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Dan Beachy-Quick

Co-Temporary/ Contemporary

on Martin Corless-Smith

A review of Martin Corless Smith, Nota, Fence Books, New York, and two other volumes.

This piece is 4,000 words or about eight printed pages long.

First — A Meditation on the Word, and a Deepening Thereof

Contemporary. The Latinate meaning of the word is obvious: being together in time; belonging to time. Our contemporaries, quite simply, are those who also write poems in this era — post-modern, post-post-modern, or whatever designation stands highest now in current opinion. The contemporary bookshelf locates time in those books whose copyright is our current year (or nearly so), whose covers can be shelved next to our covers. Our contemporary words are inked on pages that stand next to each other but seldom are open to each other, laid upon each other, allowed to communicate past merely “being in print.” Our contemporaries, for the most part, are our loose company — all dressed in dust-jackets, nowhere to go.
      I am writing an essay on my contemporary, Martin Corless-Smith. I find a distinct pleasure in the undertaking: first, because Corless-Smith’s work is so deeply endeared to me; second, because, among the poets of our generation whose work I am familiar with, he most successfully and necessarily attacks, sings, lauds, destroys, expands what that very word, contemporary, means.
      But, for a moment, let me turn aside. The question of being contemporary is by no means a new question, nor is it simply about time. It is not a question that merely explores between whom words are spoken, but of greater weight, explores how language exists in time, lives (or doesn’t) on the page. Plato’s Phaedrus unfolds erotic inquiry into such nervous rhetoric. To be brief, the young and beautiful Phaedrus has just come from hearing Lysias speak on the virtues of the non-lover (literally: one not possessed by eros). Phaedrus actually has the words written on papyrus hidden in his sleeve. Socrates asks to hear the speech; Phaedrus recites it to him; then, Phaedrus convinces Socrates to speak in return. And he does — twice. First, in agreement with Lysias, and then, to recant the blasphemy of his speech against the living word of eros.
      This erotic philosophizing masks a profound critique of the written word: it must be alive to be loved, and life dwells more in the present tense than on the page. Reading is the activity of adding breath back to words: we re-inspire, we bring them back into time, not as argument inked on page, not as dusty tribute to beauty gone, not as memorial at all, but pulsing, speaking, being. The poet is a lover, and we the beloved. True attention reverses the order exquisitely. It is only through such attention that a living rhetoric, a loving poetic, can thrive. Such is Plato’s point. The body of the page and the body are akin. And such is my preface to entering into Corless-Smith’s work. For he is poet not only worthy of such effort on our part, but is a poet whose work records in writing the struggle of such reading, perceiving, and living.

Martin Corless-Smith is a contemporary English poet who lives the majority of the year in the Western United States. He has written three books of poetry: Of Piscator, Complete Travels, and Nota. To open these pages is to find that “contemporary” is a word deserving of more attention, and more exact attention, than we have yet given it. We hear in the music of Corless-Smith’s language the long lyric history of English verse. He is as adept in the conceits of metaphysical poetry as he is in the tones and tunes of seventeenth-century verse; the strings upon which he strums are held taut by centuries. Name his lyre: Tradition.
      In the seventeenth century, and so for the next one hundred years, a particular English formation changed “contemporary” to “co-temporary.” This subtle change fascinates, and holds meaning for the kind of inquiry we’re trying to make. Suddenly, rather than a word that recognizes a temporal togetherness, we have a word that directly implies time in a more complex manner. We are “co-temporary.” What belongs to time is owned by time, subject to the Fates; what is born in time ends by time’s scythe. Like Plato’s ideal dialectic, like his ideal love, to be co-temporary recognizes that the work of poetry is of the moment in the most radically present way possible. Poetry’s oral tradition keeps this notion from being lost — the magic of a poetry reading is not the force of the author’s personality, but the unique insight gained in hearing mortal words in a mortal mouth. The reading emphasizes this point: Right now I am alive, you are alive, and these words are alive between us. This unity, this being contemporary, is my concern here.

