,
though in my memory we're neither here
nor missing. Or I'd scuff out
by myself at dusk, proud
to be lonely. Now everything's
in bloom along the road at once:
tansy mustard, sow thistle,
fescue, burdock, soapwort,
the mailbox-high day lilies,
splurges of chicory with thin,
ragged, sky-blue flowers.
Or they're one blue the sky
can be, and always, not
varium et mutabile semper,
restless forever. In memory,
though memory eats its banks
like any river, you can carry
by constant revision
some loved thing: a stalk of mullein
shaped like a what's-the-word-for
a tower of terraced bells, that's it,
a carillon! A carillon ringing
its mute changes of pollen into a past
we must be about to enter,
the road's so stained by the yellow
light (same yellow as the tiny
mullein flowers) we shared
when we were imminent.



the only parts of the body the same
size at birth as they'll always be.
"That's why all babies are beautiful,"
Thurber used to say as he grew
blind -- not dark, he'd go on
to explain, but floating in a pale
light always, a kind of candlelit
murk from a sourceless light.
He needed dark to see:
for a while he drew on black
paper with white pastel chalk
but it grew worse. Light bored
into his eyes but where did it go?
Into a sea of phosphenes,
along the wet fuse of some dead
nerve, it hid everywhere and couldn't
be found. I've used up
three guesses, all of them
right. It's like scuba diving, going down
into the black cone-tip that dives
farther than I can, though I dive
closer all the time.


Snow Falling Through Fog

This is how we used to imagine
the ocean floor: a steady snow of dead
diatoms and forams drifting
higher in the sunken plains, a soggy
dust on the climbing underwater
peaks. But such a weather

would build a parched earth,
a ball of salt. Down the last mountains
above sea level real snow would sift
until it met the rising tide
of salt and the earth was perfect, done.
Now we think of the ocean floor
as several floors, vast plates

grinding against each other as metaphors
grind each other. We say "plates"
as if somewhere the earth
were flat, or we were
faithful to the way our round eyes
flatten the round earth whenever the lack

of a compelling metaphor gives us a chance.
The basins would never fill up
even with our bad ideas.
Information keeps our senses linked.
The fog thins and we can see
more of the air the snow defines,
the snow like a syllabus of starfish.


Outer Space

If you could turn the moon
on a lathe, you would
because you are curious.

And that would explain
why the moon slivers,
but explain it stupidly

by not taking care
to ask how the moon rounds.
And so we go, stupid ideas

for feet. The better to wander
, retort the feet,
and what can you say,

you who shaved those taut
spirals from the moon,
kinks of tightening light

that fell away from your attention
to your work growing smaller
the better you did it?

Threads on a screw, the worm
of a corkscrew, the circular
staircase to sleep....

Soon the moon is gone
as far as it can go and still come back.
Soon there'll be no room

for you: the moon will be all
stomach, like a melon.
The nest you've been meaning

to leave is inside, aslosh with seeds.
Around the outside you curl
like the sky that goes away forever.



Usually I stay up late, my time
alone. Tonight at 9:oo I can tell
I'm only awake long enough
to put my sons to bed.
When I start to turn off lights
the boys are puzzled. They're used
to entering sleep by ceding to me
their hum and fizz, the way they give me
50¢ to hold so they can play
without money. I'm their night-light.
I'm the bread baked while they sleep.
And I can scarcely stand up, dry
in the mouth and dizzied
by fatigue. From our rooms
we call back and forth the worn
magic of our passwords and let one
another go. In the morning Sebastian
asks who was the last to fall
asleep and none of us cares or knows.


[text from back cover:]

William Matthews's previous poetry collections, Ruining the New Road and Sleek for the Long Flight, earned him a reputation as one of America's most accomplished poets, with praise from such fellow poets as Charles Simic and John Hollander. Now William Meredith writes about his third book:

"Rising and Falling seems to me to settle the point: William Matthews is one of the best poets writing today. The poems are lucid, like the proof of an elegant mathematician. Woven unexpectedly through them are throat-catching phrases that make you think that you are hearing a new Strauss opera or at least a new Jarrell poem about one. These are phrases of terrific emotional accuracy, usually colloquial. The diction is vernacular and lapidary, like pre- Columbian jade figures. And the poetic character behind the work is that of a straightforward American who is a natural writer -- a character who would not require the fancy figures I have reached for to convey how astonishing and readable I find the book."

Richard Hugo adds his own praise: "Matthews reminds us and teaches us how we survive the natural process of fragmentation that results when we neglect what we really are and what life really is. William Matthews is a relentless, extreme and inspirational advocate of reality."

A former teacher of poetry at Wells, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, and the Universities of Colorado and Iowa, William Matthews now heads the writing program at the University of Washington. Matthews coedited the magazine Lillabulero for many years, and has served as a vice-chairman of the board of literary judges of te National Endowment for the Arts.
Note from the CAPA Webmaster: William Matthews died in the Fall of 1997.

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