DOUBLE EXPOSURE: ON READING TED MATHYS; ON READING WALLACE STEVENS; ON READING THEM TOGETHER
IN "DOUBLE EXPOSURE," A POEM in Ted Mathys’s new book Null Set (Coffee House Press, 2015, $16), a family seems to be playing poker on the side of a rowboat, the kitchen table submerged in a pond.
In “Blueprint,” an accident with a nail gun puckers someone’s “back fat into a funnel shape / as a black hole does gravity.” “Before he exhales,” Mathys writes, “I extend my finger / into the funnel, past the event horizon / and press the dark spot to make stars collapse.”
Defamilarizing the familiar, making the ordinary seem extraordinary, the minute made vast and the vast made small: as I read Null Set, Wallace Stevens spreads his great wings (fat owl!) ever wider.
Soon, as I read Null Set, I think constantly of Wallace Stevens; of his great poem “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts,” the way the “monument of cat” shrinks and the rabbit humps high, humps up, higher and higher, until it sits with its “head like a carving in space.” It’s rare to find an American poet as interested in space, and how things are positioned inside it, as Wallace Stevens, but Ted Mathys is certainly one.
As I read Null Set, Stevens’ famous axioms rev and reverb. “Poetry must make the visible a little hard to see.” “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”
When I quote that last axiom at students (which I frequently do), we talk for a while about that word “almost.” At some point, the poem must yield to the reader (and writer) probing to understand or the whole communicative project is lost. The amount of time this should take, the relative ease or difficulty this should entail, is one of those questions that provokes partisan declarations.
I often love most what has resisted me longest.
I read Stevens for the first time in my twenties, after I’d scored his Collected at a used bookstore for five dollars. I spent the entire fall and winter reading him, mostly clueless about that he was saying but loving, often, how he was saying it. Which answers a question: what keeps a reader pushing past their own density of mind? What keeps a reader reading when the poem doesn’t yield immediately to his or her intelligence? Pleasure, as Stevens well knew; it’s the second of his elemental mandates, between abstraction and change, for a fiction to be supreme. Still, my pleasure then in reading Stevens had its limits: lights of understanding would spark in mind for a split second, only to be doused by the swells of his curlicued, appositional sea.
One day in early spring, when the sun had warmed up the cracked cement of the driveway a little, I went out and sat on a blanket and tried again. I was reading “Description Without Place”—a title whose gesture at paradox Ted Mathys might love. The poem begins, “It is possible that to seem—it is to be, / As the sun is something seeming and it is” and ends, gorgeously, “. . .seeming to be / Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.” Reading the poem was like walking through a hall of mirrors; it perpetually confounded me. But there on the driveway, suddenly—an inner eye widened.
“Seeming to be. . .” Stevens meant this exactly!
And he kept saying it, over and over, in often glorious ways, every time with the full force of revelation. He kept trying to tease the thin line between seeming and essence apart, so that he could access “a change immenser than / A poet’s metaphors in which being would / Come true,” but the nature of mind wouldn’t let him: all he could truly know was description of being, the circle of perceived and imagined light around the too-bright impersonal core of everything not him, even the impersonal too-bright core of himself; and that this description was “a text we should be born that we might read / . . .the book of reconciliation, / . . .canon central in itself.” For all his worrying of the line between them, Stevens was gleaning that seeming is essence, on an earth trapping and trapped by the human mind. Suddenly I thought of Keats, and the famous lines that had equally confounded me in Brit Lit II just a few years earlier: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”A steely clarity now accompanied every Stevens poem I read. I understood his purpose. I felt the drama of it: how relieved he sounded, when he got to the revelations of the late poems.
A steely clarity now accompanied every Stevens poem I read. I understood his purpose. I felt the drama of it: how relieved he sounded, when he got to the revelations of the late poems of The Rock, that he didn’t have to choose between the rock and the leaves that covered it anymore! It was as if I’d been enrolled for months in a foreign language immersion program, and on this day, for some reason, after beauty and nonsense and exasperating struggle, an empathic comprehension took hold.
The yellow block won’t drop
through the rhombus slot
unless turned just
so, a collapse of three
dimensions into two
her small fist lacks
the precision to propose.