Second — Tradition & the Rhizome

Yet, to be honest not only to Corless-Smith’s work, but to my own hopes, we must place this “being contemporary” into relationship with tradition. These two words which seems so blatantly dichotomous, so irreconcilable with each other, must be seen as the most delicate counterpoint by which the music of this work is heard, the syncopation by which the largest rhythm in the work (larger than a poem or a book alone) is felt. To understand the project, as in an alchemical experiment, we must marry opposites.
      Corless-Smith’s second book, Complete Travels, opens with a long poem, “Worcestershire Mass,” the first section of which is entitled, “Nativity.” To open with such a poem makes a wondrous sense, particularly in regard to Corless-Smith’s project. The word multiplies significantly. First, a song celebrating Jesus’s birth, and one which takes part in a long and often anonymous tradition. Later, a sense of one’s own being born, especially as regards the place in which one is born. And later still, to be born into servitude. The poem opens so:

      Now    Now    Nowl    Nowl
      bec o me ma other
      Nor Nor

      poor poor bobtail
      poor peewit
      the bed prepared
      wi’ ailanthus chorus childs
      a green vase

      I was
      we was
      were was
      into December Year
      road place

Somewhere in the music of the opening stanza, as the language struggles into and out of meaning, I can hear a profound insight: any utterance of “Now” can only stay Now by echolalia made infinite. Indeed, to print the word Now is paradox itself, and the language understands this difficulty, closing off the open vowel of “-ow” with an “-l,” closing off the impossible meaning of the word, and bringing it, as it closes itself off in sound (even though nonsensical), into daily experience. “Now” recalls the exact moment of birth, a zero never reclaimed, from which point life entwines itself with time thereafter, and struggle is not merely existence, but as the language in line 2 indicates, is the struggle of becoming... self ... other... another... as all around us is “becoming,” too. Birth, too, is birth into place, into nest, into “the bed prepared.” By the third stanza an immense work has been accomplished: as “Now” becomes “Nowl,” so “I am” becomes “I was.” More, “I,” that word which we all simultaneously use to express our inmost self, becomes a hazy boundary, exists equally and validly in the “we.” To think that “I am” is more real than “we are” is delusion. That emphasis on the “we were,” when pressed upon, unfolds into Tradition. It does so in a particular place in Corless-Smith’s poetic: December, that month of absolute end and absolute beginning, alpha and omega, and all the symbolic weight, natural and religious, that the word for the month can bear.
      Turning to almost any page in Corless-Smith’s books reifies the above. Syntax, diction, rhyme, the authorial leaning toward song and pastoral, all combine to create a work that is simultaneously “contemporary” and “traditional.” In a lesser poet, I’d recommend wariness. There can be a hollow cleverness in appropriating a previous century’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, a collaging rather than a disclosing, a proof of Ph.D. diploma rather than, as Emerson puts it, the beautiful resting on the shoulders of necessity. But in Corless-Smith’s work, this confusion of time present and time past, this inviting of other voices into his voice, his pages multiplying and implying other pages than his own, is necessary, is beautiful. That beauty understands Tradition in the most radical terms.
      T.S. Eliot, in his in/ famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” provides us an unexpected ground. I quote at length:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity [ital. mine].

Eliot’s point, fully seen, resonates through literary theory today. Whatever Tradition is to the poet, it is not, if the poet is alive to the life of the work that precedes him, mere archeology, mere bones. Indeed, Tradition is a conglomerate life that against the pin-point of “I,” or even “I am a poet,” overwhelms as a candle held up to the sun is a small light swallowed by light’s larger source. To write a poem adds to Tradition — exerts a pressure on what Tradition was before this addition. None is static — the whole breathes. To understand how to open one’s self to the living pressure of Tradition is not only the most fundamental activity of Keats’s “negative capability,” but is the moral underpinning of the poet. It is upon us to read and write in such a way that those before us are alive in us — and us within them. This is no defense of formalism — how easy, then, it would be, if to write a sonnet sequence qualified one instantly as a writer. Rather, the work of Tradition is the most radically experimental we have before us to do.
      Guattari and Deleuze offer a helpful guide in the enterprise, and further emphasize the radical (read: of or pertaining to roots), for their notion of the rhizome, to crib from their own lexicon, is a map laid upon Eliot’s “tradition.” The largest life form on the planet is a fungus that stretches across most of the Midwest of North America. It is not solid like a mushroom or toadstool, but is a filigree of spider-silk fineness. There is no center to it, no head, no heart. There is no “canon” without which the whole cannot live. Tradition, to the contemporary poet, might be described by the same terms.
      What grace it is when the world provides the metaphor that clarifies the nature of the world. I suppose it cannot be different. Tradition, like the rhizome, is singular and multiple simultaneously. To tear a section out causes no harm to the whole — it simply offers a new shoot, a new plane, a plateau, upon which the next rhizome grows. It is but nostalgia to say literature would die if Milton were removed — except for the person who has read Milton so deeply that Milton lives in her own voice. And that joining, when a reading of such depth has occurred, is also given image by Guattari and Deleuze: the orchid and the wasp. We enter into that which mimics us, which we mimic, and that action, that taking of voice and style, that undoing self to become self and other at once, is Tradition’s truest work.
      It is also Martin Corless-Smith’s work. As idiosyncratic as his voice is among contemporary letters, it is also Anonymous. The Anonymous is Tradition’s highest ideal. Anonymous speaks with every tongue.

