Harry Mathews’s Drifts and Returns


Arts & Culture

Harry Mathews. Photo: Curt Richter.

There are two ways, at least, into “Cool gales shall fan the glade,” the last poem Harry Mathews completed and the first one included in Harry Mathews Collected Poems: 1946–2016. One is to read it as a twilight soliloquy: a wandering rumination on a long life richly lived, filled with loves and lusts and leisure and loss, shaped by many wandering ruminations before this one. Another is to read it as an experiment on a French fixed form from the fourteenth century called the sestina, with the supplemental rule that the words concluding each line, instead of merely repeating in spiraling permutation, add a letter and rearrange themselves into new words with every stanza: at becomes fat becomes fast becomes feast. These two ways are not mutually exclusive, I don’t think; perhaps, to hear Harry Mathews in the poem as I hear him, it is necessary to travel both at once.

This is to say that I read Harry Mathews as uniting the liberation of rules with the discipline of desire, much as Raymond Queneau once praised Raymond Roussel for uniting the madness of the mathematician with the rationality of the poet. If I prize this sense of poles joined, of apparent contradictions reconciled, over other approaches to his writing, it’s because it was under the sway of those Raymonds—both of whom bore an outsize influence on Harry’s life and work—that I became a Mathews reader in the first place. I came to the Oulipo, the Parisian atelier of literary mischief that Queneau cofounded in 1960 and in which Harry planted an American flag in 1973, enchanted by its committed exploration of form and procedure, its willingness to find poetic potential in the unsentimental machinery of language. But in Harry’s work, first his eloquently hallucinatory novels and then his essays and poems and translations, I found that not even the resolute embrace of empirical constraint repressed this aura of lusty, extravagant, insatiably curious humanity. A throw of the dice, to paraphrase Mallarmé, never seemed to abolish that fetching madness.

Harry returned to the sestina regularly throughout his life, in poetry as well as prose; one of my first duties after becoming an Oulipian myself was to perform one of his narrative sestinas at a reading that time or ill health had prevented him from attending. I asked him to write what would become “Cool gales shall fan the glade” in 2013, for a collection of Oulipo work newly in English (it was originally meant to be a translation of his French poem “L’amélioration,” but in practice the two share little besides their scaffolding), and when I read the result for the first time—after the aching tang of its tender melancholy, and after I looked up abseil and peplum—I felt how ideally suited the form was to him. Here above all, where the usual structure has been doctored to accommodate another layer of complexity, the poem’s nostalgic drift through time and space is regulated, tethered, by its inevitable return to the preordained end words. But the drift and the return are not at odds: they spiral around each other, hot embracing cold, and what emerges is Harry’s own unique kind of harmony.

A similar harmony reigns, if you’ll indulge that metaphor a little longer, over his other later poems. “Quiet Moon” is a solemn nocturne composed by referring in systematic alternation to two unidentified other poems; this was his first exploration of the “double helix” conceit he would later use to construct his final novel, The Solitary Twin. “The Politicians’ Antic Spoil” is an ode to incompletion and loss, left unfinished when he died in January 2017, and also a melting-snowball sestina, attritional where “Cool gales” is additive. (His notes indicate, albeit inconclusively, that he had intended for the end words to shrink letter by letter and then expand again, or maybe vice versa, which would make the near-half of the poem we have here, in its own way, a solitary twin as well.) Both are thoughtfully, methodically rule bound, and at the same time both appear, even to a discerning Oulipian eye, utterly free.

There are other ways into Harry’s writing, other poles and other metaphors, but I find myself choosing this explanation from attracted opposites each time. It helps account for the strange kind of inevitability that unifies his use of language: the way what he says seems to sway to the gravitational pull of truth, even as the means behind it can be peculiar and at times impenetrable. It helps account for the imperturbable cool of his voice, the dignity and certitude of his gaze, even in ecstasy and wonder and pain, even in its abiding fascination with the body. It helps account for the way he takes such evident, infectious pleasure in attaching names to things—equiponderant sun, opiate parentheses, seasucked rocks, and sea-rocked dark—and yet never lets the lapidary delight of the words replace the mysterious heft of the things they name. To read Mathews is to experience his great discernment and his great appetite at once, his irrepressible sense of wonder that the world can be so enchanting and unknowable even as everything within it can be identified, ordered, organized. This is no less the case for his prose than for his poetry, but in verse his language airs out, decants, lets the words drift even further out of their utilitarian orbit and somehow float above themselves, precise anchors and weightless intangibles.

This, he said, he learned from Roussel: that prose and poetry can both be liberatingly arbitrary, that extraordinary things can be done with the ambiguity of words. From Mallarmé, he said, he learned that sense can lie not in words but in effect; from Kafka, that effect can lie in syntax and not the signified. From the Oulipo he learned to make peace with his attraction to rules and procedures—joining the group, he once wrote, “made me feel like someone who has been denying a shameful habit only to discover that it is perfectly honorable”—though he still preferred to keep some of his methods shrouded in mystery. (He coined the term pumectation, for “the ostensible procedure that a writer uses to mask the procedure that he is actually following,” based on a felicitous misprint of the word permutation.) From John Ashbery, he said—it was Ashbery who first told Harry about Roussel, and with whom he cofounded a five-issue literary review named after Roussel’s rigorously batty Locus Solus—he learned that he could do as he pleased, because finally there was no right way to write.

Nor, I think, is there a right way to read Mathews’s poetry, to follow Harry through the arcade of byzantine delights that is his own programmed drift through time and space. There is method and there is accident, there is work and there is play, interwoven to the point that one wonders what use there is in distinguishing them. There are rules and there are procedures and still there is no right way: this was and is Harry Mathews, in poetry and in prose and in person, complex as a computer and simple as the current it runs on. This is his improbable and impeccable and wonderful life, a life named on every page:

Left free by the accidents of life to wander,
And having wandered and re-wandered from an early time:
Clever, independent, humorous, shrewd,
A little battered, a little hard,
Both highly unshockable and highly incorruptible;
Full of ways and means, full of everything and everywhere.


Read Harry Mathews’s Art of Fiction interview.

Daniel Levin Becker is a senior editor at McSweeney’s and the youngest member of the Oulipo.

This is the introduction to Harry Mathews Collected Poems: 1946–2016, edited by Arlo Haskell and published on February 14 by Sand Paper Press.