Encore for a maestro with perfect pitch

The haunting lyrics were cut short but not lost

The late William Matthews wasn't just a poet's poet. He was a maestro who could call forth great performances from the various "players" at his disposal. He knew just when to introduce wit or stunning imagery, and his phrasing was almost always pitch perfect. His openings, for example, were masterly: "Now it is time to see what's left." "Fog has sealed in the house/ like a ship in a bottle."

The flow of haunting lyrics ended with Matthews's sudden death in 1997, one day after his 55th birthday. It's a loss that many in the literary world still feel. "Search Party" is an attempt by his son Sebastian and his good friend Stanley Plumly to fill the void. The collection brings together the best work from his 10 books, as well as many unpublished poems.

What "Search Party" also does is show how Matthews orchestrated his poems and how they, in turn, reveal both his public persona and the more private man he tried to keep hidden.

The latter comes across most strongly when Matthews explores his own sorrows and losses, his sense of vulnerability. In "Men at My Father's Funeral" he writes: "What could be worse?/ Silence the anthem of my father's/ new country. And thus this babble/ like a dial tone, from our bodies."

In his best poems, Matthews transforms the scene by distilling it to its essence and then adding layers of reflection or meaning. Next, he goes one step further, conveying a sense of wisdom that borders on the metaphysical. These poems are a delight. Take, for example, these opening lines from "Snow":

The dog's spine, like a dolphin's,
sews a path
through the smaller drifts.
These graying roadside lumps,
like sheets waiting to be washed....
You have to press 4,000 snowgrapes
for one bottle of this winter light.
A white moss girdles
every tree.

But if Matthews wrote with a "clarifying wisdom," as Plumly says in the introduction, that wisdom was limited by lowbrow touches. Many of his poems, especially early ones, come crashing back to earth because of a coarse image or a seamy reference to bodily functions. At times these seem intended to shock. In later books, however, they are a more natural part of the landscape.

Despite that weakness, Matthews will - and should - be remembered for verse that sings with subtlety, depth, and a marvelous sense of place and people.

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