Two Poems by John Matthias


Schiller’s Totenkopf

In what charnel house did Goethe’s hand
stir among the scattered bones, see
dead forms arise to adept’s eye, arms and legs
Detached and mixed with hands and feet
Belonging to a score of dead, limbs once
Zierlich tatge Glider – “full of grace”– all among,
As an English hand might render it, “unjointed
Shoulder blades” – entrenkte Schulterblatter.

Alas poor Schiller, Goethe knew you well
and held your much-loved memory
In his mind while in his hands he held
Your skull. Werter’s, Maister’s maker
Took you for a brother when you urged
Abandonment of pet distractions – rocks
And colour theory and a dozen other things –
To get you back to finishing your Faust.

Did Euphorion fall like Icarus the moment
Goethe plucked that skull among the many
Gathered like potatoes out of Weimar’s boneyard,
1826?  The cemetery’s old historian would write:
However ardent the conviction, the Sexton said
Identity was most uncertain. Still, the skull was claimed
By Goethe who in terza rima lifted up his relic of
“A rare nobility” that still was in his care when

Faust took linden from the small house
Of Philomel and Baucis at Maphisto’s urging
For his throne. So what bargain can enhance
Exchange of skill for skull, of skull for skill,
And broker metamorphosis if not its own?
If own it not? Jupiter and Mercury gave
Philomel and Baucis linden for their love but
Totenkopf sang grave Maphisto’s Lied.


Frank O’Hara and My Senior Trip

Lots of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems
Are dated 1959. He wrote them during
His lunch hour we understand. That
Was a long time ago, but even so it’s
A year for which I feel great nostalgia.
In the spring, I went to New York
For the first time, staying at the Taft.
It occurs to me now that it’s entirely
Possible I passed O’Hara on the street.
Maybe the day he wrote “Personal Poem.”
I was with my high school class on
Our “Senior Trip,” and was stimulated
By just about everything, especially by
Having dinner every night with my
Beautiful classmate Margaret VanNess.
We both had pretty much committed
To others who were back in Columbus.
But for a week, Goodbye, Columbus.
Philip Roth’s first book came out that year
And some of us had recently read it.
Hello, New York! I called it. If I had
Passed Roth on the street I’d have known
Since there was a large picture of him
On the back of the book. But not on
Anything I’d read by Frank O’Hara.
In fact, I hadn’t read anything by O’Hara
Though perhaps as I walked down
Fifth Avenue he was writing “Personal
Poem.” Like him, I was a fan of bebop
And went out seven nights to Birdland or
The Five Spot. After having dinner
With Margaret VanNess and seeing plays.
We all went to A Raison in the Sun
And to J.B. by MacLeish. I went back
Stage to shake the hand of Sidney Poitier
After weeping at his eloquence in Raison
In the Sun, but I didn’t understand that
J.B. was written in verse and derived from
Job in the Bible. I actually heard more jazz
In Columbus at Marty’s 502 Club than I
Heard in New York. But in New York I did
Manage to hear Miles Davis for the
First time, and also Art Blakey’s
Jazz Messengers. In “Personal Poem”
O’Hara meets up with LeRoi Jones
Who later changed his name to Amiri
Baraka. LeRoi tells O’Hara that
Miles was clubbed outside his club
By New York police. That didn’t happen
The night Joel and I heard him. Miles
Played like an angel, turning his back
To the audience. People thought he was
Arrogant or indifferent, but no one tried
To beat him up – except, I guess, the
New York cops. It must have happened
On some other day, not the day on
Which I might have passed O’Hara
And maybe LeRoi Jones as well.
O’Hara says that he and LeRoi don’t
Like Lionel Trilling or Henry James
But do like Donald Allen and Melville.
I knew about Melville, but not about
Don Allen. O’Hara doesn’t say a word
About Philip Roth. He says in the third
To last line of “Personal Poem” that he
Wonders if one person out of the
8,000,000 residents of the city is thinking
Of him. I wasn’t thinking of him on that
Day but I think of him now. When I went
To MoMA I didn’t know that was where
He’d return to work after lunch. Nor did
I know that LeRoi Jones would soon
Become Amiri Baraka. Joel and I went
On a boat that featured three combos in
What was billed as “Jazz on the Hudson.”
It was over late, and when the boat docked
We walked all the way back to the Taft
Hotel when Frank O’Hara was probably
Home and in bed. Anyway, during those
Lunch hours he wrote what he called his
“Now I do this, Now I do that” poems.
Joel, my fellow jazz fan, smoked a pipe
Just like his father did. His father was
A professor, and in those days all
Professors smoked a pipe. Neither of us
Was yet eighteen, so we had to use
Fake IDs all over town. When Miles
Turned around and faced the audience
After his solo, the band took a break.
That was not on the Hudson ferryboat
But the day after at a club. Poor O’Hara
Wasn’t clubbed on the head by the
New York cops, but he died young, just
Seven years after my Senior Trip. His
Poems are full of proper names, but not
That of Kenneth Ruzicka. Round about
Not Midnight but the time that my friend
Margaret VanNess married someone other
Than me, and Joel Barkan got his PhD,
Ken Ruzicka, driving a jeep
On the Fire Island Sand hit Frank O’Hara,
And ended his short life.


About the Author

John Matthias is the author of some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism and scholarship. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, editor emeritus of Notre Dame Review and emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame. Shearsman Books published his three volumes of Collected Poems, as well as the uncollected long poem, Trigons, two more volumes of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Acoustic Shadows and a novel, Different Kinds of Music. Tales Tall & Short— Fictional, Factual and In Between  was published by Dos Madres in 2020 and The New Yorker recently published his widely read memoir, “Living with a Visionary”.

Post Image

Caspar David Friedrich, The Tombs of the Old Heroes, 1812 (detail).

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