on Martin Corless-Smith
A review of Martin Corless Smith, Nota, Fence Books, New York, and two other volumes.
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.
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.
Now Now Nowl Nowl
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.
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.
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?”
DEFEND: My story is as everyone’s
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.
I would give up all
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.
If you have not suffered from behind the indignities of the fuck
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.
On my brother W[illiam] falling from his horse
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 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.
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.
Jacket 25 — February 2004