When Harry Mathews died in Key West in 2017, just shy of his 87th birthday, he was remembered as the first American member of Oulipo, the expatriate author of several experimental novels: The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), Cigarettes (1987), The Journalist (1994) and My Life in CIA (2005). A final novel, The Solitary Twin, was published posthumously, in 2018. Born in Manhattan in 1930 – his father an architect, his mother an heiress – Mathews was a literary teenager, but the stultifying milieu of Princeton, where he enrolled in 1947, almost defeated the poet in him. He ran off and joined the army in 1948; the following year, he eloped with Niki de Saint Phalle, another refugee from the Upper East Side. He returned to university in 1950, this time to Harvard, to complete a degree in music. In 1952, he moved to France with his wife and their infant daughter, Laura.
Paris was where Mathews met John Ashbery, then a Fulbright Scholar. It was 1956. Ashbery introduced him to the work of the eccentric procedural writer Raymond Roussel, which reignited Mathews’s literary imagination. In 1959 he came into some money and used it to found a little magazine named after one of Roussel’s works, Locus Solus: Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler were collaborators. It ran for four issues and included the founders’ work alongside that of Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby and others. Locus Solus was like the intersection of New York, Paris and a Surrealist Arcady.
Mathews credited Roussel with showing him that prose could be generated under similar constraints to those that apply to poetry, a discovery that liberated him from the dread of ‘psychology’ – ‘Bye-bye New Yorker models!’ In 1970, Georges Perec, hoping to jog himself out of a creative slump, began to translate Mathews’s Tlooth; the two became friends, leading to Mathews’s involvement in the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle. Among the Oulipo were some of the most illustrious names in European literature: Perec, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino. Their goal was to revitalise literature via gamesmanship, and to create new forms using mathematical methods. Mathews was awed to be in such company but alert to the elitist and sexist optics. ‘Literature and game playing, literature as game playing,’ he wrote in 1994. ‘The words evoke a weedy figure: the playful writer, probably male, never young (although often juvenile), sauntering nonchalantly down sunny boulevards … Faber ludens – a little ludicrous, too; hardly dangerous; hardly serious.’ Mathews felt most comfortable when he was out of place. Perhaps his experience at boarding school (as an aesthete among jocks) or at home (as the rebellious son of a wealth-obsessed WASP) had instilled in him a sense that being an outsider was the honourable position. He clung to his status as a foreigner, living mostly in France for several decades, despite his belief that only a native speaker of English could understand his writing.
As a partisan of the New York School – I’m all for its aestheticism, its panache, its ‘belief in the lasting relevance of the modernist view in literature’ – I’ve long held a torch for Mathews’s poetry, which I first encountered through Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-84 and a pamphlet from 1974, The Planisphere. The early poems are filtered through a Mediterranean dazzle, featuring a pastoral locus amoenus closely associated with marriage, as in ‘The Pines at Son Beltran’, where ‘the high pines bend/Seaward in slow acknowledgment of mountain wind’ and a ‘square stone’ table is ‘set with blue figs’. The poem was written in 1954, when Mathews and Saint Phalle were living in the coastal village of Deià in Mallorca. There they had their second child and they asked Robert Graves to name him – Philip. ‘The Relics’, which appeared in Mathews’s first collection, The Ring (1970), is a set of variations on imaginary landscapes in yellow and red, bringing to mind the Phrygian Midas, and a landscape turning to clanking metal, as in Ovid:
Where are the brass islands?
There are the brass islands.
Their yellow wheat does not bend, and their peaks
Ring, flat. Their brass ports
Have a stupid glory in thin dusk –
By day even near-yellow scrap copper
In that drab gold is sweet relief.
Streets are stiff with the wink and clink
Of wired lids, a deaf clatter
Of brass feet that batter brass,
Brass teeth, brass tears,
Brass breasts! In one such city
I found a mop of red rags
But left, my business done. I forget
The colour. It is dazzling here to see poppies –
Wild poppies salt the harvest wheat
Like memorial ribbons red among tubas.
Painterly, suave yet éblouissant, these lines recall Wallace Stevens. ‘Deaf clatter’ summons up the first line of the first poem in Harmonium: ‘Every time the bucks went clattering.’ ‘Stupid glory’ echoes the ‘stupid afternoon’ in ‘Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores’. And the red rags and poppies recall the ‘red weather’ in ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’. The word ‘tubas’, meanwhile, sends us back to ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’. In the poem’s third section Mathews makes his homage to Stevens abundantly clear:
I miss the pink-eared angels,
And the heartfelt noise of harmoniums at dusk
Interwoven with caterwauls; the garden too
Is grime where the earth fluttered with tearbanes,
Fustre, elgue, and tender paperdews
Sweetening the souls of hot cigars.
