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.

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