Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Robert Archambeau presents Introduction to

Regrounding a Pilgrimage by John Matthias & John Peck, Edited by Katie Lehman
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2018)

A Gathering of Ways is a suite of poems centering on the act of pilgrimage—and therefore, one might reasonably assume, the poem of a pilgrim, on his way to a sacred place for sacred purposes.[1] But John Matthias is a funny sort of pilgrim. We have it, after all, on the best of authorities that the poetry of John Matthias has heretical tendencies. Here’s what Robert Duncan said about Matthias in an undated letter from the early 1970s:

Matthias is a goliard—one of those wandering souls out of a Dark Age in our own time . . . carrying with him as he goes in his pack of cards certain key cards that come ever into his hand when he plays: the juggler (as he was to be portrayed later in the Tarot), the scholar whose head is filled with learning and the fame of amorous women and the heretic remembering witch-hunts yet to come.

A goliard! Already Matthias is in trouble, the goliards being clerical students of the Middle Ages who affirmed the flesh and derided the corruption of Mother Church. And not just any goliard, but a goliard Duncan associates with the juggler of the Tarot (in esoteric decks, a figure for the magus who masters dark arts) and with the heretic seeing into a future of persecutions. We may as well call in Torquemada’s inquisition and get this heretic burning over with. But Duncan is talking about the Matthias of the sixties and early seventies, and thinking of Matthias’s political radicalism and of his early obsessions with alchemy and witchcraft. What of the Matthias of the later Matthias?

Consider three long poems of Matthias’s that form a poetic suite: “An East Anglian Diptych,” “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest,” and “A Compostela Diptych,” written between 1984 and 1990, and published collectively as A Gathering of Ways. The general project of the poems indicates a turning-away from the Matthias described by Duncan: they are attempts of coming to terms with what Matthias called his “post-activist consternation” and alienation from American life. “An East Anglian Diptych” is Matthias’s attempt to make a psychological home for himself in England, and “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest” represents a similar home-making project in America. This is no longer the radical wanderer, but the poet in search of stability. Indeed, “A Compostela Diptych,” takes as its subject the ancient pilgrim routes across France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. It’s an attempt by the post-activist Matthias to come to terms with, and possibly make himself at home in, both the history of the West and the dominant spiritual tradition of the West, Catholicism.

But to what terms does he come? If I were to try to sum them up, I’d say this: in “A Compostela Diptych,” Matthias attempts to present a totalized history of the West and of Catholicism. But he fails to find a happy totality, and this drives him toward an otherworldly yearning, a yearning for a world beyond history, an eternal world free of violence. This is essentially a Gnostic yearning for some eternal, infinite elsewhere of light, a yearning from which he only escapes at the very end of the poem.

When I speak of a “totalized history” in “A Compostela Diptych,” I want to use the term “totality” in a vaguely Levinasian sense: as something finite, in which diverse elements are reduced to “the violently pacified empire of Same” or “the counted-as-one” (to use Dominic Fox’s glosses for Levinas’s “totality”). With regard to history, we can think of totalization as the opposite of an unending series of discrete events—the opposite, that is, of Henry Ford’s version of history as “one damn thing after another”—or perhaps we can think of it as the hammering of such discrete phenomena into something whole, in which apparently disparate parts are in fact manifestations of a single force, or repetitions of a single pattern. We’re on the same page about this if you’re thinking of one of the most famous passages in the works of Walter Benjamin, which reads:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

This is a vision of history as total, and as total disaster. And this is very much the vision of history that Matthias gives us in “A Compostela Diptych.”