Third — Self-Noting

Anonymous is the singular figure for Everyone. Everyone is not eloquent — at least not in the typical understanding of the word. Everyone’s tongue is not oiled if it speaks true, is not a flatterer’s tongue. Far from it. Everyone speaks from every angle at once — self-vaunting and self-destroying, angel and devil, child and adult, and every age and angle there between. Everyone does not speak in straight lines. When Everyone is eloquent, it is as Emily Dickinson describes, “when the Heart has not a Voice to spare.” And where there is no voice to spare, whose voice speaks? “Mine?” “I?” “This me that is myself?”
      Martin Corless-Smith’s new book, Nota, takes upon itself this difficult articulation, and it is in examining this book in what detail I can muster, with which I will bring my considerations to a close.
      Toward the latter half of Nota (explanation for such vague location will soon arrive) is a transcript from a metaphysical court, titled “Upon Accusation.” In it, “ACCUSE” delivers this imperative: “Then Speak.” The answer enlightens the project of the book, of the poetic:

      DEFEND:      My story is as everyone’s
                        though for that seldom heard
                        Some deeds run close to several aims
                        not one can singly be the cause
                        I have an instinct for complexity
                        It is not dishonesty.

That the trial here does not occur between an Accuser and Defender, between a Prosecution and a Defense, locates the space of the trial within a single consciousness. Here is an argument between two self-imperatives: Accuse and Defend. The deep interiority of the location of this trial speaks to the heart of Nota’s concerns — the Self that contains in it not only the space for diametrically opposed positions (self-trial, self-defense, self-sentencing, self-judging, self-exonerating... ), but, in my mind, the bass-note eloquence by which the music of the whole book must be heard.
      Corless-Smith brings to our attention the awful crucible of the Self. Yes, this story that is mine is as everyone’s — and yet, that story, that being a me, being an I, being a self in the world is a complexity that can only be lived as a me, an I, a self. To deal with that complexity complexly, as Defend says, is not dishonesty. That “instinct for complexity” may be the only honesty we can trust.
      Nota betrays definitions. First, the easy sense of self already, albeit briefly, touched upon. Second, within the construction of the book itself. The book is without a table of contents — it itself is its contents. The book, for the most part, is without page numbers. The book is filled with quotes and passages taken from other authors, some of which are fictional. These two realms, self and book, are anything but unrelated. In order to understand, or grope toward what understanding we can validly achieve, we must revoke the impulse to explain and define that which the book itself revokes. Instead, following Keats (in Nota referenced by referencing The New York Times Book Review quoting Keats’s famous letter — a labyrinth of reference) we must become capable “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact.” That the reference is embedded in reference reinforces the difficulty that both the self in Nota and the book Nota present. One is born into a language before one speaks it. A book is made of language that we assume derives from a self governing that language, when a closer attention understands that Authorship is an authority riddled with doubt. The language is profoundly influenced — composed not only in/ of the personality through which the words filter, but of that personality as it itself was formed by language: books, anecdotes, fictions, lives of those around us, the pressure of our own names, the hum of language that is ever-present, unavoidable, ubiquitous as air. Corless-Smith, in one of the epigrams that opens the book, names this difficulty as precisely as it can be named. In the words of David Jones, “one is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which oneself is made.”
      What are we made of? Body, mind, soul. Words. Other’s words. A lifetime of experience, and the continual re-echoing through the self of all the selves we have been: child, adult, lover, betrayer, student, zealot, iconoclast... Also, the world. The material of the world. The physical fact in which we dwell, live, breathe. Ancient Greek drama had in it the chorus. The public would move as one body, speak as one voice, and give us (the audience) sight into what we could not otherwise know. Corless-Smith, too, speaks in chorus. Rather, chorus speaks in him — not in unison, but simultaneously, and in unnumbered pages, records that complex, multi-selved, speaking. For example:

      I would give up all
      for  me except myself
      I am
      I would give up


      confound solutions with obscurities


      You ask you may you survive this sight
      you won’t survive yourself...


      I find when I am done and spent eternity
      my heart is youngest in its blood
      My eats fucks shits what is beyond this state
      what fits this body now is what I wear today

The self is irrevocable — even suicide confirms it. The self is a death sentence. The self is ensouled, is eternal. The self is not self-sufficient. We eat; we digest. We are sieves. We are penetrated and penetrate.
      Nota not only attends to these difficulties — a feat in itself — but enacts them. As truly as we eat and shit, we read and write. A book, in part, is erotic, because it must be opened to be read, to be enjoyed, used, experienced... fallen in love with, or abused.

