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This review is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

TOO SOON SPENT WILLIAM MATTHEWS, After All: Last Poems (Houghton Mifflin) $20

In his characteristically exorbitant foreword to is 5 (1926), e.e. cummings offers as a theory of technique the 'Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. Would you hit a woman with a child? - No. I'd hit her with a brick.' This rhetorical banana peel exemplified for cummings what he dearly prized as 'that precision which creates movement'. Likewise attuned to the hairpin turns of reason and loopholes of language, the posthumously collected poems of William Matthews's After All playfully subvert expectations. Whether he's judiciously punning, mixing high and low diction, twisting famous lines for his own ends, or pulling fanciful etymologies out of a hat, Matthews understands, like any comedian worth his greasepaint, the ways in which surprise captivates an audience. He can lead a poem along on a train of thought and then derail it to great effect, jolting the reader into new perspectives. As a thematic analogue to his pulling-the-rug-out technique, Matthews has learned (like any good tragedian) that, often, life itself amounts to just so many thwarted expectations. A harsh lingua franca of disappointment constitutes for him 'our burled, unspoken, common language'.

When imagining Matthews as clown, think not Bozo but Estragon: his verbal vaudeville barely masks the highest existential stakes. Take this section of 'Dire Cure', in which the speaker anxiously rehearses names for his wife's life-threatening tumour:

              ... I couldn't stop
personifying it. Devious, dour,
it had a clouded heart, like Iago's.
It loved ...


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