Collected Poems: 1946–2016

by Harry Mathews

reviewed by Andrew DuBois

Novelist of quirk and urbanity, essayist of the obscure, short story craftsman who eschewed realism in favor of playful procedure (one of his stories is an elaborate recipe for an imaginary dish, another a “chronogram,” in which the letters, which are also Roman numerals, add up to the year the story was written), translator of Georges Perec and Marie Chaix (the former his friend, the latter his wife), the only American member of the literary collective Oulipo: Harry Mathews, the polymathic writer who died in 2017, was also a poet.

This book corrals nine collections, along with a plenitude of uncollected work both old and new, and a handful of French translations. Mathews’s individual volumes were never easy to acquire, and it’s a boon to have this handsome production from Sand Paper Press. With its telling prefaces, its annotated bibliography, an explanation of the “double helix” sestina form he invented, and a characteristically appealing cover by Trevor Winkfield, it’s a shame the author didn’t live to see it published. But he knew it was meant to appear, and now that it has, his poems have a fighting chance to find new readers and satisfy old ones after his death.

A work by a member of Oulipo—a neologism made from words that, when translated, means “Workshop of Potential Literature”—is the sort of thing that might arise if a mathematician and a detective had a baby and orphaned the swaddling in a Rube Goldberg contraption only to have it adopted by an Epicurean pataphysician and raised in a villa full of trapdoors and mirrors. In describing Perec’s La Disparition (a novel containing no e’s that is also about the absence of e’s), Mathews approved of the way Perec had made much “out of a particularly unpromising and arduous constrictive procedure”—“a fascinating example of the poetic functioning of Oulipian ideas.”

Such unpromising and arduous procedures abound in this Collected. There is a sestina (“Safety in Numbers”) that takes as its initial end words the numbers one through six, after which seven appears and starts eliminating the other numbers as the stanzas progress. Another sestina (“Histoire”) runs the standard boy-meets-girl story of Tina and Seth through a sieve of abstraction, yielding a mashup of sensuality and aridity and suggesting how desire gets channeled into politics and worse: “Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism.” An erotics of language runs throughout: “Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word ‘pomegranate’ / will experience a mixture of feelings.”

Even when you thought all the juice was sucked out of a phrase or locution, Mathews can squeeze out more.

In a series of “Perverbial Poems,” the old chestnuts get remixed and end up making at least as much sense as before:

A stitch in time,
   A bird in the hand,
A silver lining
   Wait for no man.


Once burned,
Leave no stone unturned.
Twice shy,
Let sleeping dogs lie.

A series of 138 “Haiku Before Sleep” might not sound so hard, but the poems suggest otherwise: “Haikus are diffic. / Haikus are very diffic. / One haiku is diff.” The whole of 1977’s Trial Impressions is a sequence of twenty-nine poems spinning off from twelve lines of John Dowland’s Second Book of Ayres, each one saying essentially the same thing but in a different style, as in fellow Oulipian Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, with its seemingly endless variations of a minor story starting with someone stepping on a bus.

“There is no value inherent in the product of a constrictive form,” Mathews wrote in an essay, “except one: being unable to say what you normally would, you must say what you normally wouldn’t.” His is a two-pronged aesthetic: one that encourages expressions of abnormality and also thwarts repression, but paradoxically so, by imposing rules that repress some ostensible norm. If this sounds like a literary funhouse version of a strict Freudian analysis, well, there is something strangely therapeutic in its outcomes.

Such an aesthetic is also essentially social in Mathews’ hands—writing poems for himself and his friends. And is it just me, or does something wistful run through it, colored by a tinge of loss? As an undergrad, I once heard Mathews read a sonnet sequence in which the end words looked like they should rhyme but didn’t. It left me wondering why, for all their outward connections, Arkansas and Kansas could never truly get together. But the formerly scattered poems in this winning collection can, and they are chock-full of pleasing disorientations. As he puts it in “The New Tourism,” bringing his readers along on the trip:

Where is it I came from
And where is it I’m stranded?
Part of the maps is black
And the rest’s in borrowed language.

Published on April 5, 2021