Clive Matson
Regent Press ($22)

by Tim Hunt

Diane di Prima’s Poets Press published the original version of Clive Matson’s Mainline to the Heart in 1966. This reissue of the long out-of-print volume supplements the original twelve poems and the Introduction by John Weiners with fourteen uncollected poems from 1964-1966 and an Afterword by di Prima. Reading the collection, it is easy to understand why it was published by a small press. Matson writes of addiction, sex, love, and spirituality in lines driven by his recognition that these may not be altogether different things. In “Talk About Love” he writes:

I’ve gone to Hell,
I’m addicted to heroin and want a habit
so bad it’ll break the deathgrip
of love’s terminal habit with Erin.

And in “Psalm” he adds,

God loves me
and He’ll fuck me when He wants,
laying the cool breasts against my chest &
the huge cock up my ass
while the words rise from me
like a big erection for I am God, too,
and I see only what I love.

If Matson’s at times harsh and explicit perceptions kept his poetry from broader circulation when it was first published, these qualities also make it worth discovering anew. Historically, Mainline to the Heartillustrates the power of the imaginative terrain opened by the original Beats in the mid-1950s, and the very first lines of the collection (“Fuck you, Huncke / Leave me / hung up for junk, waiting”) make this context explicit. But Matson’s poetry is largely without the underlying sense of self-consciousness about the poetic tradition that lurks in Ginsberg or the devastating satire of Burroughs’ presentation of addicted imagination. He wrote without a specific theory about literature or vision of the tradition, but his poems at their best have the power to make us forget about the category of literature altogether. Some poets dazzle us with their ability to spin out imagery and metaphor. Matson, instead, arrests us with stark observation and compels us with startling, dismaying recognitions. In “My Love Returned,” for instance, his attention to how

Time binds us tighter together
in orbit around our asteroid or lovely room
where we are each other’s parasite
and no friend in sight

illustrates his ability to see, and to compel his reader to see, beneath the usual evasions and comforting constructions. Perhaps nothing in the collection makes this clearer than his refusal to see his habit, his addiction to heroin, as the “disease.” Instead, life itself is the “disease,” at times painfully so, at other times offering momentary beauties and bits of epiphany.

The poems in Mainline to the Heart are a compelling document of the Beat literary scene in the mid-1960s. That would, by itself, justify this new edition. But Matson’s work is, to adapt Ezra Pound’s phrase, news that has stayed new. These are poems that can still startle, even shock; they are also poems that can make us grieve and see something of the beauty and richness that isn’t so much in spite of the “disease” that is life but because of it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009