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Poetry > Nov 21 - Nabakov's Blues - William Matthews

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message 1: by Ruth (last edited Nov 21, 2009 02:07PM) (new)

Ruth | 9444 comments

William Matthews's poetry has earned him a reputation as a master of well-turned phrases, wise sayings, and rich metaphors. He is sometimes identified as a member of the "deep image" movement, along poets like W. S. Merwin, James Wright, and Robert Bly. Poets in this school often tend to allow one strong image to dominate each poem and to evoke many strong feelings and associations.

Much of Matthews's poetry explores the themes of life cycles, the passage of time, and the nature of human consciousness. In another type of poem, he focuses on his particular enthusiasms: jazz music, basketball, and his children. His early writing was free-form and epigrammatic, and considered derivative by some critics. But as his career has progressed, he has adopted a more formal structure and garnered growing praise. Writing in the Bloomsbury Review, Christopher Merrill identified Matthews as "one of our most alert and engaging poets." (Poetry Foundation)

The title of this poem is deceiving. It's not about music. It’s about butterflies. As many of you know, no doubt, Nabakov was an ardent lepidopterist.

Nabokov’s Blues
by William Matthews

The wallful of quoted passages from his work,
with the requisite specimens pinned next
to their literary cameo appearances, was too good

a temptation to resist, and if the curator couldn’t,
why should we? The prose dipped and shimmered
and the “flies,” as I heard a buff call them, stood

at lurid attention on their pins. If you love to read
and look, you could be happy a month in that small
room. One of the Nabokov photos I’d never seen:

he’s writing (left-handed! why did I never trouble
to find out?) at his stand-up desk in the hotel
apartment in Montreux. The picture’s mostly

of his back and the small wedge of face that shows
brims with indifference to anything not on the page.
The window’s shut. A tiny lamp trails a veil of light

over the page, too far away for us to read.
We also liked the chest of specimen drawers
labeled, as if for apprentice Freudians,

“Genitalia,” wherein languished in phials
the thousands he examined for his monograph
on the Lycaenidae, the silver-studded Blues.

And there in the center of the room a carillon
of Blues rang mutely out. There must have been
three hundred of them. Amanda’s Blue was there,

and the Chalk Hill Blue, the Karner Blue
(Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabokov),
a Violet-Tinged Copper, the Mourning Cloak,

an Echo Azure, the White-Lined Green Hairstreak,
the Cretan Argus (known only from Mt. Ida:
in the series Nabokov did on this beauty

he noted for each specimen the altitude at which
it had been taken), and as the ads and lovers say,
“and much, much more.” The stilled belle of the tower

was a Lycaeides melissa melissa. No doubt
it’s an accident Melissa rhymes, sort of, with Lolita,
The scant hour we could lavish on the Blues

flew by, and we improvised a path through cars
and slush and boot-high berms of mud-blurred snow
to wherever we went next. I must have been mute,

or whatever I said won from silence nothing
it mourned to lose. I was back in that small
room, vast by love of each flickering detail,

each genital dusting to nothing, the turn,
like a worm’s or caterpillar’s, of each phrase.
I stood up to my ankles in sludge pooled

over a stopped sewer grate and thought—
wouldn’t you know it—about love and art:
you can be ruined (“rurnt,” as we said in south-

western Ohio) by a book or improved by
a butterfly. You can dodder in the slop,
septic with a rage not for order but for the love

the senses bear for what they do, for detail
that’s never annexed, like a reluctant crumb
to a vacuum cleaner, to a coherence.

You can be bead after bead on perception’s rosary.
This is the sweet ache that hurts most, the way
desire burns bluely at its phosphorescent core:

just as you’re having what you wanted most,
you want it more and more until that’s more
than you, or it, or both of you, can bear.

William Matthews, “Nabokov’s Blues” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991. Copyright © 1992 by William Matthews.

message 2: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7074 comments OOOOh that is so true. Nabokov just keeps whetting your appetite. ...

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

With 'Matthews' you get the 'id' and the 'ego' and time and place and luminescent imagery all at once..Wonderful stuff Ruth.

message 4: by Jim (new)

Jim | 491 comments One the one hand, I like the idea of Nabokov's absorption in the minutiae of lepidoptery and on the other, I like Maxwell doddering in the slop for love.

The fantasy is that life would be perfect if you could focus on just one thing instead of going from poetry to eating to expressing fine thoughts to cleaning the gutters.

message 5: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7074 comments Just like a butterfly, flitting from one thing to another, but Nabokov puts it all together nicely.

message 6: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9444 comments Interesting that our poet here, William Matthews, choses not to use any of Nabakov's well-known novels or characters as his springboard. One could make a case for writing being a way of focusing. Instead he writes of Nabakov's interest in butterflies, which may take the casual reader by surprise.

message 7: by Jim (new)

Jim | 491 comments Now you have me confused, Carol. So Nabokov focuses on something that is unfocused. Hmmm. Is this another case of the absence of the present not being present enough? Where are Hegel and Schopenauer when I need them most?

message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7074 comments I think you meant Ruth maybe.

message 9: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia | 2 comments To me, this poem speaks of the incredible beauty and richness to be found in deeply, systematically, examining a small segment of life - in this case, Nabokov's study of the Lycaenidae, the Blue butterflies. Matthews's description of his personal reaction to Nabokov's passion, as displayed in the "shrine" of Nabokov's butterfly room, stirs a similar deep response in me as a reader...and as a lover of the natural world. I'd love to visit Nabokov's butterfly room!

Thanks, Ruth, for posting this.

message 10: by Ruth (last edited Nov 24, 2009 10:15AM) (new)

Ruth | 9444 comments carol (akittykat) wrote: "I think you meant Ruth maybe."

I thought perhaps you were confused, Carol, thinking that Nabakov wrote the poem, rather than Matthew.

Jim, if you're referring all that philosophy stuff to me, I can't even begin to answer. I just thought it was interesting that Matthews chose the lesser known of Nabokov's areas of focus.

I don't choose the weekly poems, Cynthia, I just schedule them. Credit goes to those members who have selected them.

message 11: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7074 comments No I knew Matthew wrote it. I did not realize Nabokov had a butterfly room. That was an interesting piece of trivia. Thank You

message 12: by Jim (new)

Jim | 491 comments Ruth, you could tell me anything about Hegel and Schonpenauer, and I would believe it. All I know about them is their names.

Of course, I believe you implicitly anyhow.

message 13: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9444 comments Jim wrote: "Ruth, you could tell me anything about Hegel and Schonpenauer, and I would believe it. All I know about them is their names.

Whew! That's a relief. I thought I was falling short of your expectations.

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