The New Tourism by Harry Mathews
(Sand Paper Press, Key West, FL., 2010)
The publishers of Harry Mathews’ latest volume call him “a legend of the American avant-garde” as they laud this “first collection of poetry in twenty years.” Poetry, however, is not Mathews’ forte. The volume makes it seem more like his hobby. Stories, prose poetry, that’s more Harry’s bag. And yet…, and yet….
The best poems here are a haiku sequence, what the publishers term “a diary of discrete (if not so discreet) late-night improvisations on the familiar Japanese three-line form.” These poems are more anti-haiku of a Roman/Latin sort.
Wherever friends meet,
there is room for surprises,
such as listening.
My beloved friend
Who swears that he is happy
Is perhaps living.
Works done with pleasure?
Levers of melancholy
Skew my peopled streets.
The living and dead
constitute one memory:
scissored wall lettuce.
It is difficult
to know what children forget.
Rain: falling asleep.
There are 25 pages of these, 123 poems, not all sharp but none worse than Issa’s worst. Many of them are poignantly not rimmed in by Japanese traditions and are fully felt in American sentiments. That’s their value.
The other sections of this book are #I that consists solely of “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem” about cookery and nicely imagistic, and #II that collects recent lyrics “devoted to the unpredictable deviations between intention and desire” according to the publishers’ flyer. I take the best of those lyrics to be about more than that. “In Pursuit of Henry Vaughn” does that writer and thinker honor by playing the concept of an “undoubting ignorance” as a kind of innocence against the acts that led through reading into writing without leaving any stage of that pilgrimistic progress behind. It begins:
Can we, can I remember happiness?
Do I know when I’m happy, except when it’s over?
Some lines then put forth the idea of a time of having “learned how to eat and not yet learned how to write” as a kind of innocence. A long second stanza looks at the teenage years when “all the things that meanwhile were going wrong” became the focus of life and mind, and then we move on to an adulthood when other’s attentions “helped me dilute this self-disgust.” It is an American boy’s tale. But Vaughn is there behind it, and the ending owes more than something to that writer who can hardly be a darling of “the American avant-garde.” I still have my Oxford Book of English Poetry that Allen Ginsberg required us to buy for his seminar at Naropa in 1975, and there in it is Vaughn’s “The Retreat.”
It is a poem of unregenerate nostalgia for a myth of our having all been angels before our birth. What Mathews has made of this is remarkably un-myth-bound. Vaughn writes of a first love that turns out to be God; Mathews focuses much more sharply on reflecting to us what always seems to be our free will until age shows it to have been the cockiness of every youth.
in my last moments, I can choose to relent
and, however briefly, recover that undoubting ignorance
(all its bad dreams effaced)
that I so cleverly abandoned.
It’s just before those lines that Mathews concocts an image of what happiness might have been:
From the branches of a red maple
into which I used to climb, the world spread vastly
in a summer that included me. From my perch,
the houses I saw were cool and welcoming—
they remain so today, but when I enter them
my thoughts have wandered elsewhere.
That wandering is not an innocent one, however much we all might do it; it is a kind of lack or laxity of attention. And that is what a poem is meant to render and remedy. This is poetry, and not that of any hobbyist. It joins Vaughn in pursuit of “bright shoots of everlastingness.”
The book has the feel of elder wisdom and reflection more than the playfulness of Mathews’ Oulipo works. Honest sentiment that is nobly unsentimental. That’s worth something, even to the young who think themselves quite clever.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.