It doesn’t seem that way at first, though. “A Compostela Diptych” begins with what seems to be a happy vision of the many pilgrims who have trodden the various routes through France and Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. There’s a barrage of proper names of people and places: some forty-one different proper names in the first forty-five lines of the poem. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like the writing of a man who would present history as a totality. Nothing, after all, insists on irreducible specificity more than a proper name. Indeed, proper names will be very significant at the end of the poem, when Matthias shakes himself free of a totalized version of history—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The point I want to make here doesn’t have to do with proper names, but with a collective pronoun, “they.” Unlike proper names, collective pronouns reduce the many to the one, and what we see happen in the opening of “A Compostela Diptych” is a reduction of the people of different European nations and centuries into a single, collective, “they”—a trans-historical subject for the people of Catholic Europe. Here we have the multitudes “counted-as-one.” It doesn’t seem, at first, to be anything but a joyous affair, a holy journey uniting the many. But this all changes a few pages into the poem. After Matthias gestures toward the song of the pilgrims, he adds this:

And there was other song—song sung inwardly
to a percussion of the jangling
manacles and fetters hanging on the branded

heretics who crawled the roads
on hands and knees and slept with lepers under
dark façades of abbeys

& the west portals of cathedrals . . .

There is a dissonance in the happy totality of history: those who do not fit, those who are expelled, despised, oppressed. This is a vision of the violence of the totality, and soon the history his poem recounts becomes a history of crusade, jihad, and inquisition, while a small minority yearns for an escape into timeless peace. Indeed, history becomes totalized in a new way—as Benjamin’s totality of “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”

Matthias creates a sense of this catastrophic historical totality through four main techniques. I call them coincidence in place; rhyming actions; musical refrain; and musical reprise.

Coincidence in place presents history as total catastrophe by giving us a series of almost archeological sections in which the same geography hosts similar events over time. For example, Matthias shows us Charlemagne’s minions slaughtered during a crusade in Spain. These events coincide in space with later massacres of the Spanish Inquisition centuries later, and with still later massacres perpetuated by Napoleon in the Peninsular War. We dig into the history of particular places, and, like Benjamin’s angel, see only wreckage piling upon wreckage.

By “rhyming actions” I mean historical events that Matthias presents as essentially parallel. Notable among these is the fate of the cathedral bells of Santiago. Early in the poem we see these hauled away by the conquering armies of Islamic Spain under Almanzor, who hangs them upside down in his great mosque and uses them as candelabra. Much later in the poem and in history we see Alfonso VI of Castile sack the mosque and take the bells back to Santiago, installing them in the cathedral for their original use. The effect of these actions, which echo one another, is to remind the reader of conflict, and of the hubris of conquerors, as the constants of history.

There are many refrains in “A Compostela Diptych,” but among the most resonant refrains is the phrase “darkness fell at noon.” We hear it at many moments in the poem when political disaster falls. The refrain not only serves to unite these moments—it also connects those moments to more modern disasters. Darkness at Noon is, after all, the title of Arthur Koestler’s novel about the evils of Stalinism.

Musical reprise is a technique quite common in opera and musical drama, but unusual in poetry: the passing of the same lyrical part from one voice to another in different contexts. A number of different passages get a reprise in “A Compostela Diptych,” but the most insistent one is Charlemagne’s dream of war, an eighteen-line passage lifted from the Chanson de Roland. We’re first given it as a prophetic dream in the mind of Charlemagne, but we hear it again, in whole or in part, in the voices of other characters (notably Aimery Picaud, the chronicler of the pilgrim routes, and John Moore, the English general killed while fighting Napoleon’s armies at Corunna), or with reference to other conflicts, including modern acts of terrorism by Basque separatists. The effect of the reprise is to make all of history into Charlemagne’s nightmare of war—a nightmare from which we seem unable to wake up.

Not that some characters in Matthias’s poem don’t try. Accompanying the long nightmare of history recounted in “A Compostela Diptych” is another story, a story of Gnostics who long for a world beyond this broken, bruised, and evil one in which we seem perpetually imprisoned. This group includes the historical Gnostics and heretics of the times and places covered by the poem (Cathars, Albigensians, and the like). But Matthias interprets Gnosticism broadly, and includes in it the Eleusinian mysteries, the practitioners of the medieval Trobar Clus, and the Sufi mystics of Islamic Spain. He even includes Ezra Pound, wandering as a young man through the south of France, and dreaming of a light beyond the nightmare and wreckage of history.

