February’s Music post: William Matthews’ “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives

William Matthews’ prose poem “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives” has so many great descriptions of music it almost makes you forget how hard it can be to describe music. Joplin’s voice breaks out “in hives of feeling.” Music, in the words of the speaker’s friend, “throws you back into your body, like organic food or heroin.” Then there’s the image of the pain in his friend’s singing voice “like the silhouette of a dog baying at the moon, almost liver-shaped, a bell hung from a rope of its own pure yearning.” And then, back to Janis again, her voice running up and down the body “like a fire that has learned to live on itself” and then, there comes the amazing description of listening to dead Janis sing as being “Grief’s beautiful blowjob.” Now that is one hell of a line.

This isn’t a very long poem, but it’s actually a triple portrait—the speaker, the friend (who is quite vividly described), and then Joplin’s voice. It took me a while to come up with a theory for the title—what I came up with is that it’s supposed to hit that note of loving two contradictory things things, like agony and ecstasy or salvation and death, or life and fame, or maybe organic food and heroin, I don’t know really, but though I don’t quite get it, it doesn’t hang me up too much. But I’m not going to argue with you if it annoys you.

A friend was disinclined to like this poem because, if I may sum up, ‘whatever, another aging boomer guy who’s all about sexy Janis Joplin.’ And for sure “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives” is a very male poem in its gaze and images. Clearly. But the voice here is so authentic, he sounds like an actual human being you could run into in real life, even as he’s making these amazing poetic descriptions. I love that. The speaker in “Mingus at the Showplace,” for contrast—another Matthews poem I love—also feels real, but that poem is a voice looking back, and there’s something especially great about the immediacy of this one’s context, the present tense, the shift in subject from sentence to sentence as one does when waxing intensely About Music And Life. And Janis Joplin.