For several years I didn’t think about Mathews’s poetry, perhaps because production seemed to have ceased. Then, in 2014, he published a ravishing beauty, ‘Cool gales shall fan the glade’. It opens the Collected Poems, under a section titled ‘The last shall be first’, which contains the final three poems he wrote. ‘Cool gales shall fan the glade’ is an end-of-life reminiscence of a concupiscent boyhood, and a rich, long-lined sestina with an added constraint: instead of merely repeating the same end words, a letter is added with each stanzaic iteration, as if to mimic the snowballing of time. ‘At’ mutates anagrammatically into ‘fat’, ‘fast’, ‘feast’, ‘afters’ and ‘rafters’. ‘Carnet de bal’ transforms into ‘bail’, ‘basil, ‘alibis’, ‘abseil I’ and ‘sibilate’. I didn’t notice at first, since the poem is so replete with sense memory, so full of appetite, that the sestina form deliquesces in its vocabulary:
Delights often wreathed with necessary pain, like the stout unforgiving thorns
That tear shirt and skin as we stretch for ripe blackberries, to be gulped down fast,
Sweeter than butter and marmalade, quenching our thirst better than sucked ice,
Making us almost drunk
Here again is the locus amoenus, now situated in Edenic youth.
But the pastoral has a dark side. ‘Comatas’, the first poem in The Ring, is a tour de force of psychic collapse and recovery. It is named after the mythical goatherd so devoted to the Muses that he sacrificed one of his master’s goats to them every day. When the master found out, he locked Comatas in a cedar box and jeered that perhaps the Muses would save him from starvation. Eventually he unlocked the box expecting to find Comatas’s corpse. Instead, he found the goatherd alive and well, having been fed honey by bees the Muses had sent to infiltrate the box.
Mathews said he wrote three types of poem: those that emerged from life crises, poems of imagined worlds, and procedural poems and series. ‘Comatas’ is of the life crisis variety. He wrote it in 1961, around the time Saint Phalle left him for Jean Tinguely. In her memoir Harry and Me: The Family Years, 1950-60 (2006), Saint Phalle reports that she suggested a temporary separation in December 1960. There followed several weeks of weeping and pleading, but in the end she left him and the children. Thus ended their decade of mutual self-discovery, travel and art-making as they flitted from Paris to Deià to Spain to Provence, foraging for chanterelles in Lans-en-Vercors, dining at La Coupole or Le Bar du Dôme with Giacometti and Beckett and Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Harry and Me interleaves Saint Phalle’s account with Mathews’s warm ripostes. It recalls early financial precarity and delicious complicity (he was ‘an ardent feminist’ who shared the housework) and describes antics straight out of a Godard film: they would visit the Louvre daily for twenty-minute runs or compete to shoplift the most expensive item in a bookshop.
Mathews supported his wife’s work as a visual artist and she encouraged him as a writer. They were united too against a background of parental rejection. Mathews’s father not only railed against his son’s choice to write but tried to get his marriage annulled; his mother pushed for an abortion when Laura was on the way. In the end, though, the couple weren’t united enough. Saint Phalle suffered several nervous breakdowns, precipitated, at least in part, by insecurity: ‘Harry liked and needed to seduce.’ The split was devastating for Mathews. ‘I was totally lost without Niki and didn’t know what to do,’ he wrote in 1961. ‘I felt hopelessly inadequate with Laura and Philip, in being able to take care of them and being able to deal with the simplest problems.’ Out of this crisis came ‘Comatas’.
The poem, which unfolds in several polyphonic sections that shift violently in tone and rhythm, opens calmly with a strange instance of ekphrasis: the description of a thermometer against a backdrop of snow. The narrator sees his face in the reflection of the mercury ball at the base, and further exposition sketches his bifurcated existence:
For the stripe (which the mercury glass bisects)
Separates Père Europe on the left
And Centigrade side from Notre Fille
L’Amérique, the Fahrenheit column.
