Unended Journeys: Alfred Corn’s The Returns: Collected Poems

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The Returns: Collected Poems 
by Alfred Corn
(Press 53, 2022, 292 pp., $24.95)

It’s easy to forget how many meanings attach to the phrase “collected poems.” It doesn’t mean “complete poems,” although many “collected”s are almost that. For example: the Anthony Thwaite edition of Philip Larkin’s “collected” gathers everything, including early work, with indexes and apparatus. Richard Wilbur’s collected, 1943-2004, is similar: all the books, all their contents, with indexes, acknowledgments, and appendixes of extras. To my unscientific Twitter poll, seventy percent of the respondents replied that they expected a “collected poems” to contain “nearly all” of a poet’s work.

I thought so, too, and was gearing up to review Alfred Corn’s The Returns: Collected Poems with a view to its value to scholars wanting to get into the nitty-gritty of the poet’s fifty-year career. But I’d ignored the malleability of “collected,” and Corn’s preface showed me my mistake. He calls the book “a second selection”—following the earlier selected volume, called Stake—“pruning the early one and adding to it.” The wording of the preface suggests that the choices are Corn’s own. Comparing the tables of contents suggests that he has not changed his mind much as to the best from the early books.

The career he sets out to re-present began in earnest in 1976 with a fireworks display of critical praise for his first book, welcomed by Harold Bloom as the best debut of the year. It was a welcome that called forth critical attention from many quarters throughout Corn’s working years. Those years have  included—in addition to his twenty-one books (at last count) of poetry, fiction, criticism, and translation—holding teaching positions and carrying a busy workload of reviewing art and music, all the while gathering prizes and accolades: the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a residency at the Bellagio Center for the Rockefeller Foundation. By the time you read this, the list may be longer.

This is a large expanse that has needed a lot of condensing to fit in one book. Of the nine poetry collections included in The Returns, six are represented by fewer than half their poems and pages. “My hope,” Corn writes, “is that readers, stimulated by the present selection, will look elsewhere for these omitted works.” Which they can do, as all the books appear to be in print, either in paper or in ebook versions. But the much-pruned collected volume is a comfortable, non-overwhelming size, assembled not for rigor but for delight. It’s the right thing for latecomers to Corn’s work, like me.

Some history is in order. The collected book was brought out this year to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Corn’s first publications of poetry, in 1972. On the cover, a montage of photos of the poet at different ages hints hard that the book is a deep dive into memory. The poems, though, don’t present memories in autobiographical order. Corn’s 1940s and ’50s childhood in Valdosta, Georgia, his bullied boyhood, and his seeking of refuge in the beauties of books in the library.

Those stories come up later. The collected begins the story in the 1970s, with Corn’s first book, All Roads at Once. In the collected volume, six poems—four shortish lyrics and two several-page sequences— represent the book’s original thirty-six. Their meters are relaxed, varied among poems, and often variable line to line, but they declare themselves clearly for form, even including an inventive sonnet:

How can the statues not touch each other,
Hands, breasts, thighs, slickened by water,
Flesh perfected from the flesh that dies as grass?
Change here is only eternal, like white
Noise, stone trance guarded in a cage of glass
Parabolas, barring the Roman night;
It seems light in a watery medium
Has baptized them free of motion and time. […]

(“Parable at a Roman Fountain”)

Along with these loose pentameters, there are loose tetrameters and a heterometric stanza form (“Chinese Porcelains at the Metropolitan”). There are lush visual descriptions of locales from Oregon to Rome, sly puns (like that parable/parabola), and allusions that assume the reader is comfortable with the language of literature and art.  The tour de force of the section is “Pages from a Voyage,” an eleven-part, thirteen-page sequence in many forms built on an extended metaphor that likens the narrator’s illness, and his wanderings among familiar New York places, to the voyages of Charles Darwin and the illness he suffered for the rest of his life, an illness he probably contracted on those travels.

All Roads at Once was a celebrated arrival: J. D. McClatchy asserted that its influences were “[James] Merrill’s urbane angle of vision, along with John Ashbery’s intelligent insouciance, and Elizabeth Bishop’s eye for the charged detail.”  The dominant emotion in the six poems selected is, it seems to me, loneliness: the solitary contemplation of art, the tenuousness of romantic relationships, the mind’s aloneness even in company. I can’t help wondering whether this apartness is the sensation that most excited Merrill’s sympathy with what he praised as “a new window on the world.”

With such praise for the first, the critical world was ready to be excited about the 1978 appearance of Corn’s second book, A Call in the Midst of the Crowd. In The Returns, this second book is the one that seems to be most fully presented. The bulk of the section is the book’s title work, a long, meditative treatment of the poet’s life in and observations of New York City. The sequence is organized in four seasonal sections, each including several numbered parts.

In the original book, the poem entitled “A Call . . .” interleaves with the poetry many short prose excerpts from histories, travelogues, news clippings, and other works about New York. The collected volume omits the prose, and the poems don’t seem to suffer from that loss, though readers may want to check news archives to remember what happened in 1976. They may need other help as well, unless they’re very widely read. Corn expects a lot of familiarity with high culture in his readers: knowing who Spenser is, recognizing a quotation in Spanish from Lorca, catching a pun on a line of the Inferno. These asides are as much the point as any narrative, although there is one: a relationship and its struggles, in a cityscape that comes across as a low-intensity Hell. The real subject is the life of the poet’s imagination in the city’s surroundings. The account of that life meanders, animated by the allusions, the puns, and much enchanted description.

