Sunday, June 25, 2017



REVOLUTIONS :  a Collaboration by John Matthias, Jean Dibble and Robert Archambeau
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2017)

Osip’s Recoverance, Three-Faced

In the endnotes concluding the book REVOLUTIONS, the poet lets us in on the fact that the poetry in this book took several years to write, as opposed to the book’s visual art and its critical commentary, which he tells us are both of very recent vintage.  Also, that the visuals and the commentary are to be received as co-equally significant and contributory to the book’s whole – given that the book comes at us from those three discreet vantages, it is important not to privilege any one vantage over the others :

                         “The book, to be called Revolutions:  A Collaboration, would revolve but
                           probably not resolve.  That would be okay.  Also, it would be understood
                          that all three collaborators were on equal footing in the book.”

Not only that, but the poet takes care to empower the beholders of the book as well :

                         “All three of us are delighted to have any readers at all, and the
                         reader should feel as ‘free’ as the poet, the artist, or the author
                         of commentaries.”

REVOLUTIONS, then, is a book of the Poetic Imagination, and of snares that are not there, but are.  It is a matryoshka doll of a book wherein ever more intricate secrets spill forth from the nest, each secret borne of precedent secrets, each trope bound forth in further unfoldings.  The book relies on perspectives fashioned by each of its three collaborators, the poet John Matthias, the critic Robert Archambeau, and the printmaker Jean Dibble.  Their perspectives are intimately interwoven and the book is unimaginable without the resonances their mutual conjunctions both sponsor and inspire.  REVOLUTIONS, bodied forth from Dos Madres Press in the Spring of our current year, 2017, turns the Russian nesting doll inside-out, and her secrets become jeweled oddments worn as raiment to a cumulative art form the book breathes life into, as if for the first time.  This is collaboration itself rendered specifically and distinctly tri-partite, and ultimately as mysterious as it is exhilarating.  

Jean Dibble translates the poetry of Matthias into poster art relying solely on Matthias’ poetry as source for its evoked strategies, what I myself took to be visual synesthesia, a music that, while unique to Dibble’s command of color, symbol, and platted flair, yet broadcasts over the book as a whole, turning the poetry in through itself and back out again on a scale of crafted expansion that the eyes hear and the ears see.  There are twenty separate exemplar plates of Dibble’s poster art, evenly spaced throughout the book’s 112-page length.  In each of the posters, a specific poem is reproduced and given new life.  What becomes apparent as the book reveals itself is that Poetry, outlier that it always is, infects and transforms other forms of art, and is, herein as in the best of all possible worlds, repaid in kind.  REVOLUTIONS refuses to not be a kind of Furthering, not only multi-dimensional in its sourcings and effects, but multi-impactful in its emotional range.  Dibble’s visual music, then, becomes the book’s emotional core, over-riding as it does the text proper, and that core is in each postered exemplar everywhere both disciplined and heartrending, a triumph of re-envisional empathic amplification.

The poetry of John Matthias is intellectually venturesome, elusive and challenging, precisely so.  His is an art that draws on 76 years of life, pointedly focused.  He plays games in his work, and those games do not fear the Void, they revel in it.  He is by turns angry and celebratory, jocular and oracular, but you have to read close.  Herewith, an excerpt from an early piece of his in the book, the poem “Jerkwater”:

                                                             town’s the home of Jereboam
                                             who is aquarius to every passing phantom train.

                                             Houses are jerrybuilt and shake like Jericho
                                             when jayhawker nightfreights come arumbling through.

                                             The Jews, the Gentiles there.  The arbitrary constant C
                                             was married to an Imam, tsar and all

                                             his retinue forgotten.  It was far away.
                                             Jesuits are exiled to Australia – to Jarvis Bay,

                                            you Jerk!  Said Mr. Waters.  Indenture and Haphazard
                                            were his favorite words.

Formed of ten couplets in all, note how in this extract the poem challenges itself by using a host of dictionary-found J-words arbitrarily selected and then stretched into a coherence as allusive as it is elusive.  The poem is resolute in its bodying forth.  As it is but the third poem in the book, “Jerkwater” manages to echo back and then forward, building on tropes and themes and twists of this or that rhetorical disjunction, that emerge in careful build-up.  Note the incidence of Jewry, trains, far-flung ports of call, and exile… other poems will do similar but ever more peculiar strategies, making echoes that become, eventually, links in a chain that has a life only incrementally apparent.  It is the artfulness of this poet to collage his effects, poem to poem.   The effects conjoin to keep the reader guessing and off balance, as in “Plastered” :

                                     Ahpf!  Borsht!  He missed his sentimental meetings with
                                     The Bishop of Pah.  Jerkwater’s the limit, he was

                                     heard to say.  Thank you, Jereboam.  I may be a plaster cast
                                     but I am still the boss.  Bastard of a plasmagene at payoff,

                                     I’m also Pliny with a pistol on a plinth.  Evolved from
                                      the Pliocene.  I am here to stay.

