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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

Other Prose

Part Twelve. The Voyages of John Matthias

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1In August 1974, when the Watergate scandal was moving into its last phase, the American poet John Matthias returned to his home, in South Bend, Indiana, after a year’s stay in England, traveling on the Polish ocean-liner Stefan Bathory. In June of 1976 he set out to sea again, this time on a Russian ship, the Mikhail Lermontov, in order to spend another year in England, as a Visiting Fellow in Poetry in Clare Hall, Cambridge. The voyages took approximately nine days each, and on both ships he was accompanied by his wife Diana, who is English by birth, and his daughters Cynouai and Laura. Prompted by the now comparative rareness of such expeditions, he decided to record his experiences in poetic form, allowing one poem for each day at sea plus introductory poems covering each departure. The Stefan Bathory Poems were printed in TriQuarterly, Winter 1976, and both sequences are included in the volume Crossing published by Anvil Press Poetry, London, and Swallow Press in the United States.

2Matthiasrecording of his sea-faring activities is evidently not to be taken as a simple day-by-day account of maritime pleasures and calamities, no more than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Baudelaire’s Voyage, HopkinsThe Wreck of the Deutschland or Hart Crane’s Voyages—to name only four antecedents in nautical poetry which are patently unlike the Bathory & Lermontov Poems. The log-book of comic-heroic experience is systematically and sometimes willfully expanded to embrace both personal and public phases of historical understanding, as regards the actual adventures of the four protagonists and their commingling with superimposed information of real of imagined historical events. On the Bathory journey (homeward), a typical passage occurs in part 5, The Library.’

The weather improves. Serious now,
I attend to correspondence.
Here they read the news and study
Not Mickiewicz or the other unread
Poets on these shelves
But ups and downs of stocks
And the extraordinary language
Of my president reported in the
Daily Polish/English mimeo gazette.
The banalities and rhetoric of power
Dovetail with the mathematics
Of the market: Soon the brokers,
As in 1929, will sail nicely
From the upper stories
Of the highest buildings in New York,
Their sons will pluck the feathers
From their hair and look for jobs
A thousand miles from the ethnic
Bonfires of their dreams, the poor
Will stand in bread lines,
And I, a curio from 1959, will find
My clientele reduced to nuns
And priestly neophytes. I return
To Indiana
the only place
Save Utah where the Sixties,
Though Peter Michelson was waiting,
Failed to arrive.

3In confronting his growing feeling of disorientation and rootlessness in the modern world, in a decade that had been less accessible to grandiose generalizations than the previous one, Matthias consistently invokes the life and times of the eminent eponyms which provided his means of transport across the Atlantic. Stefan Bathory (or Batory) was King of Poland 1576–86 and renowned for his battles with Ivan the Terrible. Of Transylvanian origin, he was the uncle of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory and married into the Jagellon family, like the Swedish Vasa family whose heir Sigismund succeeded him. Mikhail Lermontov was the author of A Hero of Our Time (1839), and in many ways, along with Pushkin and Gogol, the creator of modern Russia prose. Indeed, Lermontov, along with his antihero Pechorin, refined and modernized the psychological picture of the Byronic elegant sufferer with a subtlety which has only Kierkegaard’s Seducer as its equal.

4Further presences which let themselves be felt in the poems are: Adam Mickiewicz, whose rhetorical epic of the Lithuanian nobility of 1812 is quoted extensively in Bathory Section Two (from the beginning of Book IV, Diplomacy and Hunting’), Ernest Sandeen, American poet of Swedish descent and former Head of the English Department at the University of Notre Dame, Peter Michelson, author of The Aesthetics of Pornography, Jessie Harris, appreciated former nanny in the Matthias family, Olga our commissar,George Learmont, Scottish mercenary and supposed ancestor of the Russian Lermontov family, Andrew Jackson, known affectionately as Old Hickory,Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Natty Bumppo, better known by his sobriquet Leatherstocking,plus a great host of Polish noblemen, Russian soldiers, Indian chiefs, British politicians and American poets, pamphleteers and pasticheurs. A full expository roster would no doubt run to as many pages as the poems themselves. May it just be added that the wise Printz-Påhlsonis identical with the present writer, whose very decision of undertaking a translation of Matthiaspoems into Swedish—a work of some magnitude and difficulty— might call in doubt the appropriateness of the complimentary modifier generously bestowed on him by the poet.

5Other presences are equally important, albeit unnamed. Two American poets who in the early years of this century undertook the voyage of no return to Europe, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and one British poet, W.H. Auden, who went, like the Stefan Bathory, in the opposite direction, are constantly in evidence in the quirky pastiches and parodic homages which time and again insinuate themselves into the diction of these poems. The libretto at the end of Lermontov Part Four has its point of reference and model in a similar one in Canto LXXXI of the Pisan Cantos; the Weialala leia, Wallala leialalaof the Conclusion (somewhat perversely rendered into sonorous Don Cossack warbling in the Swedish translation) comes straight out of the Fire Sermon section of The Waste Land (Past the Isle of Dogs’), and the thickly atmospheric ending of the same Conclusion, with its customs agents, clerks, porters and symbolic strangers in furtive and probably nefarious pursuits on foggy quays and in seedy hotel rooms of some minor British port are so reminiscent of the early Auden that one could very well place them in The Dog Beneath the Skin or Letter from Iceland.

Standing on the promenade
In attitudes
Of suspicion, attention, or anticipation
Hoping for some fine
Benign surprise
Each of us looks at the land
Thinking still of the sea.
Each contrives
To be abstracted one last time in sea-thoughts
Or in dreams
Before the symbolical stranger
Posing as a customs agent
Or a clerk or porter in a small hotel or pension
Asks the questions symbolical strangers ask
Which only actions answer . . . .

6The pastiches and parodies, the knockabout farce of diction and events, should not be allowed to conceal the very serious concerns eloquently expressed in these poems: concerns with permanence of character and conditions, as well as with change of habitat and heart; concerns with seeking roots and facing exile, and with politics and personal experience, which are what finally give importance to these poems. Nor should the erudition and wit, which illuminate and sharpen the slapstick and facetious language, be permitted to obscure the good humor and fun that provide the basic mood for this sagacious and graceful poetry.

For my time, too, impinges oddly,
Painlessly, obscurely—this kind of inbetween—
Impinges surely
This time of jokes & parodies, pastiches.
An inbetween
When I don’t know precisely what I want to do in time
But only where I want to go
And so we’re here and waiting
For a berth
To park a ship in—
Waiting in a time of waiting
A time of waiting for—
For semi-retired former semi-active veteran-volunteers
Of oh our still belovéd
Dear and hopeful
To arise again arise
Again arise
For some kind fool to build the equestrian statues
And compose the elegiac songs.


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