I first encountered John's work when part of the Trigons sequence appeared in the Cambridge Literary Review and was so impressed that I bought all of his books that were available on amazon. One of these contained Laundry Lists and Manifestoes which I thought was the most accomplished and intelligent poem that I'd read in many years. I wrote about this on bebrowed (why hasn't anyone told me about John Matthias?) and was then contacted by John and we've corresponded since then and have now completed the Annotated Trigons Project which I certainly found incredibly involving and rewarding.
One of the questions that I've thought about is whether or not John's work is 'difficult' enough for arduity. With one or two exceptions it doesn't have that resistance to readerly attention that characterises most of this material, it doesn't mangle syntax, it doesn't make frequent use of foreign phrases, it doesn't make use of secondary definitions but it does contain a lot of proper names and some of these are not particularly familiar. So, my excuse is these names and the fact that John is a supreme technician in the making of the Poem. He also has that uncanny knack, shared by very few, of expressing the complex and profound in a relaxed and conversational manner. It took me a while to work out how this might be done but working on Trigons has led me to become more aware of John's mastery of the potential effects of language and his delight in playing with words
As well as his skill and intelligence, there's this wry humanity that runs through the work, a kind of patient bemusement at the ways of the world that is both refreshing and heartening. I think most readers will sense this from the work as well as the wisdom contained therein
This page is intended to give an overview of John's work but it isn't balanced, the preponderance of the longer poems reflects my own interests and preferences for which I make no apologies whatsoever:
The second part of the dyptich is Rivers and is an exploration of the history and geography of the part of England south of the Wash. Rivers is written in memoriam Robert Duncan and David Jones. I don't know enough about Duncan but can see a quite striking to David Jones' The Anathemata. This is from part V:
So Wandil on the Stour gestures gravely to the Wandil on the Gogmagogs. Against him lean the sun & moon while all about him widdershins there turns a circle of the dancers who will help achieve the spring as every ley south-east of Thetford Castle Mound lines up along the tumuli and standing stones to pass through places named for Bel or Belu out to Walton on the northern Sea.... Beyond the Roman camp, the Saxon mound. Beyond the Saxon Mound the Viking outpost in the Celtic forest with its secret paths.
John writes about many things but one of the threads that he excels at is the importance of place in the past, he is also an astute commentator on the human condition. This is all of Parting as an attempt at illustration:
The last time we met was in a parking lot Beside the post office. He was sending out a stack Of cards announcing a change of address. I'd not seen him for a long time and understood There had been a scandal of some kind, hushed Up because he was a priest. He couldn't meet My eye and clearly didn't know if I were privy To events in the past that had flared again into His life and brought him down, or not. He had done me kindnesses and I admired As much as I could understand of work He'd done that made him famous. I said I'd miss him. He said he'd spent the last Three days doing things that old men do And that today he'd burned his letters-- some From men like Bohr amd Einstein. He said He'd miss me too. When I came here, his name Was on everybody's lips, his work a legend. He was now about to creep out of town in The night. He went back to Ireland and died.
I don't think anyone can doubt the strength and subtlety of the above, there's a gentle but steady momentum towards the final sentence and there are a few telling phrases along the way, the events that had flared again, the things that old men do, the 'missing' of each other, that build towards the priest's death. There is a pathos here about the end of a brilliant career but there's also an edge - the now all too familiar hushing up of priestly misdemeanours and the creeping out of town in the night. It's a poem that continues to run around my brain and has led me to reflect on my own views of abusive adults in positions of authority.
This is subtitled a book of years and deals with a number of twentieth century years by recounting public and presonal events. This is the beginning of part II:
They'd listen to Jack Benny once a week. Brought to you by Jell-O. They'd go out to the films: Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan chased John Brown to Harper's Ferry; Abbot got so angry that he made Costello cry. Rose- bud someone told them was the codename for a German agent, not what William Randolph Hears had called his mistress's obscene that word if you can think of it Louella Parsons Hedda Hopper said and recommended censorship in time of war a cenogenesis for every member cenobitical eventually a cenotaph erected in your own back yard with every name you'd carve on every tall Glen Echo oak in stone Rosebud? Tricycle in fact.
This part moves on to other events of 1941 taking in (among others) Marina Tsetaeva, Walter Winchell, the Lone Ranger and Dusko Popov- a Yugoslav double agent in World War II. There's more or less the same cascade of proper names throughout and it is helpful to have a smattering of context for each- hence the difficulty. What Pages does, as with Trigons is cause the reader to reflect on and reconsider her views and recollections of the fairly recent past. John also uses episodes from his own life to offer a contrast. It's an example of the poem as whirlwind.
This is a sequence of reflections on the nature of lists and the kinds of security that they provide. The central character is Nausicaa from Homer's Odyssey but also included are Noah, Malevich, Lou Gerhig, Tzara and many others. The point made is however a serious and original observation on the fundamentals of the list. The sequence ends with this piece of brilliance:
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan, Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an Unknown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow. They're coeternal and they rise to an occasion. Although they tell no story of their lives, their little trumpets blow.
It was these lines that convinced me of John's genius, partly because of the amount that they say in so short a space but also because of the way in which this razor-sharp observation is expressed. especially the lyrical beauty of the last 2.5 lines. Throughout the sequence there's an almost light-hearted sophisitcation that makes me smile a lot.