There is much in “A Compostela Diptych” to indicate that Matthias would join with the Gnostic tradition, especially in the poem’s final section. Here, Matthias presents us with a moment where we seem to leave history, and indeed this world, behind, in an intersection of the timeless with time. The occasion for the intersection is the explosion of an enormous Spanish armory, an explosion that shakes foundations and, from many miles away, creates shockwaves that ring the Santiago cathedral bells, the same ones that had been hauled away by conquering Moors and hauled back by crusaders. Now, we’re told


whose job it was to ring them stood
amazed out in the square & wondered if this thunder
and the ringing was in time for Vespers

or for Nones or if it was entirely out of time . . .

As it turns out, it’s the latter: the explosion is followed by a stillness that Matthias identifies with the silence before the existence of time. We are taken to a place of stillness “As it was . . . in the silence that preceded silence” when “there were neither rights nor hopes nor / sadnesses to speak of,” where “in the high and highest places everything was still.” We’re outside of time, and certainly outside of the totalized, catastrophic history with which the poem has presented. Indeed, inasmuch as we are in some boundless place, we have escaped totality, and encountered the infinite.

Another kind of poet would end things here. Indeed, a properly modernist poet would end things here—gathered into the artifice of eternity (as in “Sailing to Byzantium”), or purged of worldliness by fire (as in “Little Gidding”). But Matthias doesn’t. Instead of turning from the world of history, he returns to it—in fact, for the first time in the poem, he enters history by name, appearing with his wife Diana on the pilgrim trails. Here’s the passage:

Towards Pamplona, long long after all Navarre
was Spain, and after the end
of the Kingdom of Aragón, & after the end of the end,

I, John, walked with my wife Diana
down from the Somport Pass following the silence
that invited and received my song

It goes on, in prose saturated with more proper nouns—twenty-nine in twenty-one lines—to describe John and Diana “blest and besotted” in Spain, and in their moment of history. Escape to a timeless realm would be the Gnostic’s happy ending, but the true spiritual tradition informing A Gathering of Ways turns out to be something rather different, the best analog for which is the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the encounter with the unbounded or infinite is not an end in itself: rather, it returns us to experience with a sense of wonder, and an invitation to enter into dialogue with the world. And this sort of return and invitation is what we get in “A Compostela Diptych” when Matthias appears in the historical terrain of his poem, and when the silence “invite[s] and receive[s]” his song. The encounter with the infinite releases him from a sense that history is catastrophe and nothing more. Moreover, by inviting Matthias’s particular song, the infinite shows it welcomes proliferation, rather than the reductions of totalization: Matthias’s song is just one voice in a boundless infinity, not the total summation of all things.

It’s important to note the role of proper names here, because it underlines a slight difference between Matthias and Levinas. For Levinas, the encounter with the infinite comes about through confronting a human face, in all its particularity. For Matthias, though, the encounter with the infinite is with something still and silent and beyond us. But the effect of that encounter is to return us to the world of specific people and places, the world of proper names—and to show us that this world is not reducible to some totalized history of catastrophe. Particularity trumps totalization at the end of the poem, as a litany of proper names unassimilated into a grand pattern of catastrophe leaves us blessed and besotted. In the end, it is this return that prevents Matthias from being a Gnostic. As much as he is fascinated with that tradition, he can’t join it: he is too much in love with all of us who can be named.

[1]           This essay was originally published as “History, Totality, Silence” in Robert Archambeau’s Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme (Asheville, NC: MadHat Press, 2016).


Robert Archambeau is a poet and literary critic whose books include Home and Variations and The Kafka Sutra and critical studies Laureates and Heretics, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World and Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme.