Sydney Lea Introduces Robert Cording
These poems are from Robert Cording's lately completed third manuscript, Heavy Grace, whose oxymoronic title seems apt for all this author's work to date. On one hand Cording feels the weight of earth and of earthly relations. He is nothing if not a family man, and his last book's title, eloquently, was What Binds Us to This World. He is at home with the natural universe -- an avid birder, his first collection was Life-Lists.
On the other hand, there is the undeniable centrality of grace to his poems, by which of course I mean pure writerly grace among other things: Cording's measured verse moves with ease, showing none of the over-management and willfulness evident in much so-called New Formalism; equally unstrained are his free verse lines, or more accurately -- given his manner of composition -- his sentences, which everywhere satisfy Pound's demand that poetry be at least as well written as good prose.
Even in so highly select a representation of his work as this, however, one infers Cording's craving for another sort of grace. His work offers a subtle but unmistakable critique of Romanticism -- or at least of the attenuated romanticism we've known in American poetry for 30 plus years. To that extent, it may be part of a broad contemporary reaction, in which unlikely factions ("new narrative" poets, postmodern poets, even language poets) vaguely collaborate. Yet Cording's part in this general trend, supposing there to be one, involves religious faith, or at the very least a desecularization of poetic vision.
He is surely, though, no evangelical nor any other sort of frothy Big Bang enthusiast. The epigraph to his new collection, from Psalm 130, is telling: "I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait,/and in his word I do hope." The author's Christianity is both hopeful and skeptical, so that his preparations for spiritual grace are daily efforts, and sometimes even banal ones.
At all events, for this author the readying of the self demands a setting aside of the self, an emptying of the egoist vessel. In an epoch whose authors are sentimental about their unbelief and about the primacy of their often ungoverned selves, such an essentially humble pursuit of spiritual ends has not yet won Cording the reputation he merits. But for all that his poetry is perhaps prophetic. We may hope so, for what could we need more than a canny guide to being in the "heavy" world -- with its beasts and work and birds and spouses and pain and children and joy -- while remaining open to all that is graceful within its quotidian bounds...and elsewhere?
The fields were dark already, the night
smells of the river breathing steadily
over them. There was a moth-light breeze
in the poplars, in the dry summer grasses,
and a mass of starlings crossed as one
body towards a stand of pines, vanishing
in the thick-limbed dark. Disembodied,
their voices rose up, mixed with the drone
of crickets. Then quickly, without warning,
an owl glided into a night so absolute
I could hardly breathe. I stood among stars,
cold and still, and mountains that weighed
a silence I knew would be my end
and of which everything I loved was made.
The lilacs soaked up rain and light and let go
All of their lavish odors in one sweet surge.
The poppies aimed at the sun and opened and
Their globes of hinged petals, windstruck, burst
Into flames, and raced like a grass fire across
The new greens. And all in the time it took
(as storm clouds passed over at their own grave pace)
For the day to darken and come to light again.
And all the while, finches and jays, grosbeaks
And juncos, a pair of cardinals and a nuthatch came
And went at the feeder, in and out of my son's sight
Who pointed and waved and stamped with joy and speech:
Bird, bird. Bye bird. Bird. In my son's eyes,
I saw a world where loss was only a clearing away
For what comes next: a succession of cardinal reds,
Brief goldfinch yellows, greens and blues sharpened
By the windy light. A world always there, always
Going away. My fearful life half over, I saw my son
Find words inside his mouth for the sudden world
He lived in, a world senseless with beauty, undeniable.
A visitor, all day I read the Navajo's recent history
in the raw slash opened in the earth for coal,
in the high tension wires that carried off electricity
to warm California pools, in the phalanx of smoke
left behind that went on subduing the will
of the sun. Closer, hogans and coffin-like
trailers. The faces: sealed, inward, fisted
tight, as if the self's fury to live expressed
itself by clenching. That night a train's extended
moan as it crawled east to west through Gallup's
"Heart of Indian Country." One car repeated another,
like the streets of motels, bars, and pawn shops.
It was midnight, Washington time, the Gulf War just ended,
part of a history of things gone wrong, over and over.
The Mouth of Grief
I remember how we stood there, straining
with binoculars, the church in Arezzo poorly lit,
The Legend half-worn away.
All afternoon we studied how Francesca added one scene
to the one before until it told the story
of the True Cross,
each fresco a signpost pointing the way
of a past made and corrected and made again,
without end, as though we were always bound
to discover our innocence was already marked.
We kept coming back to an old Adam
staggering under the weight of his being.
Even after he has been laid down,
his children cannot understand their father's implacable gaze.
Unimaginable. Unimaginable, that first death
until Seth, gone for oil of mercy, returns with a branch
from the Tree of Knowledge.
Until that one child finds her mouth opened
against the silence of a face turned away.
From her mouth,
those first wild involuntary words must enter
the stricken landscape
no one has ever finished restoring,
their deep syntax of grief
something we must have understood even before
we could speak it.
This bear, its humped shoulders and backbone
Scribed like the calm rise and fold
Of oldest mountains, its small upswept
Ears and nose tracking some unseen presence,
Was once half-seen in a common local stone,
Then freed, carved to the fetish I hold
And turn back and forth, darken with sweat
And hand-oil, with half-belief's persistence.
If properly fed, the Zûni believe its power
Cannot fail. To them, it's complete devotion
That gives my bear its strength. Half of me
Counsels against such irrational fervor.
But my ravenous bear waits, a relentless vision
Of heavy grace lumbering where I used to be.
"Zûni Fetish" first appeared in Tar River Poetry and
"A History" first appeared in Southwest Review.