Mathys’s “Polyhedral” begins as a description without place. As the first seven lines unfurl, I don’t know where I’m located, which makes anchoring in the description, understanding what’s being narrated, haphazard. But I love moving through the bop of sounds: block, drop, slot; the way propose completes the rhyming call of so, how rhombus ties the two sets of sounds into a bow. And so I read the poem, again and again, gleaning pleasure and getting stuck, especially at line 15, which seems some kind of turn: “She shrieks, blows raspberries.” Good god, what has happened? We seemed to be proceeding fairly evenly, where tone and action is concerned, and then this she, who has small fists, who has no precision, shrieks! It’s as if a clown has suddenly entered a poem I hadn’t considered a party. Then footing arrives, in the form of setting: “Inevitable window.”
Once I can follow the speaker’s I/eye to a window, I can go back to the she and hunt around for where she might be located in space, can imagine a space where the I/eye and she are housed together with polyhedrals and rhombus slots. And then I see it: a baby on the floor playing with blocks. And with her an adult—a parent?—who’s playing with blocks too:
Inevitable window. A hawk
against unadulterated sky
scanning for a kill.
I want to slide it clean
through “a hawk
against unadulterated sky
scanning for a kill”
but it doesn’t fit.
I’m not completely sure if the “it” refers to the block, the hawk, the window, or the poem itself (or if baby and adult are even family), but it seems the speaker wants to fit something into written lines, how they are a kind of two dimensional slot for the 3-D of lived experience. Suddenly, as with “Description Without Place” years earlier, the poem opens like a paper flower dropped in water.
The scene I see is startlingly domestic: a father with a sensitive and attentive mind, watching, up close, his daughter’s first encounters with shape and delineation, presence and absence, thing and ghost, trying to perfect her handling of it, “wood / beneath my hand enclosing // her hand enclosing.” And the father too is trying to perfect his handling of thing and ghost, object and word, maybe all day he’s been trying, even when his attention is called away to the window, which is another kind of slot for another kind of block: the hawk, and the words trailing after it, “scanning for a kill.”
Paper flower unfolding: the double nature of that word, scan, in the context of poetry; the Escher-like field of slot, block, baby, window, hawk, slot in the I/eye of the father; and the pathos of “it doesn’t fit,” this absurd and frustrating activity of trying to express the real through he rendered. When the poem ends with “body bound / by faces, volume enclosed,” I think about the title of the book, Null Set, and how what Polyhedral offers me is a poem about sets, what Mathys describes, in another poem, as “row(ing) through the difference / between what is included / and what belongs.”
I meant to do some good
from inside the blown fuse, but confronted
a stairwell you go
night of the Persieds’
into a future
you should own
. . .To routinize
failure into a form of hoping
to take the auspices
seriously . . .
. . . a blue ribbon sewn into the spine and
dangling out the bottom as if the narrative
had collapsed on a silk rat. . .
—“All (of the bookmarks)”
Sonic bop and syntactical swerve. How contradiction spins around an axis of hope. Visual precision. Sometimes, a little wry.
As I read Null Set, I think I should look up “null set.”
I learn, among many boggling things, that the null set is both closed and open. It is a “clopen” set.
Maybe this is what Stevens is looking for in that “almost successfully”: a poem that’s “clopen,” a revelation that remains hidden as it is seen, “like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.”
If “this line of poetry is false” is true, then
this line of poetry is false, which means
this line of poetry is true, so
I cannot reconcile myself to finitude.
—“Vikings Did Not Have Horns on Their Helmets”
As I read Null Set, I watch Ted Mathys steer again and again between the Scylla of Yes and the Charybdis of No, the clashing rocks of Something and Nothing, Thesis and Antithesis, and sail straight through to a third thing: a swerve, a surprise, which is one of the tells that this book is alive.
In psychology, Wiki tells me, a set is a group of expectations that “shape experience by making people especially sensitive to specific kinds of information.” A perceptual set is “a predisposition to perceive things in a certain way;” a mental set is “a framework for thinking about a problem.”
