Thursday, December 27, 2012

William Matthews

Matthews (1942-1997) has been my favorite poet since a day in the early 90's, riding the train from DC to Philly, I happened to read--perhaps in the New York Review?--a poem of his called 'Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo.'  I don't think Matthews ever wrote a bad, or even an uninteresting, poem.  Here's one for the end of the year, chosen from his Collected Poems. This one is, of all things, about the lost art of smoking.  I read recently in the Times the view that the ban on indoor smoking had done as much as anything to kill off literary culture in New York City--an odd idea at first, then, not so odd at all.  Here's to clean air, I suppose...note all the wonderful surprises here, so typical of Matthews....I put a link to this book, called Search Party: Collected Poems below. 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I love the smoky libidinal murmur
of a jazz crowd, and the smoke coiling
and lithely uncoiling like a choir
of vaporous cats. I like to slouch back
with that I'll-be-there-awhile tilt
and sip a little Scotch and listen,
keeping time and remembering the changes,
and now and then light up a cigarette.

It's the reverse of music: only a small
blue slur comes out--parody and rehearsal,
both, for giving up the ghost. There's a nostril-
billowing, sulphurous blossom from the match,
a dismissive waggle of the wrist,
and the match is out. What would I look like
in that thumb-sucking, torpid, eyes-glazed
and happy instant if I could snare myself

suddenly in a mirror, unprepared by vanity
for self-regard? I'd loose a cumulus of smoke,
like a speech balloon in the comic strips,
though I'd be talking mutely to myself,
and I'd look like I love the fuss of smoking:
hands like these, I should be dealing blackjack
for a living.  And doesn't habit make us
predictable to ourselves?  The stubs pile up

and ashes drift against the ashtray rims
like snow against a snow fence.  The boy
who held his breath until he turned blue
has caught a writhing wisp of time itself
in his long-suffering lungs. It'll take years--
he'll tap his feet to music, check his watch
(you can't fire him; he quits), shun fatty foods--
but he'll have his revenge; he's killing time.

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