Before we proceed, given the incestuous nature of the UK poetry ‘scene’ I need to make something clear. I’ve known John Matthias for about 10 years and am an unabashed fan. I have always found him to be exceptionally supportive of what I try to do. Without John’s insistence, it is very,very unlikely that I would have paid any attention to the work of David Jones.
We worked together on arduity’s Annotated Trigons Project, a process I found delightful and incredibly instructive. His work is exceptionally skilled and speaks with a wry humanity, as does the man himself. He also has that enviable skill of masking skillful technique with an almost conversational voice. I should also point out that I much prefer John’s longer sequences to his shortish poems.
A copy of John’s latest, Acoustic Shadows, has recently landed on my doorstep and it contains the above poem. Prynne and John were colleagues at Cambridge University for a number of years but I have no idea as to the extent or depth of their relationship.
To get the initial difficulty out of the way, the interweb tells me that Petotskey Stones are:
A Petoskey Stone is a fossil of a colonial coral (Hexagonaria percarinata) that lived in a shallow sea covering the Great Lakes area during Devonian time about 350 million years ago.
When the corals died, some of them were covered with sediment and became part of a rock unit known as the Alpena Limestone. The Alpena Limestone outcrops along the coast of Little Traverse Bay near the city of Petoskey, Michigan – the town for which the stones have been named.
The calcium carbonate exoskeleton of the coral colony is what became a Petoskey Stone. The fossil corals range in size from small specimens of a few animals that are an inch or two across to large colonies that can be several feet across and weigh over 1000 pounds. A photo of a modern colonial coral is shown in the accompanying photo.
And J H Prynne is the UK’s finest living poet but also renowned for the difficulty of his work. There are many pieces on Prynne on this blog and on my arduity site.
This longish work is a sequence of seven linked poems of varying length each of which tells of John’s experience of stones from, as a youth, coming second in a melon seed spitting contest at the Ohio state fair through to pebbles from Aldeburgh beach and on to fragments of the Berlin Wall. Also intermingled is one poem in particular Prynne’s White Stones collection from 1969 and a typically self-deprecating episode at Cambridge probably when John taught there:
In fact, my awkwardness includes a dizzy head
of syllables attending dance, a breathless
hunting for the line. Once, at his college, I wore
a borrowed gown and spilled my glass of wine
to high table merriment, but still I thought it
a fond libation. The old poet is over eighty
and undaunted. Even I am halfway through
my own eighth decade now. No so long, declares
the gay geologist of one's imagination. Gay
in Yeats' sense, not in the sense of our
contemporary speech. In America, I said,
we have but low tables, though often high style
in spite of that. May the college please forgive
its spillage and its mopping up...........
I’ve quoted this, from the third poem in the sequence, because it seems to exemplify some of John’s themes and the brilliance of his technique. Here we have a memory of an embarrassing incident whilst at the one of the notorious high table at a Cambridge College. The spillage follows a wry but precise observation on the poetry making malarkey. Those of use who try to cobble together verse from language know only too well this ‘breathless hunt’ for the right combination to say something close to what we’re after. This is pointed out, almost as an aside, in an easy and accessible manner but those syllables attending dance are dazzling and provocative in equal measure.
Those familiar with Prynne’s recent work will know that he remains undaunted in both form and content in spite of the ongoing scorn thrown in his direction by many who should know better. John is similarly resilient although he writes in a much more ‘acceptable’ manner. The oblique dig at the hidebound snobbery that continues to infect Most Things Oxbridge is well made. It is, of course, much more effective to do away with the impeding rituals of the high table. There’s something profound being said about aging and this gay geologist who I picture, with small hammer and trowel at hand, merrily scrabbling away at elements of the past so that they can be used in the present. The Yeats reference would appear to be a reference to his Lapis Lazuli especially to
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
Being largely ignorant of Yeats’ work, I didn’t appreciate the connection until I spent a minute or so with the interweb that brought up the full text of this eloquent poem. Being ignorant in this regard, I don’t know whether this reference is obscure or not but it is possible to grasp the gist of what’s being said without that knowledge. It is reasonable to suppose that Yeats at the beginning of the 20th century would using the adjective to denote being light hearted and cheerful rather than homosexual.
I’d also like to point out a one of the technical aspects that make the above work as a poem. Some words in the above are extraneous to what’s being said but are used to maintain the cadence of the verse. I’d recommen reading the above out.loud as printed above and then with the words ‘own’ and ‘now’ from the eighth line. This has the effect of disrupting both the cadence and the flow of the poem has a whole.
The sequence concludes with a quote from Prynne and a look forwards to our geolical future;
Plantin type: You say I / think or not /
get on / get off / quiet / match the stone . I note,
like some Confucian sage, that melon seeds
bring melons, peach seeds peaches, cherry seeds
the cherry trees that blossom here; I'd pour
a quick libation, pocket pebbles from the Aldeburgh
beach if I were there. Here, I'll shine the corals
petrified by time and left behind by melting glaciers
still receding, which eventually will make this
shore and all the inland reaches of our low lying land
once again a warm and shallow sea.
The quote is from the last line and a half of Prynne’s A Stone Called Nothing which was published in The White Stones collection in 1969. Of perhaps more interest in this context are these lines from Prynne’s The Glacial Question, Unsolved:
the ice smoothing the lumps off, filling the hollows with sandy clay as the litter of "surface". As the roads run dripping across this, the rhythm is the declension of history, the facts in succession, they are succession, and the limits are not time but ridges and thermal delays, plus or minus whatever carbon dates we have.
Both of these, then,would appear to be concerned with the effects of the passage of time with Matthias putting his personal history into this much wider context. John’s final line is loaded because we know now that the self-inflicted and very premature return of “a warm and shallow sea” will spell the end of the human race on planet earth.
To conclude, I hope I have given some indication of the strength and value of Matthias’ work and encouragement to those approaching his work for the first time.