The Search Party
by William Matthews
If the idea of the poetic turn can be conceived of as a sudden bend in the road of the poem that takes you in a new direction, the poem “The Search Party” by William Matthews resembles one of those curvy country roads one finds oneself on in the summer at dusk. Not only is the road twisty: it seems that, at any moment while driving along it, something may burst out of the darkening woods. But “The Search Party” is very different from that famous poem of deer and roads, William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” “The Search Party” feels scarier to me, and more dangerous. While Stafford does us the favor of thinking “hard for us all,” Matthews is interested in a very different relationship with us, his readers, and this is the first of many turns the poet makes with that wonderful, “Reader, by now you must be sure / you know just where we are…” How different Matthews’s “we” is compared to Stafford’s “us.” We are in the woods with Matthews, woods he correctly suspects us of believing to be only “symbolic woods.” The turn here is a turn away from poem as metaphor for poetry. Matthews refuses to let the tragedy of the real world be subsumed under the “nobler” quest of art. While in Stafford’s poem the alarming moment is the act of mercy, the pushing of the dead, pregnant deer into the river, in Matthews’s poem we are not allowed to be mere spectators of the poet’s brave battle with great issues of life and death. What fascinates me about “The Search Party” is how we are conscripted to join Matthews in the woods, and I think that Matthews accomplishes this very difficult task by employing several turns.
I believe that this poem succeeds not by turning once, but by turning again and again and again. To prove this to my students, I projected the poem on the overhead and had them experience the poem line by line, keeping them in suspense by uncovering the poem slowly. In that dark classroom I’m not sure all my students were with me, but there was a noticeable stirring in seats when I revealed the line “Reader, by now you must be sure / you know just where we are…” Perhaps the language of this line sounded like I was saying, “Alex, by now you must be sure / you can just sleep in my class…” But, awake now, Alex couldn’t go back to sleep. The first turn, the recognition of the reader’s presence and implacability in the poem, is followed by yet another turn. Matthews tells us that if we think this poem is merely symbolic, that the quest is that of art, that it involves someone else’s suffering through which we are going to have some kind of cathartic experience, we’re wrong, though he compliments us by telling us it is an intelligent mistake. Here we can read: “You’re such a devoted reader of poetry, it’s understandable you thought this was yet another symbolic woods poem.” We discover that not only are the woods real but that there was a real lost child, and then we learn that this child has been found.
There are probably quite a few poets who would have stopped here, myself one of them. If I were writing this poem and had already accused my readers of thinking that the action I was describing never really happened, then told them it had, then told them the child had been found, I would probably feel some anxiety to wrap the poem up here: to describe the child’s mutilated body for shock value, or to describe the child him- or herself, sobbing in fear, or triumphant as hide-and-seek champion, or oddly calm and saintly. But, having challenged us once, Matthews must challenge us again. He says, “You’ve read this far, you might as well / have been there to.” We aren’t going to get out of this poem without being forced to confront ourselves. Matthews predicts that we’ll be frustrated by this, and in response suggests that we never really cared what they found. Though they came with lights and tongues thick in their heads (the search party is, of course, a band of poets), armed with human reason and human language, the issue was a human life. “The child was still…” and here I paused to ask Alex what he thought the next line would read. Of course, he made the heroic guess that the child was dead, as in, “The child was still / lying dead in the leaves.” But when I uncovered the last line, even sleepy-eyed Alex had to nod and admit that, yes, he was glad that the child was still alive. But even better, I heard another student say, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that.”
Austin Smith grew up in northwestern Illinois. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, POETRY Magazine, Sewanee Review, Yale Review, ZYZZYVA, and Pleiades, amongst others. His first full-length poetry collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. He is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.