I remember that I enjoyed writing this one. Harry Mathews is a wonderful novelist--go read Cigarettes now.
Title: Blessing Clarified
Description: In praise of Harry Mathews
Date: 7 August 2003
I've been reading the 2002 Best American Poetry anthology on and off over the last few weeks. I will write about the book and the series soon, specifically the arguments about American poetry which the series engages, but this week I want to look at a single poem from the book, Harry Mathews's "Butter & Eggs."
I know Mathews through his splendid novels (like Cigarettes), but he also writes shorter prose pieces and poetry. His best-known poem is probably the sestina "Histoire":
Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
"Like a drink?" he asked her. "They make great alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism."
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowed for its Maoism.
"O.K.," she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.
His writing is knowing, refined, and witty, as you'd expect of an associate of the New York Poets. The sole American member of the Oulipo, Mathews customarily establishes writing procedures to constrain and shape his work. I suppose this is notable for fiction writers, but poets have working with in constraints for as long as they've been in business. The sestina form, for instance, had been used for 800 years before becoming a 20th C darling. The Oulipo's inventions (or "research") go far beyond literary tradition, like the S+7 method that uses a mechanical procedure to replace all substantives in a passage with the word seven dictionary entries on, or George Perec's well-known renunciation of the letter 'e' in La Disparition. The results of these experiments are surprisingly varied: some are simply nonsense, some strange and wondrous, some quite moving*. In Mathews' prose, the procedures are seldom noticeable: they're just the scaffold used to construct the novels.
The topic of "Butter & Eggs" is, you guessed it, butter and eggs. Not what butter and eggs represent, or how they meaningfully intersect with our lives, but how to cook with them. He rests this anti-poem poem on a cook book frame: six sections describe six basic preparations. At first this seems to be a terrible decision. Even as a Mathews' devotee dutifully slugging through the anthology, I thought about skipping the rest after getting to the altitude adjustments for soft-boiling eggs ("In Santa Fe an egg is not cooked in less than five minutes."). But I allowed the devotion to detail, the strangely hopeful present tense (an egg is being cooked), and the discovery of patterns to take me in. The details are accurate and germane to the kitchen, not to metaphysics. "The circular iron skillet, used for nothing else, is an eighth of an inch thick" of the first line is a tool of the trade and so a token of total devotion to craft ("unmistakably poetry"?) which you discover not only in the scrupulous description but the sound patterns of the apparently mundane language (the a's and i's of "a ramekin of aspic lined with a thin slice of ham, with two leaves/ of blanched tarragon")
Every cooking procedure which is described begins with what you might call a medium: fat ("butter, bacon grease, mild oil") or water. The perfect medium combines qualities of fat and water; it clarified butter, a fluid distallation of butter. Mathews concludes by praising his medium: "This perfect cooking butter/will not turn rancid and, heated to high temperatures,/never brown or burn: it is the word "blessing" clarified." If he approaches metaphor in the end, it is only because what's essential in poetry, paying attention to the particulars of the world and the craft, is by nature transcendent. To be "unmistakably poetry," a poem should clarify a blessing of language or of the world.
*I am more frequently moved by work created with arbitrary procedures than work informed by cliched sentiment. An example of the former is Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, which expands its potential vocabulary from words beginning with the letter "a" in the first chapter to all words in the twenty-sixth, then contracts it step-by-step in the mirroring second half. I became sick with dread for the fate of Queen Qhot in the middle of the book:Qhot would die; the world would not her live.
Cheever quote: "She was one of those tireless wanderers who go to bed night after night and dream of bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches." ("A Woman Without a Country")
Reading: Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Cheever, Dennis Cooper's All Ears
Listening: Led Zeppelin, Tori Amos, the opera station on Internet radio
Watching: Led Zep DVD, Amelie, American Wedding