Airplants: Selected Poems by William H. Matchett reviewed by Stan Searl
Artists and poets are fond of irony and William H. Matchett is no exception. The title of his selected poems refers to an editor who commented in 1872 that Emily Dickinson’s poems reminded him “of air plants that have no roots in the earth.” Well, I would note that there are at least two levels of irony here: Dickinson’s poems are deeply rooted in her New England soil of hymns, history and experience; and Matchett’s poems are deeply rooted in his location outside of Seattle, Washington, overlooking a fiord and the Olympic Mountains. In fact, exploring the irony even further, one of the underlying themes of these selected poems is Matchett’s deeply rooted celebration of place, including its geography, biology, birds, soil, plants, and their meanings.
This is a revealing collection by an accomplished poet (one who graduated from Westtown School, Swarthmore College, and was a teaching assistant to Archibald McLeish at Harvard University). Matchett is not one to write much about explicit Quaker themes, even though he’s a lifetime Quaker. However, this collection does contain two “Quaker” poems – “Jordan’s Meeting,” which comments on the Quaker graveyard outside of Jordan’s Meetinghouse in England and the lovely, expressive “Quaker Funeral” with these ending lines:
let the Living Love in the silence reveal the seed of your strength, that we may share it in facing tomorrow, the time of our need
As befits a career Shakespeare teacher, these poems are full of wit, rhyme, and allusion. Yet I would also note that they come most alive as music and song when they explore the plants, trees, and earth right in front of the poet, celebrating the replanting of strawberry roots, open to fireweed plants, and rendering, as they do in the poem “The Sense of Place,” how:
All that holds good is a continuity of change. For a moment, look, dew edges this strawberry leaf and moss exerts its soft pressure in the cracked stone
Are they Quaker poems in particular? Probably not, yet there’s a sensibility of wonder, awe, and joy of the natural world immediately present, urging the reader to taste and see and experience the earth and its roots. There are four sections of these selected poems, the first three drawing upon earlier volumes and the last from uncollected poems. It reminded me of the dictum from Williams Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”
I loved the opening poem, “Aunt Alice in April” and how the poet captures the vulnerability – with detailed love and affection – of the Aunt as she finds the stained bloodroot blooming once again, and “Yes, it was truly spring once more.” These are remarkable poems; it is a pleasure to be immersed in the sense of place conveyed in poems such as “Water Ouzel” and “Fireweed” and “Elementary” and many more. The only odd thing about the poems is how the editor/publisher set up the pages. It would be so much more appealing to have one poem per page and not run the various poems together. After all, whether Quaker or not, these poems need to be savored. As a reader, I want to reflect, meditate, and be open to the meaning of each one.
Stan Searl is a member of Santa Monica Meeting (PYM), a published poet, and a community college instructor in the liberal arts.