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.

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4 responses to “John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ and ‘Trigons’

  1. Looking again now at this last excerpt in the light of “F0”, the acoustics bits jump out. The three tones described in terms of cycles and decibels would make a piercing whistle — they’re high and discordant (a diminished triad), starting loud and getting louder as they go up. The recipe for a siren or emergency blast?

  2. Thank you. I mostly knew Matthias through his work on Jones, now I know to read his poems. Do you know if his book on Jones is still available? I was thinking of using it for a class, but I fear it may be out of print, i.e. I’m not finding “new” copies available in my searches.

    • It’s not available here in the UK but it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in serious modernist stuff. His poetry has been an absolute revelation for me over the past 2 years. It was Matthias who gently nudged me in Jones’ direction for which I’ll always be grateful.

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