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Present
Alfred Corn
Counterpoint, $22

by Thomas M. Disch

Poems quite often are titled with a single word but poetry collections rarely. Only poets of unusual self-confidence are willing to risk wagering a book's success with titles so diffident or unemphatic as Faith, Curve, Keeping, Eurekas (all by Albert Goldbarth) or Uplands, Briefings, Diversifications (A. R. Ammons). Even Ammons will hedge his bet by appending a tricky subtitle (Sphere: The Form of a Motion, which morphs at a glance into Fear: The Form of Emotion) or offering an exotic bloom like Ommateum, decipherable only with the help of a Greek lexicon.

The problem with one-word titles is that they tend to point in a single direction, or none at all, like a gallery full of paintings titled "Landscape" or "Untitled." Great if you're de Kooning, but for those of a lesser degree of fame who must use a title to excite the attention of a prospective reader, such diffidence can be counter-productive. Any reader may fairly respond to a title like Poems or Silences with a complementary inattention.

That said, how does Present by Alfred Corn grab you? You must imagine it inscribed above a postcard-sized reproduction of Goya's full-length portrait of Don Manuel, a little boy in a silver-sashed red-suit, holding a magpie by a piece of string as three cats look on. In that context, the primary meaning of the title is neither "the" present of this moment or this century, nor the "present" twice referred to in the book in which the poet offers himself or his poem as a present to his reader/lover. Rather, it is the shyly assertive "Present!" of a child whose name has been read off during roll-call. It is (like much of Corn's best poetry) an ironic persona insisting, with emphatic sweetness, "I'm here. Read me."

Precisely such a child, the young Alfred Corn of 1950s rural Georgia, features as the hero of the book's centerpiece, a nine-page prose memoir of the poet's first encounters with high art, and with Goya's painting in particular. "I wanted to be that little boy," Corn confesses. With a bit of interpretive spin, his wish can be said to have come true, for he has become the most dandified of the New Formalist contingent, a poetical poet with High Church sensibilities after the fashion of Amy Clampitt, and the gay poet most like to succeed the late James Merrill as Master of Ceremonies for the age of curfews and decorum that AIDS has brought about. To have achieved the same tone of above-it-all, serene estheticism without the security to be derived from inherited millions is no little accomplishment, and one that has been the special province of gay writers throughout the 20th century--Baron Corvo, Jean Genet, Edmund White, all self-appointed peers to their own one-man House of Lords, all grown from such seedlings as that Goya portrait.

Like other royal personages, Corn is most engaging when he affects to be plain folks. We may know we are being condescended to but are grateful nonetheless. "Stepson Elegy," the longish poem that acts to introduce his prose memoir, is a model of public mourning. He lets us glimpse the woman who raised the little changeling who wanted to be Don Miguel, shows his sincere if estranged gratitude, and, in the very nicest way, allows her a place beside him in fancy's heaven. (In the essay on the Goya portrait he picks away at the picture's iconographic subtexts until he has shown the little Don Miguel to be a stand-in for the Redeemer, destined for crucifixion.)


. . . Our next-to-last
Heart-to-heart you said you couldn't taste anything,
A glass of Sprite was just the same as soda water . . .
Which reminded me how, my first year away at school,
You installed a pop machine in the shop, kept it
Stocked and working, then sent me weekly proceeds,
Handily spent on snacks or movies till time
To get back to the Aeneid or some such epic.
The trivia, the nickel-and-dime of memory
Is hardest to accept, burning a hole
In decorum's pocket . . . but if I try instead
To imagine you in a hospital bed, sipping your Sprite--
Your soda water--it's not a turban but a crown
You're wearing (see, I too have lost all sense of taste)
And not of white roses but of plaited thorns.

The longest poem in Present and Corn's most bravura technical performance is "Musical Sacrifice," a diptych of portraits in poetry and prose, alternating between J. S. Bach and Franz Kafka, who represent the Poet in his two most saintly aspects: the seer for whom Heaven and High Art are a continuum, and the stigmatic so well-tuned to his Zeitgeist that every thought is a thorn.

