Homage, as They Say
by Joe Linker
Varieties of Homage
Chavagnes-en-Paillers: Odd Volumes of The Fortnightly Review, 2022. 179 pp
Style is built on influence, what you’ve read and absorbed over time, books that have become old friends, though they might have long ago gone out of style. John Matthias has read and written enough to understand this, to know how and when to acknowledge, and he is fortunate enough now to be positioned to do so. And style is more than how you put something down on paper. It’s how you live.
I first discovered John Matthias in a New Yorker article titled “Living with a Visionary” (1 Feb 2021), a heartbreaking personal history memoir of the last days of his wife suffering from Parkinson’s during Covid restrictions, detailing her restrictive responses and hallucinations, all buried in America’s bizarre health care system.
In Varieties of Homage Matthias clearly explains his theme: “Both English and French poetry have a long tradition of Homages…to pay one’s respects…I try to do that in this book, try to pay my respects to poems, poets, friends, traditions, and places.” As Matthias visits the various styles, forms, themes of his influences, he adds his own touches, of scholarly knowledge, of humour, of poetic movement. He brings the old forms and poets forwards and places the new in the old. So in “Tomas Tranströmer” we get a “Hashtag, as they say, / pressing fingers on their small machines.” The book begins with small tributes, shorter pieces, and this helps us get into the work, which becomes increasingly difficult as the references and allusions and form of forms become increasingly complex. Indeed, if one hunted down all the work presented, or represented, then Varieties of Homage is the only reference book you’ll ever need.
Many of the pieces might serve as introductions to writers you may have heard of but don’t really know. You get some idea of their style, Matthias’s response, and how to navigate so as to negotiate the new idea of where influence and style intersect.
So we get Mallarme and Lydia Davis; Stephen Crane and Orpheus; an overlay, or carpet pad, of a myth with the current set-up – where, for example, a CEO fills in for some ancient king of kings. And if it all gets a little too heady, here’s Matthias to hold your hand: “…But don’t / Worry, reader, just go ahead and enjoy / The poem.”
Everyday sarcasm has its place in Varieties of Homage, and while Matthias seems steeped in the classics, we also might find traces of Billy Collins or Kenneth Koch. The form often is a comment on the content. There are alignments, anecdotes, personal references, simple mentions, sort-of-also mentions, in brief, passing through. Matthias has great fun with punctuation, line breaks and layouts that encourage reading aloud to feel the bounce and balance.
But how, in a single poem, do we deal with so many references? In “Rene Char”, for example, we get, “…the Maquis, ‘Julieta ‘Cabassa’…Paradise Lost…Heidegger…Yanbing Chen…Notre Dame (the university / and not the great cathedral)” – thanks for that clarification, but now we’ve got to look them both up. But that’s part of the fun of this book, Varieties of Homage. It’s encyclopaedic, a tour through one person’s library, one soul’s reading experience. It’s a small harbour of many boats, any one of which you might wish to board and go for a sail. But you can’t sail them all. So we get this: “Everybody who reads Proust, along with many people who haven’t, knows all about the ‘little phrase’ by the fictional composer Vinteuil, which, for Charles Swann, like the madeleine, the sensation of uneven paving stones, and the stiffness of a napkin brought to the lips for the narrator, suddenly opens involuntary memory that comes upon him like a vision of another world.” And, of course, who can talk about Proust without mentioning Donald Justice?
The book closes with “Instead of an Epilogue”, a “Homage to Sappho”, which includes, in translation, the missing pieces, within empty brackets. And how can you mention Sappho without bringing Ezra Pound into the room (where the brackets get turned around)?
One might wonder if, as with Pound’s “Cantos” or Charles Olson’s personal and obscure yet fully referenced classical sources, it’s all worth it. At 167 pages, I think so. Varieties of Homage is a course of study taught by a wit, a scholar, a poet.
About the Author
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.