I think about this as I read Null Set. I love how so many of the poems open as abstractly and strangely as “Polyhedral,” and, like that poem, reveal themselves to be precise renditions of the concrete and ordinary; for Ted Mathys, the visible is indeed a little hard to see. This is the perceptual predisposition, and the framework for thinking about problems. In “Double Exposure,” which, it slowly dawned on me as I read it, exactly describes a set of doubly-exposed photographs, each double image resolves into a portrait of the mother, made strange because of how the two images in each photo overlay: the mother playing poker on “the side of a rowboat,” her “cheat sheet / in her left hand, showing” on the oar; the mother emerging “from a stone wall / in Carcassonne.” In the last photo, she sits in “a plastic chair in sand / on an island in Lake Erie. . . .Atop the cottage behind her / our driveway writhes out the chimney.” At the end of this driveway is a parking cone the mother “holds up / like a Victrola.” “Whatever she said / or now says to me passes through,” writes Mathys at poem’s end, “New static. Same melody.” I’m not exactly sure how to interpret this last line: that the mother’s “melody” persists, even through layers of memorialization (photos), through layers of memory itself? And yet, that melody “passes through.” Paradoxical moments like these, and there are many in Null Set, lead me into metaphysical directions, where I mull the problem of reality and its perception: straight up Stevensian territory. But because I read the tone of this poem as haunting, and because it is about photographs, always a locus of memorial, I also start to wonder about the biography of Ted Mathys: about whether his mother is alive or dead, about what kind of relationship he has, or had, with her. I too, as with the speaker of the poem, start to “row through the difference / between what is included / and what belongs.”
Null Set ends, naturally, on a poem called “All.” “All” presents a set of sets; individually and together they offer an idiosyncratic and personal inventory: all of Ted Mathys’s uncles, jobs, “red impressions,” bookmarks, reasons “good and bad, I left the church,” fuzzy peeps, “better clichés,” contractions, animals “I hung above your first days,” fears, aunts, fables, and more. The poem feels expansive, Whitmanian; its long, rivering sentences teem with the literal stuff of a person’s life. This fills me with hope, with a puzzling sense of relief. It feels like the release of an arrow, the quotidian in all its incredibility no longer pinned by Ted Mathys’s odd, fierce, analytical mind.
Stevens had a mind like this too, and for the most part it kept concerns of the daily heart buried under intellect’s brocade. It’s the kind of mind we don’t usually associate with the lived, domestic life, as rendered in poetry. Indeed, there are not many quotidian people in Stevens’s poetry, certainly no poems overtly about his wife or daughter, or the secretary who typed up his poems at the insurance company where he worked. As I read Null Set, I note that they’re all here: the uncles, the aunts, mother, father, brother, daughter, wife—and an autobiographical, psychologic “I” that is so often missing from Stevens’s poetry. Mathys explores self and family not via the lingo of Confessionalism, the well from which we expect poets to draw such expressions (even here in 2016), but from the same analytical well from which he draws his spatial and metaphysical wonders. There’s no better expression of this than this moment from “Interior with Falling Bodies”:
A motion light reveals my position
in the backyard of what I’ve been
attempting to say.
In some poems, it’s as if his self-analysis is so extreme the very presence of the “I” disappears; in others, it’s as if he sees himself, first, as object; then, as Other; and then, through these, self-understanding arrives. Sometimes a poem curves into pathos, and it shocks me every time.
Every book tells you how to read it. It tells you through repetition, which is another word for pattern; it tells you outright, but slant, in lines that seem to encapsulate its essence; it tells you through the literary ghosts that you see shimmering behind it; it tells you by breaking its own fourth wall, shaking your shoulder, calling out, “Hey, Noble One!” which is my favorite of all salutations, from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In that book, the narrator wants to make sure you are paying attention, because there are very bright lights from which you should not look away, lest you be destined to reincarnate in a body, which all its life will be a bag for pain. Which is another way of saying: poetry must make the visible a little hard to see, because poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully, because, if you are to navigate it well, if you are to lessen the pain of yourself and others, you need to really pay attention to the nature of reality and the nature of mind, which will resist you, because both are complex and paradoxical and strange. Which goes to show: we in turn tell books how we incline to read them, surprising them with analogues of which they’d never dreamed. It must be abstract; it must change; it must give pleasure—Ted Mathys, Null Set.
DANA LEVIN is the author of four collections of poetry. Her newest book, Banana Palace, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press this Fall. Poems from this collection have appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, APR, The New York Times, The Best American Poetry 2015, The Volta, and others. She serves each fall as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis, and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.