(In a recording of the poem, Mathews mispronounces it ‘foreign height’ before correcting himself.) The ‘baroque’ thermometer is also a work of art: it depicts ‘dun elevator shafts’ climbing up the degree marks, illustrated with Dionysus’ companion Silenus, ‘Arcadians in blue jeans’, nymphs and – here is where the myth enters – ‘a hive/ Of wild bees’:
The upper floors empty but for a woodland
Mist or smoke through which a woman
Yellowhaired and slim is vaguely naked
On the right – is it for her one wants to
Test the cedar elevator-boxes
That rise with the disintegration of icicles and lace?
The bees that fed Comatas in the cedar box were sent by the Muses; here the Muse is figured as the yellow-haired fille of Europe. ‘If we entered, I must do so in exile and imagine/America (and you, my remembrance).’
‘My passions had been Eliot and Pound,’ Mathews said. There is something of ‘The Waste Land’ in ‘Comatas’, something of European mountains and a hyacinth girl: ‘your hair muddles/The real and the false.’ As the ekphrasis wanders into imagery from the myth, the syntax starts to fail, and then the strophe breaks into a different voice altogether:
‘The little girls – sighs of tar
I’th’giddy wheat. On hieratic mountains
I raped the bright corpses of daemons,
Tractors shuttling yellowly below
O valleys. I examine my exact feet
By Proust. Ladies, have a drink – shadows
Wander in through your children, and swallows
Spin quietly in the tender air.’
The original narrator flickers in and out of hearing. The bucolic imagery is as gorgeous as anything from Pound’s Cantos – ‘her ribs/Flash like the Var where the bullocks drink/And woven ferns droop from the bank’ – and it seems to me that the better part of these echoes of ‘The Waste Land’ issue from the influence of Il Miglior Fabbro rather than Old Possum.
The text continues to break down, as in this vaudevillian/schizophrenic exchange between American and French alter egos:
Jack: This one-eared Negro walks round the world in a step
Jacques: This one-eyed Indian’s happy when he cries in the dark
Jack: If A follows B, and I love you, find ‘me’
Jacques: If you’re after me – who are you?
Jack: How can a hard sleeper sleep with the light on?
Jacques: (They bore me to death with their broad vowels!)
Jack: When was she not a cunning stunt?
The section that follows is a fever dream. In one galloping run-on sentence, Comatas is sexually assaulted and savaged by the nymphs Amalmé, Critasta, Garga, Nanpreia and Nycheia. The hallucinogenic episode draws to a lucid close:
followed your mother into our orchard,
And with a disdain of years
I watched you pick wet apples.
My thirteenth year was on me
When that sight felled and terribly folly undid me.
Mathews spoke elsewhere of his first meeting with Saint Phalle when they were both in their early teens (the coup de foudre occurred years later when they encountered each other on a train). ‘Cool gales shall fan the glade’ recalls something similar: ‘you became the plume/In the horse’s hat of my lust. I was thirteen when we first danced together.’
After the masochistic fever dream, another incantatory passage rehearses the man’s attempt to
sever me from my appetent mind …
From the limn of her limbs
nor the way of her waist
From the air of her hair
and the ease of her ears
The list of feminine attributes, like a troubadour’s blazon, follows aural echoes (‘the asp of her clasp … the thump of her thumb’) until the body is the language, and a new section proceeds from the word ‘Zum’, a reference to both the Russian Futurist nonsense language Zaum and the sound of bees. Here, it seems, is the heart of the myth, where Comatas is kept alive by the honey of the Muses, the crucible of the poet’s suffering, and you have to see it on the page to appreciate the effect:
In the recording of Mathews reading this section, we hear a second voice drone behind his recitation: he utters the fragments of language, buzzing with ‘z’s, while the ‘a’s that swarm on the right margin are intoned as one long groan of agony.
In the final, valedictory section, the narrator is restored to sanity and the girl fades away: ‘“Goodbye, sweetheart, goodbye,” she said, “Kenneth.”’ It’s as if we have experienced the mercury shooting up the (phallic) thermometer and then sinking down. ‘Comatas sang this as dusk came,’ the last line reads. Comatas, and Mathews, have survived their ordeal; the poem, a stand-in for the cedar box, is a temple of Asclepius, where maladies are worked out through dreams.
‘Comatas’ owes something to Theocritus’ Idyll VII, in which the myth is conveyed in a song performed in a contest between musicians who meet serendipitously on a country road. This jaunty epyllion presents a story in a song framed by a story inside a larger story, of three friends wending their way to a thanksgiving feast for the goddess Demeter. How better to amuse the Muses than to relay the story of the man in the cedar box within nesting narrative boxes? Mathews’s poem proceeds the same way, as a narrator studying the scenes on a thermometer gets sucked into its Arcadia and undergoes the thrashing with which Theocritus’ Simichidas – to whom Lycidas cedes the contest – threatens Pan if his beloved doesn’t submit to him.
