New Poetry with Audio!
The Voices of Landscape
Complete Travels by Martin Corless-Smith. Sheffield, UK: West House Books, 2000. 96 pp. $18.95.
In the few years since his first book, Of Piscator, appeared from the University of Georgia Press in 1997, expatriate British poet Martin Corless-Smith has won a good many fans in the United States. His work has been lauded in the influential pages of The Boston Review and Chicago Review, where reviewers consistently describe his work as different, distinct, and layered.
The key to his difference and distinction rests in technique, for the layers comprise quite a familiar subject. In Complete Travels, Corless-Smith again takes on the pastoral, but in ways which connect the polyphony of American composer Charles Ives to the somewhat diffracted attention to line given by poets like Susan Howe and Ann Lauterbach. Such comparisons perhaps label this poet’s work as that of a bleeding-edge lyric poet, and it wouldn’t be far off the mark. But Corless-Smith is also a poet whose work involves many voices, forms, and meters, and as such stretches into a form which is part imitation, part formalist evolution, and part dialectic.
Three long poems dominate this book of four sections: “WORC’S MASS” (or “Worcestershire Mass”), “A June Book,” and “The Garden, A Theophany or ECCOHOME a dialectical lyric.” The titles reiterate the earlier claim of what comprises Corless-Smith’s focus, but speak as well to his central concern in the book: the meeting point of seasons, time, the natural world (both cultivated and not), and religious matters. The pastoral’s history in English verse certainly rubs up against concerns about the divine, and Corless-Smith renews that concern largely through his formal experimentations.
In “Night,” the fifth section of “Worcestershire Mass,” he writes, “My self to Christ / in onanist,” a possible play on the take-of-my-body trope in the Communion service. Perhaps a form of communion, this mention of onanism so close to the sacred is one of the many ways Corless-Smith juxtaposes the elements which compose the Worcestershire Mass. Through juxtapositions and lines which interrupt and jar against one another, he forces a distrust of structure in the reader. Most seemingly causal or predicative sentences confound the reader in that they go nowhere: “I mean no thing or I mean no thing / rain air / you cannot see.” When such play comes in the regulated meter of the many songs and song-like passages in the work, the effect is at once more frustrating and more open to varieties of interpretation and experience.
Corless-Smith is not all dense wordplay and puns, however. The work in Complete Travels is also heavily imagist, mixing sensual lines about the details of landscape with the songs and multiple voices he layers in most of the works. He writes, in “A June Book,” “Heroes and rogues out of the Hedgerows / pour over us—the Prim-rose pale / in grass—aroused by the thin dark green / some of us by mean stems grow.” While the primrose and grass dominate the visual here, the passage represents Corless-Smith well because of the use of music only slightly adhered to in these lines, the aphorism of the fourth line, the archaic sentence inversion (as well as the treatment of the words “Hedgerow” and “Prim-rose”) and the presence of at least two voices at work.
The multiplicity of voices throughout Complete Travels is perhaps Corless-Smith’s most profound change to the pastoral, and the one which energizes stylistic innovation here. In “The Garden: A Theophany or ECCOHOME: A Dialectical Lyric,” the concluding poem of the collection, the poet identifies voices for the self (never a confessional self, as Corless-Smith recently explained in an interview in Jacket), the ech(c)o, God, the garden itself, as well as a fence, a gate, Here and Gone, Queen Elizabeth, Lost and Found, and more. In fact, many more, that are not named, but are suspected.
The poem’s title tells us a great deal about the goings-on within. The multiplicity of voices can be interpreted as the complicated mode of God’s voice, a theophany. On the other hand, with the subtitle of a dialectic, Corless-Smith could be working to expand the notion of a dialectic being simply the simultaneous collective voices of humankind. The play on Ecce homo further undergirds the religious concern of the poem, but its mutation into ECCOHOME complicates the notion of a Christ figure, of wounds and the passion, into a suggestion of the dialectic comprised of godly voices, the voices of people and things, ideas in things. Home, Worcester and its environs, are echoed everywhere in every poem, so that the poet’s grand goal implied in the book’s title, to chronicle a complete travels, forces us to consider the infinity of travel within the echoes of home.
In “Calendar Mundi,” the poet writes, “so sing/ into our dearest house / this moment now,” and the book seems to follow. The majority of poems function independent of time, despite invoking seasons. They refer to time, but their proclamations are timeless. This is especially true in the concluding poem, when Corless-Smith writes, “I have written that which never was / to that which never is / the planting of this seed annihilates this seed.” He works to capture the sense that a garden is not static, that a landscape is not static, and to write about it is to recall Heraclitus’ famous dictum regarding stepping in the same river. Yet, the urge for voice here is undeniable, and so the poet struggles in the work with the writing of something ephemeral, using print language’s sticky permanence to get at the subtlest voices.
In the end, Corless-Smith creates a dense work which is not, at first, inviting. Readers of more traditional poetry will seek progression and cling to his well-wrought images in order to make sense of the work. It takes some patience to realize that such a reading is not going to approach this work on its terms. Corless-Smith has assembled a fluid rendering of many voices, details, and moments, into a system which, due to its very chaos, forces a distrust of structure, reminds us that words are places and events in and of themselves, and that each word has a palimpsest of meaning stretching a ways back, and that those meanings will insinuate themselves into our thinking of the poem, especially when the poet leaves structures in place that require us to consider multiple meanings.
For instance, in “2 Stanzas Concerning the Physical Nature of Language,” he writes, “In slow letters of light / a place and no more is set down.” In the final poem, the garden is merely “Silence the spade engraved,” “Its name is changing Its name is nothing It lives.” He layers statement upon statement about what the garden is, reifying the sense of its mutability: “garden of theophany / garden of divinity / whoever this we/ all must travel.”
The work of this book rewards wallowing, mucking about as one would in a garden. And, like a garden, this book has its weeds, its difficult spots, its surprises, and its work. As said earlier, it is not the most inviting work, but it rewards time spent with it. As to how to live with it, the poet says it most clearly: “If you are to ask me what discretion you should exercise / in this work, my answer is None whatever!”
Gabriel Welsch is a regular reviewer for Slope.