Nabokov’s Blues

By William Matthews 1942–1997 William Matthews
The wallful of quoted passages from his work,   
with the requisite specimens pinned next
to their literary cameo appearances, was too good

a temptation to resist, and if the curator couldn’t,   
why should we? The prose dipped and shimmered   
and the “flies,” as I heard a buff call them, stood

at lurid attention on their pins. If you love to read   
and look, you could be happy a month in that small   
room. One of the Nabokov photos I’d never seen:

he’s writing (left-handed! why did I never trouble   
to find out?) at his stand-up desk in the hotel   
apartment in Montreux. The picture’s mostly

of his back and the small wedge of face that shows   
brims with indifference to anything not on the page.   
The window’s shut. A tiny lamp trails a veil of light

over the page, too far away for us to read.   
We also liked the chest of specimen drawers   
labeled, as if for apprentice Freudians,

“Genitalia,” wherein languished in phials
the thousands he examined for his monograph   
on the Lycaenidae, the silver-studded Blues.

And there in the center of the room a carillon
of Blues rang mutely out. There must have been
three hundred of them. Amanda’s Blue was there,

and the Chalk Hill Blue, the Karner Blue
(Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabokov),         
a Violet-Tinged Copper, the Mourning Cloak,

an Echo Azure, the White-Lined Green Hairstreak,
the Cretan Argus (known only from Mt. Ida:
in the series Nabokov did on this beauty

he noted for each specimen the altitude at which   
it had been taken), and as the ads and lovers say,   
“and much, much more.” The stilled belle of the tower

was a Lycaeides melissa melissa. No doubt
it’s an accident Melissa rhymes, sort of, with Lolita,         
The scant hour we could lavish on the Blues

flew by, and we improvised a path through cars
and slush and boot-high berms of mud-blurred snow   
to wherever we went next. I must have been mute,

or whatever I said won from silence nothing   
it mourned to lose. I was back in that small   
room, vast by love of each flickering detail,

each genital dusting to nothing, the turn,   
like a worm’s or caterpillar’s, of each phrase.   
I stood up to my ankles in sludge pooled

over a stopped sewer grate and thought—   
wouldn’t you know it—about love and art:   
you can be ruined (“rurnt,” as we said in south-

western Ohio) by a book or improved by   
a butterfly. You can dodder in the slop,
septic with a rage not for order but for the love

the senses bear for what they do, for detail
that’s never annexed, like a reluctant crumb
to a vacuum cleaner, to a coherence.

You can be bead after bead on perception’s rosary.
This is the sweet ache that hurts most, the way
desire burns bluely at its phosphorescent core:

just as you’re having what you wanted most,   
you want it more and more until that’s more   
than you, or it, or both of you, can bear.


William Matthews, “Nabokov’s Blues” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991. Copyright © 1992 by William Matthews. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved, www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

Source: Poetry (August 1989).

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This poem originally appeared in the August 1989 issue of Poetry magazine

August 1989
 William  Matthews

Biography

William Matthews's poetry has earned him a reputation as a master of well-turned phrases, wise sayings, and rich metaphors. Much of Matthews's poetry explores the themes of life cycles, the passage of time, and the nature of human consciousness. In another type of poem, he focuses on his particular enthusiasms: jazz music, basketball, and his children. His early writing was free-form and epigrammatic. As his career has . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Nature, Love, Relationships, Reading & Books, Animals, Realistic & Complicated

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Imagery, Free Verse, Metaphor

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