In this poem, P-words have stepped to the fore, mixing in with those J-words (and a splicing of B-words!).  The arbitrary dictionary game continues apace all through the book’s first 52 pages, which 52 pages got started with a Dibble color portrait of the poet, which colored portraiture strategy she will repeat at the beginning of the book’s second section, where she captures a photo-derived image of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who is the focus of that second section. 

But back to the gamefulness of that opening 52-pge section, for which the book’s collaborative interweave provides a speculative unraveler par excellence, the critic Robert Archambeau, who hips us not only to the Game, but even more to the period set that is that section’s underlying lit’ry mundi : 

                        “The members of the set … are, of course, members of an integral set, part of
                          the calculus whose equations Matthias writes for their music.  The integrals
                          are part of the dictionary game Matthias has set for himself … a game whose
                          pieces are the first few nine-letter words he finds in a dictionary’s listing
                          under a given letter.  But I’m only interested in getting to the import of these
                          integrals by a back way – by reference to the set Matthias really loves : the
                          Modernists … Not only is his work written in accord with a thousand Modernist
                          techniques – the jump-cut, the arcane allusion, the geo-cultural rock-drill, to
                          name just a few – it constantly invokes the Modernists themselves : the poets,
                          the artists, and especially the composers.

Archambeau is the book’s buffer, without whom Matthias could prove almost too elusively steeped in the afore-mentioned Modernist methodology.  Archambeau, himself no stranger to cleverness, brings a deft sort of interpretive elan to bear, a flexible leavening of wit and tolerance and insight that acts, on the one hand, as an invite to play for we of the uninitiated shade, while on the other hand functioning as a smart counterweight to the dashing and at times withering poetic stutter-steps of this book’s poetry :

                        “There had been alienated artists before the twentieth century, but nothing
                          like what we find among the Modernists.  Exiled or expat, bohemian in habit,
                          radically advanced and challenging in form and views, they are our icons of
                          of the unpopular arts  … … …  Matthias is drawn to the lives and works of the
                          Modernists because they speak to the condition of all non-, or anti-commercial
                          artists who have come after them.  They are the patron saints, the forefathers,
                          the ones who got here first.  By ‘here’ I mean that special island where we
                          refuse to compromise, to bend our art to serve the powers (we who won’t
                          be indebted to the Tsar) or fit the common taste.”

Note Archambeau’s parenthetical nod to the Tsar, because the book’s greatest surprise occurs when it turns to the 2nd section, which has as many pages as the 1st and is prefaced by Jean Dibble’s colored and hyper-vivid portrait of Osip Mandelstam.  All of the book’s previous indications of coalescing concerns quite suddenly have their center of gravity, devolving aslant (towards our own Age de Trump perhaps?) by ringing in the horrors of Stalinism.  This section sings and depicts the miseries of the poet Mandelstam, besieged and vanquished and Gulag-disappeared great poet in extremis -- THIS section is this book’s passion, the self-same revolution REVOLUTION’s resonant collaborative trinity presumably has had in mind and heart and spirit from the very beginning : 

                                                     Cannot stop the blood maker’s flood
                                                     from gushing into everything that lives and dies,
                                                     ill-ebbed of floodtides, tossing fire-fish
                                                     on the sea-bone sodden sand,
                                                     while above it all the netted songbirds bride-
                                                     sing the sorrow as it pours and pours,
                                                     fangled bitch, my Age,
                                                     upon your wounded living dying hide.

The above is the second of four stanzas in the book’s final Matthias poem, which final/final dirge goes un-postered and un-commentaried.  As did the 4-page poem that immediately preceded it, a work that is printed in the original Russian, so that what concludes this book is what everything that preceded it fore-tasted.  The Modernist echoes have conspired in their inexorable build-up, so that a resonant dying fall announces, from the book’s penultimate song, THE RUSSIAN (Osip Mandelstam), here translated :

                                        It is not I who says what I am saying now.
                                        It is dug from the earth, like grains
                                                                            of petrified wheat.
                                                   depict on their coins a lion,
                                                    a head.
                                        Many different pancakes, of copper, of bronze, and
                                                                                                      of gold,
                                        Lie in the earth, in equal dignity all;
                                        Trying them for a bite, the century leaves
                                                                                          upon them an imprint of teeth.
                                        Time clips my edges, like a silver penny,
                                        And I no longer have enough of myself.

Throughout REVOLUTIONS the beholder is treated to a many-angled banquet of effects.  As elusive as any one effect might be, it is in the mixing of all those effects that the book achieves itself.  The poet achieves grace for his terrorized forebear, the visual artist achieves a poetics of sighted sound, and the critic takes us into an orientation we receive as grandly utile in its breadth and particularity both.  And yes, the book manifestly rewards re-reading and re-apprehending, since I have managed to give but a teasing hint as to how its complexities meld into a variegated whole that is, truly, sublime. 

No apologia that, simply an affirmative indication of this tri-partite collaboration’s exhilarating Lift! 


Ralph La Charity is a collagist and performance poet whose most recent book, Litanies said handely, has been issued from Dos Madres Press as of March, 2017.  The Litanies is his second Dos Madres book, following his FAREWELLIA a la Aralee, from 2014, which includes a CD of La Charity performing poems from the book.

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