      If you have not suffered from behind the indignities of the fuck
      thrust from behind, the full throat
      If you have never another inside
      or the walk from that or walk to that

No boundary holds. No, nor dignity. The book is a self, and by the wisdom of verse (etymologically: turn), the self is also a book. We must be broken to be read. Is there now any wonder why it can be so mercifully difficult to read a poet of genuine vision? The pages unnumbered because a self is not a linear subject. Quotes from authors fictional and actual, because a self is filled with other’s words, misplaced, remembered oddly, made up — and none of this ventriloquism equals a lie. It is true not because we are true, but because we exist.
      Tell me: Who is the Reliable Narrator?

                              §          §          §

Nota contains a book within a book, “A Selection from the Works of Thomas Swan.” This book is 12 pages long, each page numbered. The “Selection” is composed of poems in manuscript, and notes from Swan’s “Notebooks.” Inside the order of the pages is a more subtle order.

       On my brother W[illiam] falling from his horse

      Was not the horses [sic] start
      what made it start was not
      A shadow or a hare afoot
      as sense of something sudden near the heart

      You fell on your right side
      to break your arm and dignity
      a fellow helped you catch your ride
      who you did not know or see

      before you fell. And afterwards
      a different beast your horse
      and afterwards yourself somehow
      the earth had entered through your breast

      This land of your no longer yours
      but you its curious gift
      each leaf a painted diadem
      an atom in a leaf

This verse turns on wisdom. No shadow or hare made the horse rear, but a sense of something near to the heart. The rider — Authority, Author — is thrown. Being thrown lets the earth enter into your breast. The world enters the self by the self being broken. And then the world is not your gift, but you a gift to the world. What is sudden here is how quickly the Reader becomes the Read, how instantaneous the subject becomes the object. The world’s grammar, and so ours, is not easy, is not simply Subject-Verb-Object — the terms reverse, and we become subjected to another’s gaze.
      The nature of the material of this book within a book is worth noting, especially given the metaphysics of self with which Nota deals. Corless-Smith gives us writings that imply a definite self: poems begun but not finished, lines excised and crossed out, grammatical mistakes left intact, and the wondrous visions of nature recorded in the notebooks on color. So personal does Thomas Swan’s work feel, I can almost imagine the type in handwriting, and the page in my hand as I hold ages a century.
      This definite self feels like an oasis inside the tortured examination of self that always undoes self in the rest of Nota. The page numbers themselves create a sense of order the rest of Nota refuses. Thomas Swan feels like a solution, until one realizes that Thomas Swan does not exist. He is a fiction.
      Corless-Smith does not write this book within a book as a trick. His point, I think, is quiet and profound. What orders the world for us can be both true and false at once. Our own definite self, the sense of being able to say “I am,” or “I am a _______,” is both true and false at once. Thomas Swan pays attention to the world outside him with revelatory detail; Corless-Smith pays as precise attention to the world within the self. Hovering somewhere between the two approaches is the genuine work of poetry: of helping us to see that the self and the world are interpenetrating, inter-accusing and inter-defending, are neither the definition of the other, but more miraculously, help each other to defy all definition.
      That work, incredibly, is given in Nota — given, actually, by William Swan, the brother who fell off the horse, and who, for all I know, did exist.

The medium of Prophecy is rightfully words. Meanings that unfold in time... [a] cluster of signification out of which we must read our meaning. Either the cluster remains meaningless to us... or we accept our prophecy... as the words are our prediction. Let us not muddy such waters with fantasies of embracing that which has yet to happen... prophecy names the next chapter, the roots of which might naturally enough be seen in our current, temporary fixations... We ask of Prophecy a resolution which is only this; an opportunity to read.
                                                     — William Swan, The Apocrypha of Being

Words unfold in time but are not time themselves. Like us who utter them, they have something eternal about them, something never touched by time’s mortal fetters, something illuminating as much as ink is darkening.
      I don’t know what it means to be contemporary, to be co-temporary. We exist together in time, but we do something in which time makes little sense. We can read Keats in the New York Times. Milton dictates not only to his daughters, but to us as well. What I hope, and why I turn to the authors I do, why I consider Martin Corless-Smith exemplary and read his pages with such care, is that the Prophecy is this: to be contemporary is to be able to be read. To be able to read. I can think of no better gift to each other than that: The opportunity to read.

Jacket 25 — February 2004  Contents page
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