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Autobiographies

Alfred Corn

Viking, $19.00

by Robyn Selman

Among the many memoirs published by poets over the past few years -- the late James Merrill's A Different Person, Kathleen Norris' Dakota, Luis Rodriguez' Always Running, Melissa Green's Color is the Suffering of Light -- to name just a few, is Alfred Corn's 75-page memoir in verse titled "1992," in his collection Autobiographies. While it is exciting to see poets writing memoirs in prose (prose, it should be said, that is often saturated with poetry: James Merrill's paragraphs can't help bursting into pentameter; Melissa Green's sentences brim with the poet's lust for imagery), it is especially good to see a poet writing a memoir in poetry. It is true we have a bounty of autobiographical poetry, sometimes called confessional, sometimes called narrative; rarely, though, is memoir or autobiography, as subject, embraced by the poem. What Alfred Corn has done, and it is akin to what Janet Malcolm accomplished in her biographical composition on Sylvia Plath, is to make the process -- in his case of autobiography -- a subtext in the poem itself.

Considering this, it is at least mildly ironic that Corn, who is uncomfortable with personal disclosure, has chosen to write autobiography:

Even now I dread these unmasked statements, their therapeutic slant and trust in fact, failure to scan or use productive rhyme or metaphor. Yet can't deny the will to set out in search of what it is that shaped one witness's imagining of time (five late-20th century decades sifting numbered moments through the infinity sign's tipped hourglass) and make available the content of the world that is my case -- composed in part by all those I have met, thinking through the story of who we are.
As the stanzas progress it becomes clear that Corn can tell his story only if he is permitted some degree of secrecy, if he can dart behind the proverbial potted palm. Corn is miscast in the role of autobiographer, and his uneasiness is part of the poem's charm. Given his disposition, and perhaps given the fact that he is a homosexual telling the story of his love life, it seems that Corn has been prompted to develop a poetic form that will suit him. "1992" is an epic, and with its loose ideas of chronology and its heroic/narcissistic preoccupations, the epic is the perfect structure for this writer's memory. Yet the poem is not an epic we would immediately recognize. "1992" is a mural of monologues in twenty sections. Ten of the poems-within-the-poem are in the autobiographical voice of the poet taking us through his childhood and adult loves. In parenthetical sections following each of these autobiographical stanzas is a monologue spoken by an outsider -- imaginary figures like Bob, the truck driver, or Anna, the post office worker. These people never interact with Corn, his family or friends. Instead, they are more like weather in another town, or background music; they remind us of the circumstances and tenor of particular times: 1942-1992, or thereabouts; the years correspond to Corn's life.

The poem is primarily the story of Corn's heart. Failures predominate: the early death of his mother, a bad early marriage of his own, an implied regret over childlessness, and a number of relationships with men, which by the time of the writing of the poem are all over.

As intimate as the details are, the reader never strays from the fundamental character of the source. Corn's basic emotional discomfort shows up in the design of the personal sections, all of which take place in an impersonal setting: on the road. Corn hits the road as an explorer looking out more than in, a Kerouac with significant other, or ghost of significant other, beside him.

I'm with Walter now, he's driving, we've left D.C. behind as we make our way northwest through Maryland to Harper's Ferry -- our first road trip together, one of the scarce occasions when we have time to go into our origins. In shards and fragments, he gives the story of his ancestors, gentleman farmers in Hungary, the War, the betrayals, the grandfather who didn't survive Auschwitz; the grandmother who did, her life as a cook in Catskill resort hotels, lately retired at a group home in Detroit. His own mother's death. Silence and a hand placed lightly on his are as much as I can do. Trees rushing by, a sinking sun caught in them. Wordlessness, more than anything else, was how we communicated.
For all sharp details of personality, Corn never takes his eyes off the scenery. The country zips past like so many billboards, ambivalent, and ubiquitous. America, too, is a character here; it is Corn's most revealing, idiosyncratic creation. What Corn relates of his landscape tells us just as much, in terms of memoir, as the sections about relationships. What's striking is the tension between Corn's inner experience and the public reality of the time. For instance, left to the evidence of the autobiographical sections only, Corn's experience of the Vietnam war would seem minimal. At 22, in 1965, Corn writes he was "unaware/I should concern myself with public policies..."
How often do twenty-two years have the knack of knowing when they're afraid? To myself I seemed all adult confidence, thrilled at being sprung from the boredom of the southern suburbs. An abandoned Wall Street Journal picked up and scanned hungrily yielded facts, figures, but nothing comprehensible, its print, viewed through ever heavier eyelids, scattering like army ants into oblivion...
The communal experiences of the country: Vietnam; race riots; half-hearted jabs at desegregation; sexism; McCarthyism -- all are incarnated in the Masteresque-characters Corn presents. Mike, the Vietnam vet whom we meet early on may be read as a projected, disassociated part of the author. (Whether or not a reader subscribes to that sort of psychological thinking, the dramatic personae are certainly meant to be read as parts of Corn's whole life experience.) Given the number of these intermediaries (one thinks of James Merrill's Ouija visitors), it is not surprising that some are more moving and believable than others. Mike is not an example of Corn's finer dramatic abilities. He has detail enough, yet somehow comes across more archaeological specimen than man:
Mike hadn't been himself in a couple of years now, he missed his buddies back in The Dalles. A lot of Vietnam vets are moody, it said in Family Circle.
But more unexpected choices follow, and these are some of Corn's best performances. One of the strongest is Martha Diodati of Chestnut Street, an aging aristocrat:
When we were little, we took afternoon naps, but there's no point in that now. Hmm. Uncle Abner brought pictures of dinosaurs -- the one with all the teeth, so terrifying. He tried to be comforting, but it seemed... wrong, very wrong. That very sofa, heavens, keep forgetting, and then remembering. Well, he's gone. Never tattled. We don't do that. It would be. Like. Smashing the. Window to bits.
The alternation of autobiographic and personae never varies throughout the poem, except for the last four pages which serve as a coda to the intermediary lines we've witnessed. Like a biographical afterword that flashes on a movie screen, these short prose paragraphs attempt to give closure to the characters we've met so briefly.
Mike Kovich has been managing a hardware store in The Dalles for ten years. He has remarried and has one son. His daughter Amber visited in August and has gone back to her husband in Wichita. Connie married a highway contractor years ago and is doing volunteer work for elementary school literacy in Salt Lake. Mike wonders whether Martha Diodati died six years ago, and her house on Chestnut Street has been bought by a California couple who own a food-importing concern, involving trips back and forth between
These epigraphs bring the character into the present, giving them mobility and growth, and then simply trail off; leading simultaneously nowhere and to death. The poem ends with Corn looking faithfully and sober-eyed at a new lover: "The day begins with you, ends with you./ Your thirty-fifth birthday falls in mid-October, and what we're going to do" In the final line, indeterminate, ongoing, Corn reminds us again that memoir, in whatever form we currently find it, is living history from the most privileged insider, the cruelest editor, the most unreliable, and only narrator.

Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review



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