by Mary Cornish
Oberlin College Press, 2007
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Mary Cornish's moving, meticulously composed
joins Tess Gallagher's
Moon Crossing Bridge
and Carol Muske's
as a volume occasioned by spousal loss that becomes noteworthy as it deepens into meditations on the role of poetry, not just in the management of grief and the rites of mourningimportant as these things may be--but as examinations of poetry's debt to the occasions of our mortality. For method, her style looks to Louise Glück's
which set, for a generation, the gnomic tenor through which classical myths reveal their continued ability to mediate between what we might roughly call the Here and the Beyond.
Having made note of these immediate predecessors, I should add that, as a genre, the modern elegy holds its own against other genres in making sufficiently capable poetic signifiers. These days, finding "what will suffice" is likely to fall to the elegist before any other poet can brandish her alternative genre. This is for several reasons, not the least of which is our species' 24/7 awareness of biological death and its effectsmass discontinuities and what we once called "alienation," the sense of exileespecially self-exileand the creepy prevalence of death as a cultural commodity. At the same time, the ability of the elegist to address loss and to convene the rites of mourning are, and have been, the object of a war of attrition since the dawn of modernity because the consolations traditionally assigned to elegyreligious, emotional, psychological, politicalhave been gradually eroded, demoted, demystified, and not replaced, stripping the poet down to her final elements, but leaving Lycidas and Adonais standing in their moccasins.
With the franchise for mourning extended to all whom we loved in life and thought, the occasions for elegy have never, it seems, been greater; yet the means have never fallen so much under suspicion. But while giving personal loss its existential due, Cornish is led to consider the "gifts" of death, and whether these giftsin fact, the poems under reviewconstitute what we think of as late modern consolation. This is one of the key questions that the book raises. Traditionally, the elegy made solemn gestures to things outside itself as having the power to console, redirect, and motivate; now the question is whether something like what consolation once was can be found "inside"; that is, whether there is anything extra-linguistic at all about the elegy anymore; or whether it isn't all just learning to accept the artificethe poem, the symbolas "sufficient." She is aware that the power to re-member has something of a palliative quality that is eventually followed by forgetting anyway. The trick, you night say, is to naturalize forgetting, but entertaining that thought makes you wonder if forgetting, the putting-away of representation, isn't somehow also chock-a-block with that very death that gave rise to all these artistic escape hatches and linguistic heavens in the first place.
A number of poems take on the subject of building artifice directly, in terms of performance ("The Art of Misdirection," "Performance," "Hand Shadows," "Saigon Water-Puppet Show"); other poems are themselves "performances," that is, poems in which the subject provides an evolving artifice, commenting on itself as it does so ("Fifteen Moving Parts"). The preponderance of work in
Red Studio has artistic transformation as its project, for grieving itself is well handled by art and by classicismincluding classical mythsthat manage to put grief by. This the classical can do by virtue of its long prestige, if only to hide grief behind the stiff upper lip of a mask. Desires and longings in Cornish's poems are often tied to ancient antecedents and forms:
As if they were strangers arriving at the gates of a city,
an arch defined the proscenium.
The traveler was lost, or he was not
omnia mutantur: all is transfigured.
It may be one of the great paradoxes of expression that the private, personal, and intimate can scarcely make their way into intelligibility without first being constrained by form and then morphing into symbol. The public then stands for the private and personal that it relinquishes. In this way, the poem tracks, indeed often reenacts, the career of its subject. Such is
a fortiori the case with elegy. But the elegy adds a special supplement in that this progress makes an arc bridging the contingent world, from which the subject of the elegy has been subtracted, with that immutable world Yeats found so attractive, though it often threatened to sink under the tinkling weight of its own irrelevance. Cornish subscribes to this school of alchemical transfiguration and continually gives us the bridge as image of the short voyage into the art, a bridge that poets of another age would have built to wed earth with heaven, but for her purposes is made to change memory into a more stable, often metonymic or symbolic, image:
There's an arc
between the living and the dead, as when
a crow rises from a field, sun on its back.
Below, the shadow moving.
I'm crossing a bridge
to the Lantern Festival
in a poem by Li Ch'ing-chao.
My lips are red,
my jacket gold-threaded,
my hair-ornament winged.
All night, paired dragonflies dart
between the large-leafed mulberries.
Grief cannot find me.