But Mathews the poet was himself a musician who ceded the contest. In his marvellous essay ‘The Monkey at the Wheel’ he describes his earliest aesthetic experience, at the age of nine or ten, when he was smitten by Wagner. He listened obsessively to all of the leitmotifs from the Ring cycle, collected and arranged in chronological order on a pair of old 78s, with each motif named for a concept. The boy was confused when the motif for ‘Renunciation of Love (Entsagungsmotiv)’ in Das Rheingold was reused in Die Walküre where Siegmund embraces doomed love rather than renouncing it. How can a musical phrase mean two opposite things?
Words, too, can mean opposite things. This is a minority interest among those who want language to communicate plainly, but it’s of consummate interest to poets. In the procedural poems, you see how appealing sheer permutation was to Mathews. The 14th-century composers of ars nova fascinated him: ‘They would create music in which thirteen notes would be played against nine notes which would be played against five notes – things that are hard to figure out even on the page. Studying ars nova was an immersion in a non-romantic and non-dramatic way of creating music.’
Mathews pursues this mode in long satiric poems like ‘Trial Impressions’, in which he takes a song from John Dowland’s Second Booke of Ayres (‘Deare, if you change, Ile never chuse againe’), creating 29 new permutations with titles that explain the approach: ‘Up to Date’, ‘Multiple Choice’, ‘Male Chauvinist’ – much like Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which puts a bland anecdote about a bus ride through 99 stylistic variations. Similarly, ‘Selected Declarations of Dependence’ creates ‘perverbs’, cutting and pasting the halves of different proverbs together:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words lead to Rome:
‘Red sky at night, do as the Romans do –
Rome wasn’t built in a storm …’
When in Rome, gather no moss:
All silver linings lead to Rome
But my favourite work of theme and variation is ‘Marriage of Two Minds: Received Visions’, composed of ten (Shakespearean) sonnets with comic rhyme. It’s Byron via the Cole Porter songbook:
He dreams another life, another guise
She dreams her lover is the young John Keats
She dreams of singles bars she used to cruise
He dreams of being the late, and later, Yeats
She dreams of next week’s secret rendezvous
He dreams of Zen – withdrawing and detaching
He dreams of flaunting his superior nous
She dreams she’ll have that boy who’s set her aching
He dreams she dreams he’s dreaming bigamy
She dreams of Renoir and no need to diet
She dreams her loves are transient, young, and gamy
He dreams he excites girls slim as Juliet
Caressing her, he dreams of books he’ll read
Caressing him, she dreams of books she’s read
Mathews, who needed form to be ‘non-romantic and non-dramatic’, approved of ‘non-committal writing’. The thrill of his poetry lies in the near masochistic pressure of a temperament disciplining itself. The Collected Poems contain many forms: centos, translations, haikus, détournements, limericks, instruction poems, invented ‘lost’ manuscripts, incantations and works whose underlying methods or structures remain mysterious. But Mathews keeps returning to sestinas, the ultimate in medieval trobar clus. His last poem, unfinished when he died, was to be a double sestina called ‘The Politicians’ Antic Spoil’. Philip Sidney’s double sestina ‘Ye goatherd gods …’ was an inspiration, but instead of merely doubling the usual length, Mathews was aiming for a mirror or palindromic effect, while also making the end words subtractive by one letter in each iteration – until the hinge, when the second sestina would build the end words back up again.
Even at his most recondite and puzzle-loving, Mathews was – like Sidney, like Dowland, like the troubadours – a gallant. When Marie Chaix asked that he translate her memoir into English, he fell in love with her story – and her author photo.
I wrote her a four-page handwritten letter using every writer’s wile I could muster. I was about to mail this letter and then I thought: I can’t do it … I thought: this is too heart-rending a book to use as a pretext for a seduction. So I threw out the letter, and I wrote her another one, ten lines in the simple neutral style only French can attain … And it was typed, not handwritten.
It worked. After they married in 1992, Chaix returned the favour, translating his novel Cigarettes into French. ‘For me,’ Mathews concludes, ‘this proved definitively that classicism is far superior to expressionism as a way of getting results.’