William Matthews is one of the better young representatives of the school of dry wit and careful observation that derives from Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Justice. His slender free verse poems combine a keen eye for visual detail with a delight in the texture of language itself; at its best, the combination produces an engaging, offhand charm: ""An egg won't roll well/ nor a chicken fly far:/ they're supposed to be local./ Like regional writing or thin/ wines, they don't travel well./ I do. I can pack in ten minutes."" But Matthews' punning, gently paradoxical humor works best as a sort of undertone; when his cleverness gets out of hand, the poems take on the forced jocularity of a bad nightclub routine (""Pissing Off the Back of the Boat into the Nivernais Canal,"" ""The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives""). He renders perception better than emotion; in his more personal poems, the lightly ironic manner seems at odds with the emotional weight of the subjects. Only in ""Bystanders"" does Matthews find an unadorned idiom able to convey strong emotion; the result is a poem of muted but compelling pathos. More typical of Matthews' successes is the long title sequence, with its many striking passages of descriptive writing: ""If you stare out over the waters/ on a bright day when the wind is down/ and the waters move only to groom/ themselves, turning their beautiful faces/ a little to guess how the light looks/ on them this way, and that. . . ."" A fetching combination, then, of warmth and wordplay.