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This review is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

WORKING WITHIN THE LIMITS OF LOVE Word/Play/Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, Edited by Robert Archambeau (Ohio University Press/ Swallow) $39.00

A promotional flyer and the dustjacket contain a statement that John Matthias '...stands outside the mainstream of American poetry and is guided by an aesthetic that has not been easy to define.' And that the twelve contributors to this book, representing twelve points of view, will 'permit readers to approach the ambition, the richness, and the strangeness of Matthias's work...'

John Matthias is not a Mainstream American Poet. John Matthias is not a Mainstream American. His heart yearns; he is not at home in America. His imagination crosses boundaries both temporal and geographic.

Poetry is not about consensus. It is not democratic in its desire to speak equally to all, with one clear message. Literary art is ambiguous; one of its tasks is to question old assumptions, to show a way into new affirmations, to make strange. Ostranenie.

Therefore John Matthias is not mainstream, is complex, ambitious and strange. Especially for an American? His perspective is from a kind of exile. He knows the mainstream, surely. And they know him. But, as Wendell Barry has said, it is the impeded stream that sings.

A book of essays is not easy to review; commentary might be on three levels - on the poet's work, on the reviewers' words about the work, and on the editor's job in collecting and organizing the reviewers' essays about the work. Ultimately, we want to know, Is the poet's work important and interesting enough to warrant reading ...


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