Saturday, September 6, 2014

Alfred Corn, Unions (Barrow Street Press, 2014)

Unions, Alfred Corn’s eleventh book of poetry, is his most accessible collection.  The poems are still diverse and demanding in their references and allusions, as well as in their variety of forms, but those aspects don’t call attention to themselves, instead taking a relaxed approach and inviting the reader to follow suit.  It might also be because I’m currently twice the age I was when I first read Corn’s poetry as an undergraduate twenty years ago that the density of references ceases to distract me; now, I recognize and understand the majority of them.  I can better appreciate, too, Corn’s deft sleights of hand in slipping them discreetly into his poems.

This is an elegantly structured and sequenced volume, and its title motif is intentionally woven through the book.  Among the collection’s myriad kinds of unions are transatlantic journeys to places that figure into roughly a fourth of the poems.  The epic “Eleven Londons” recalls in close detail a series of extended stays in the city over a period of four decades, carefully documenting the sociocultural changes that took place in the author’s life, from the days of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison to debates over same-sex marriage and post-9/11 wariness.

“A city is a person,” writes Corn midway through the poem, and its segments, constructed like free-flowing journal entries, are built around that notion; the city changes as much as the poem’s author and the culture that surrounds them both, just as his perspective on all of it changes simultaneously.  A steady, informal rhythmic underpinning that’s reminiscent of Derek Walcott’s lines keeps the sum of the parts intact.  Having visited London annually each spring myself for the past two decades, I matched much of my own catalog of memories with Corn’s:  Charing Cross, the National Portrait Gallery, Camden Lock, Regent’s Park, Little Venice, Covent Garden, the bounty of West End theatrical productions.  We’ve even seen some of the same shows.

Among the book’s other United Kingdom-based poems, I particularly like “Bloody,” an incisive etymology of that curious English adverb and its lack of (polite) American counterparts.  In a jaunt across the Irish Sea, “Dublin Night” is also indelibly memorable and haunting, with its lone shadow of a figure drifting through the bustling center of the town in darkness, wondering if it might be best to disappear into the black water running under a bridge.

Despite such solitary glimpses, there are also, certainly, interpersonal unions represented at points throughout the volume — friendships (“Bob”), rivalries (“Doppelgänger”), romances (“In Half-Light”), sexual relationships (“Möbius Strip”).  But among the interpersonal poems, the most impressive and intriguing one for me is “Common Dwelling,” a poem about near-strangers, one’s neighbors residing in the hive of a communal building.  We live in a world in which fewer and fewer people can afford to purchase a house, so it’s a scenario that almost all of us can relate to:  “the enviable neighbor couple / who shift and stir less than an arm’s length / behind the headboard, their murmurs / sifting into consciousness / as though no sheetrock intervened.” No other poem that I know of conveys that uneasy form of sonic intimacy so effectively.  Or this:

“Heavy boots not muted by rugs clunk
about on the floor above.  Months
of obstinate slogging guarantee
their pace would instantly anywhere
be recognized, if not the pacer.
Odd moments in the day he launches
his campaign with a ruckus that feels
coercive, sure, but on behalf of what?”

Formally, Corn turns in many different directions in Unions with skillful subtlety.  In addition to plenty of free verse, there are several poems in rhymed couplets and quatrains, a few semi-sonnets, a trenchant villanelle about growing older, a poem written in Sapphic syllabic stanzas, even a sort of vertical palindrome.  Another kind of form arises from thematically strategic pairings of poems that make the pieces resonate more deeply in sequence.  For instance, a contemplation of the great pessimists from history and literature is followed by an existential meditation on the cast-off, broken wreckage out behind a pottery kiln, a scene of scattered fragmentation that nevertheless maintains its own sense of beauty.

The same image could be applied to the American and global political landscapes as Corn aptly describes them.  From allegorically political poems like “The Wall” to more direct and pointed indictments like “Cascade of Faces,” Corn navigates back and forth between a citizen’s commentary and active resistance.  Yet he always seems to emphasize human beings’ ongoing responsibility to each other, ultimately, even if our contemporary cybernetic world makes those connections ironically more difficult to forge.  Today, our potential unions often throw our loneliness and solitude into stark relief within “the musicosmic comedy of time.”

That solitude takes center stage in “Hunting Season,” probably my favorite poem from the collection.  Several alternating strands of imagery — an approaching thunderstorm, a man out walking his dog, another listening to a classical composition on the radio while watching from a window — escalate to a powerful crescendo that suggests imagination, even imagination into some distant residual memory of a past life in ancient times, may be the only real remedy and redemption.  Just like in the rest of Corn’s work itself, music is the vehicle, of course, that gets this poem’s speaker there:  “Sing, goddess. / Lightheaded, I’m ready to be torn apart.”

The poem also suggests that our increasingly technological existence will only ever carry us back to nature, which is where the book begins, with a gorgeous ode to the wind titled “All It Is.”  “Any terrain you find arises from all / that came before,” Corn surmises, after tracing a breeze that makes its way through treetops and over wetlands.  The same could be said of how this book itself came to be, arising from all of Corn’s books, poems, and experiences that came before.  One more union, then, or rather, many unions across the vast divisions of time and space.  As Corn closes one poem early in the collection, “Since what divides things joins them, too, united.”