There are prose interpolations apprising us, in the tone of Cliff's Notes, of the nature of Bach's and Kafka's genius and glossing those elements of their lives that the poem makes reference to. Three or four of eleven sections in verse succeed at the pitch of high ambitions Corn sets for them, and the best of them, "A Sacrifice for Sans Souci," is a pantoum paying homage to Bach's Musical Offering. The rules of the pantoum (than which there is no harder form to bring off without recourse to splints and bandages) are simple: in each successive four-line stanzas the second and fourth (rhyming) lines of the preceding stanza must be repeated as the first and third lines, ideally warped into a new grammatical meaning, the whole thing knotting into a circle at the end. Here is a large slice of that whole:


The agile keyboard virtuoso tears
Though a fugue no middling fumbler could have played.

Remembrance flies to youth as to a glade
Where will delights in lively conversation
Though a fugue. No middling fumbler could have played
Like that, high ardor at one with calculation.

Where will delights in lively conversation
Take a young man? To marriage, for a start.
Like that high ardor at once with calculation
We have called "music," courtship won her heart.

Note how the subject and verb of the fourth line morph into the verb and subject in line 7; how in lines 6 and 9 "like that" connects to what precedes and to what follows with a double syntactical difference. Further note how, in praising Bach's "high ardor at one with calculation" the poet is advancing his own aesthetic claims in a way calculated to persuade those readers of poetry accustomed to recognizing the merits of a Bach fugue but not its equivalent in contemporary verse. "No middling fumbler could have played like that" is a legitimate brag.

There are not many other poems in the collection as densely compacted as "A Sacrifice for Sans Souci," nor need there be for claim-staking purposes. That component of genius emblematized by Kafka in the longer poem is strained by comparison; Corn is not an ace at angst, though there are single poems in Present that have the conceptual, one-off flair of a Kafka tale--a poem such as "The Bonfire," a series of decorative, apocalyptic vignettes depicting the fiery deaths of some dozen citizens of the global village: a junkie in Belfast, a Death Row prisoner in Sing Sing, a London fruit-seller, two denizens of the Parisian haute monde, all fuel for a miraculous conflagration.

Corn, like most other poets of a civilized tendency--Turner Cassity or Marilyn Hacker--can also be relied on to give vivid reports of his travels (in Present he sends home memorable postcards from the Holy Land and Portugal) and to critique other works of art. He has a special knack for evoking the headlong body language of an exciting ballet, as in this passage from "Mikhail Baryshnikov Dances Three Preludes for Mark Morris":


Spats whizz forward and seesaw back on
the jump, his head popped to one side
as up go the gloves, wrists inward,
into high flamenco attitude, then wide,
while he rickracks stage front in a blue

skip, and there must, there must be a rope.
Never has gravity been so
laissez-faire when his left leg flings
back and around, upheld by a taut
glute, and flips him aloft in the turn.

The pedant in me can't keep from asking whether it should not be "as when" in the antepenultimate line, but otherwise Corn's Labanotation is on a par with that of dance critic Arlene Croce. It is a rare gift.

Happily Corn's poetry is more than the sum of his rare gifts, for underpinning these is a poetic persona as distinctively affable (though less raffish) as those of Merrill or James Schuyler or (when he's in flaneur mode) Frank O'Hara. It is not the regnant mode among poetry academics at the moment, but since at least the time of Byron and Wordsworth it has been the kind of poetry that most commends itself to readers of poetry. When Corn writes in this affable vein, as he does in the gracefully diffident valentine card-cum-meditation, "A Marriage in the Nineties," close to the end of the book, he makes you wish that he were defining the era. It would be nice, in twenty or thirty years, to be able to look back and think, "Yes, that's what the nineties were like. That was their tone exactly."


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Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review



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