The cover of Matthew Graham’s A World Without End, painted by his wife Kathryn Waters, features a noirish interior of a dark word dresser topped by a tall mirror, a yellow legal pad, a fountain pen, an old-fashioned square alarm clock, a desk lamp, a stack of books, and a bottle of whiskey. Reflected in the mirror are dim Venetian blinds and a melancholy blue curtain that admit a faint light. Edward Hopper once defined art as “the outward expression of an inner life of the artist.” Waters’ painting foreshadows both the Hopperesque settings for many of Graham’s poems and also the unsparing interrogation of the self that used to be called “an examination of conscience.”
Take, for example, the catalogue of scars in “Meteorology,” which functions as a terse autobiography. The poem opens with an epigraph from Yusef Komunyakaa—“I love this body / made to weather the storm / in the brain”—and then lists these outer manifestations of inner struggle:
The lightning streaks on my left arm–a windshield
At 50, splintered by desire . . . .
The raised cartwheel on the inside of my arm–a tattoo
From the deep fry of one-too-many kitchens.
The blue crease on my right ankle–an object lesson
In drunkenness and barbed wire on a lost Fourth of July.
The sly smile on my right wrist–a knife
in the night outside the Monteleone.
Lucky so far these fronts, these highs and lows,
Have been this forgiving to the landscape below. (33)
Like Robert Frost, Graham implies that whatever outer dangers confront us have nothing on the “desert places” within. The body’s scarred text charts the survival of these blustery “highs and lows.”
Another poem, “When I Was a Kid,” offers a portrait of the poet as a young boy with a language disorder in the late 1950s when “they didn’t know from dyslexia.” On its surface, the poem has the beat structure of stand-up comedy:
I thought pubic hair was public
And the perils of Tarzan were his pearls.
I’m still liable to dial 119 . . . .
Once in Germany I ordered a pocketbook of coffee
And in a bar, told a Polish guy
I was a female professor. (19)
But look a little deeper, and the poem turns out to be a meditation on language and the poet’s relationship to it. Branded as stupid for his early problems with spelling, he says, “made me humble and afraid to write. / It made me a quiet person on paper.” And it taught him to see language as “That evil little dog at the door—That brief flash we get / And translate as best we can.”
Graham’s work seems a good choice to read in the New Year, when everyone is making resolutions, and we’re inclined to look on ourselves both as we are and how we wish we were. A final example is the poem “Anniversary,” which depicts a long marriage as a “salvage yard,” marked by an industrial array of losses but still enduring:
We leave the steaming salvage yard
Of marriage and travel north–enough milk
Under the bridge, tears over spilled water–
And find ourselves in a packet boat, in the iron-ore lanes,
Three miles off Copper Harbor.
There are more stars than we remember and I rename
The constellations: Cadillac de Ville, Hoover Upright, Man
Reluctantly Losing All He Loves. She sighs
And leans into the rail, stars in her hair and I spill
Styrofoamed coffee all over my hands.
Just hold me, she says,
And I do. (47)
When I look within long enough, I tend to wind up in Hopper territory. And while traversing those endless hotel lobbies of the soul, I like to keep the poems of Matthew Graham close at hand.
These poems appear in A World Without End (River City Books, 2007).
Matthew Graham is the author of three books of poetry: New World Architecture, 1946, and A World Without End. He teaches at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.