("Carnal Prayer Mat")
Finding an appropriate image waiting on the other side of the arc has another benefit, for one of the problems of the elegy is the burden of significance that attaches to grief. The poem from which the preceding excerpt was taken addresses this problem and in so doing redefines the elegy's mission by denying consolation's claim on our attention. Consolation, so to say, is what keeps us from being natural in a world of still-natural things, and in Cornish's
poems, while there is push to build
artifice, there is a counter-pull to
naturalize. The push-pull feature situates
many of her poems in a seeming paradox,
though the final feeling is that the paradox
itself is no matter (though it is a form).
For the poet building artifice, even the
most common rituals are a part of acquired (or received) knowledge. They may imitate natural "rituals" (for example, seasonal ones), but they are fundamentally different:
Slowly Latin names begin to lift
off tree limbs, off the backs of bugs.
Even my own three names rise up
and disappear over a hill.
About this world of bridges and arcs there
are also other recognizable staples from the
repertoire of transformation: protected gardens ("how little it takes to suggest a garden:/a
chestnut leaf on a wooden bench") vines and bindings that reveal hidden links ("You tied back vines, I held the twine between us. It was good"), and aviaries of birds, each capable of flashing into symbolism. One of the fullest statements of the kind of transfigurations you are likely to find in these poems occurs in "Lotus Feet," a poem in which the speaker binds her feet to transform them into something incapable of maintaining allegiance with the earth on which they would otherwise travel, so that she may join her lover in spirit:
Although a powdered fragrance fills my shoes,
the odor of decay seeps through.
In this way, I join him.
In this way, I am steadfast.
If I could lift my feet around his waist
again, two swallows, flying.
Red Studio into the requisite three sections, the first two of which comprise series of linked elegiac lyrics, with a last section of more occasionalthough still, at the DNA-levelelegiac poems. These sections do not, as students are fond of saying, "flow." They're not meant to. Rather, they have the cumulative, deliberately "oriental" feeling of something that could be judged frozen in place if looked at from a certain vantage, where
tableaux vivants and nature mortes are the rule, but people and what they do as social creaturesi.e. the whoosh of plotnot so much. Here language itself is in suspension: the passive voice, the contradictions gelled in parentheses, deny progress, once the symbol is set. There is also a certain sense of repetition here, not unwelcome, a triptych, rather than a concession to narrative's drive, which is to say fiction's influence.
I should say that the opening poems, though seeking refuge, as it were, in art, are among the most naked and flat-out heart-rending descriptions of loss I know of. See how in "The Lane" she begins quietly appropriating her subject:
Left alone with his dead body,
I took off my husband's socks,
put my face on his feet.
Unbuttoned his shirt, pulled down
his pants, stroked and kissed his legs, chest,
penis. There was nothing I did not want
to hold . . .
Let's be frank. If this doesn't destabilize your composure, even as it hints at many of the problems with untranslated grief, then you haven't been taking your B vitamins. Mary Cornish knows, too, that this level of deliberate immediacy is problematic, for nowhere else does she reach such a pitch, although several poems of thwarted or remembered eroticism ("Body Ornament," "We're in the Kitchen," "One of the Shapes") run a close second. The libidinal energies that inform this collection are considerable, but they are rarely without harness, as they would be antithetical to art, as she conceives of it herethat is, passion is closer to pain, not its ritualized control.
Red Studio, as a text, is haunted by the dead husband, even his infrequent appearances are often figured as parts (e.g., hands) that signify both the presence of the person but the absence of the partner. Imagistic and linguistic equivocations abound in this volume, often leaving the reader with the reverb of ambivalencesnegatives and positives in each other's faceswith which to deal. Brodsky felt that ambivalence was a "necessary" response to our times, and he meant that there is no way to adjudicate between mutually opposed beliefs, what I'm calling the push-pull of wanting to love, yet feeling love itself beginning to enable forgetting, and the House of Art somehow the lair of traitors.
Remember when poets were praised in reviews for "taking risks"? Did anybody but a sophomore think these risks were anything other than lyrical "risks"? The poems of this first collection take what seems to me a
bona fide risk, and what is at risk is not just a lapse in taste. Wittgenstein said we can't know zilch about death, and the gentleman had a point, you have to admit. But the poet knows a good deal about loss, and grief, and discontinuance, and emotional and sexual deficit. So what's poetry's debt? This book more or less defines poetry as words having something to do with death. The interplay between nature and art is that between death and words, their subsets. Rituals throughout ride maintenance, and the elegy, knocked down, is still capable of siding with the figural over the literal. It is the literal we grieve for, but it is the symbols that redeem us. Or if the idea of redemption is not your cup of tea, then note how talismans cover the viscera, and you will be on your way to believing that aesthetics was behind the moral imagination all alongand not the other way around.