Selected Poems & Translations : 1969-1991 by William Matthews

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Rubbing the Lantern of Memory


We all have topics we are drawn to. For me, one of those topics is memory. Why? Because it’s a tricky thing, sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Like life, then, and so, a perfect metaphor.

While poking around the book, Selected Poems & Translations : 1969-1991 by William Matthews, I came across “Housework,” a poem that hits my topical sweet spot. Let’s listen in (to the voice in your head, I mean):


by William Matthews

How precise it seems, like a dollhouse,
and look: the tiniest socks ever knit
are crumpled on a chair in your bedroom.
And how still, like the air inside a church
or basketball. How you could have lived
your boyhood here is hard to know,
unless the blandishing lilacs
and slant rain stippling the lamplight
sustained you, and the friendship of dogs,
and the secrecy that flourishes in vacant lots.
For who would sleep, like a cat in a drawer,
in this house memory is always dusting,

unless it be you? I’d hear you on the stairs,
an avalanche of sneakers, and then the sift
of your absence and then I’d begin to rub
the house like a lantern until you came back
and grew up to be me, wondering how to sleep
in this lie of memory unless it be made clean.


The first thing Matthews gets right is how everything from the past shrinks. Anyone who has “gone home again” á la Thomas Wolfe knows as much. He puts that to work in this poem by mentioning the “dollhouse” effect and the “tiniest socks.”

As a teacher of poetry, a genre most students are allergic to, I always encouraged students to simply identify cool lines that they liked. Avoiding treasure hunts for poetic devices helped young readers to relax and just go with what sounded neat. Inevitably, they were drawn to words and lines that were (wait for it) poetic devices.

I’m sure, if I assigned this in a classroom, students would jump all over “And how still, like the air inside a church / or basketball.” Ninety-nine of us could link stillness with the inside of a church, but the inside of a basketball? In a poem going back in time to the life of a young boy? Now that’s pretty cool (and oh, by the way, a simile, too).

The only other requirement I had in class is that students look up any word they didn’t know. Here it would be “blandishing” as in “blandishing lilacs.” To blandish is to coax or cajole so, metaphorically, we get the spellbinding smell of lilacs that often attracts people’s noses.

More cool lines? How about, quite simply, “and slant rain stippling the lamplight / sustained you, and the friendship of dogs, / and the secrecy that flourishes in vacant lots.” It’s kind of a sad, viewing-the-past-through-the-gauze-of-memory moment, no? Perhaps this was a lonely boy, then?

Then we get the line about “this house that memory is always dusting.” Neat. Each time you return to a particular memory, you’re dusting it, cleaning it up, changing it ever so slightly.

Finally there is the allusion to Aladdin’s lamp, wherein the house is rubbed “like a lantern” until “you” (who really is the speaker himself) returns by growing up “to be me.” Dopplegänger stuff, almost. And why I like memory poems so much, especially where the speaker is a player and all of life a stage.

In a word: Cool.