William Matthews might not be a household name, but to people who read, write, and otherwise appreciate modern and contemporary American poetry, he was an intensely loved wordsmith, and a tremendous influence on so many writers. He mastered a conversational approach to narrative poetry that was deceptive in its approachability; he was neither deliberately obscure nor self-indulgently clever; he was meticulous without being off-putting, and his poetry walks the delicate balance of both entreating and challenging his readers. I could go on and on, but for my purposes here, Matthews was also, indisputably, a “foodie.” One could probably mount an argument that, in addition to jazz (perhaps his ultimate love and favored subject), food and all its attendant pleasures and mysteries was his other great subject. And not just food, but wine specifically. Matthews had a way of writing about wine that made one not only very, very thirsty for wine, but for life, love, romance, travel, sex, food, and yes, more wine. And even if he wasn’t writing specifically about wine, the way wine would figure in his poems made you yearn for a good glass and a good adventure all the more, even as your soul is aching from the poignancy and pathos of his visions.
Consider Matthews’ great poem, “La Tâche, 1962,” originally published in his second collection, Sleek For The Long Flight. The opening of the poem is, “Pulling the long cork, I shiver with a greed so pure it is curiosity./I feel like the long muscles in a sprinter’s thighs when he’s in the/block, like a Monarch butterfly the second before it begins migrating to Venezuela for the winter — I feel as if I were about to seduce somebody famous.” And later, he delivers the following; ” …the wine holds and lives by/whatever it has learned from 3 1/2 acres of earth. What I taste isn’t the/wine itself, but its secrets. I taste the secret of thirst, the longing of matter to be energy, the sloth of energy to lie down in the trenches of/sleep, in the canals and fibres of the grape.” And in one of the final lines, he writes (in reference to the wine of the title) that, “It is the emblem of what we never really taste or know, the silence/all poems are unfaithful to.”
Unbelievable! Not only does he work this poem into a stunning evocation of wine and life’s true cojoined magic, he even turns it into an Ars Poetica by poem’s end; a treatise on poetry itself! I am just stunned every time I read this work.
Sometimes wine is not the subject of the work at all, nor even a secondary focus; in some poems, wine appears only as fleeting metaphor, but somehow, the intensity of deployment is still chilling in its power. Consider a stanza from Matthews’ poem “Living Among The Dead,” from his collection Rising And Falling. In an affectingly existential rumination on fathers, sons, the living, and the dead, Matthews writes the following:
My sons and I are like some wine
the dead have already bottled.
They wish us well, but there is nothing
they can do for us.
More on Mr. Matthews later, but I encourage you to seek out his poems. They’re wondrous.