The next volume, The Various Light, appeared in 1980 and made less of a splash.  In the fourteen poems chosen for the collected, autobiography is pared back, though allusiveness and high culture persist. Tighter meters show up in this section, a contrast with the first two books. Readers with a special interest in prosody will notice “Remembering Mykenai,” an experiment with alcaics—a classical meter—and a more successful experiment than others I’ve encountered.  Although a grumpy critic for Library Journal described some of the book’s poems as “indirect and hard to construe. . . ,” others, which he grumps about as “a worrying of minor aspects of perception of nature,” are among my favorites, especially “Moving: New York—New Haven Line” for its perfect evocation of the mind’s tricks with direction as one looks from a moving train, and  “November Leaves” for its tight rhyme, concision, and extended metaphor. A poem I’m sorry to see omitted is “An Outdoor Amphitheater.”

Notes from a Child of Paradise, that paean to the ’60s, young love, and coming out, appeared in 1984 but is left out of The Returns because it needs to be read whole. (That judgment is Corn’s, stated in his preface, and having read the excerpted version in Stake, I concur.) The collected also necessarily ignores a book of essays and years of work reviewing books and art, so its next section is the 1988 book The West Door. The most notable fact of the fifteen poems from that book is their range of topic and treatment. There’s the wildly dense, Hopkins-esque “Trout and Mole,” (“O blithe geodesic feather-domes, tropisms, cortex / after electric cortex . . .”) and the plain-spoken blank verse narrative “An Xmas Murder,” and the lovely paired sonnets on Spinoza and Vermeer, “From the United Provinces, 1632-1677.”

Although it’s not technically attention-getting, I’m drawn to “Assistances,” a subtle pun for AIDS:

The glare falling like cold enamel
on corked vials of venous blood,
each dyed with a message marked in code;
the dossiers that fatten
week by week, to whispered confidences
from white-clad figures in calm stances
conferring behind the gauze of a curtain.

I think of you, friend and standard
bearer, first again to set out […]

Some would argue that it’s an error to react to subjects as if they mattered more than technique. But AIDS was a heart-stopping, culture-consuming subject in that era. Among the poems that come next in the collected, from Autobiographies (published in 1992), AIDS and its dead are the matters that most hold me. In a sequence titled “La Madeleine,” the poem “Feast of St. James, 1989” recalls one of the dead. The salutation “Dear David” and the dates let me guess with some confidence that the addressee is the eminent critic David Kalstone, who died of AIDS in 1986:

Dear David, Happy fifty-sixth birthday. Shall I
This time write (as I daily think of you)
And allow friendship to go on evolving—
In some ways more evenhanded than back
When you were with us, subject to wincing
Stresses the temple of the body has to bear,
Hunger pangs, noise, fatigue, bronchitis.
The week of your death, along Village sidewalks
Linden flowers dusted the air with the faint
Potpourri that will now always summon up,
In bouts of silent thought, our own belle époque. . . .

Much about the “Madeleine” sequence plucks my personal strings: the atmosphere of Paris, the Catholic culture, the literature and art. But what most takes me is the human warmth of Corn’s description of his friend, in long sentences so detailed they’re hard to excerpt.

Whether the five very varied poems in this section actually “represent” the book Autobiographies is debatable, since the bulk of that book is the 76-page sequence “1992,” which is not included. But representative or not, the shorter poems were the right choice for the collected. One poem I miss, though, is “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count.”

And so I move to the section of poems from the 1997 book Present, and something feels different. The syntax is plainer, more direct. The meters are clearer; there’s more rhyme. (I wonder whether writing The Poem’s Heartbeat, which came out the same year, was an influence in this direction.) The observations of daily life (“The Shouters,” “Wonderbread,”) don’t seem burdened with loneliness and loss as they did in the early books, and the narrator feels more invested in what he sees. In “A Marriage in the Nineties,” a relationship is looking solid rather than coming apart, amid the dailiness of floor-scrubbing, with playful allusions to Yeats and his marrow-bones. Even the solitary contemplation of a scene (“Lago di Como: The Cypresses”) feels less abstract, less mannered. My particular favorite is one of the Bach poems in the Bach / Kafka series “Musical Sacrifice”: the canon / pantoum “A Sacrifice for Sans Souci,” a formal invention exactly suited to the convolutions of Bach.  And the poem “Sugar Cane” includes glimpses of Corn’s Southern childhood, amid meditations on history, slavery, and racism in the South.

I think it’s permissible to talk about the last three sections—the books Contradictions (2002), Tables (2013), and Unions (2014)—as if they were a single entity. Selection pares away much that makes each book unique: the conversation of one poem with the next, sections, epigraphs, even the reasons for titles. It emphasizes the one great constant among the books, which is variety. Most reviewers comment on that: there’s no subject that fails to excite Corn’s interest, though he always pays attention to the way a given bit of world is interacting with his mind, and vice versa. Meters, forms, and approaches remain an eclectic mix.

When I name favorites in all this variety, I may simply be revealing that my tastes are not as wide nor my knowledge as encyclopedic as Corn’s. But here goes: My greatest delight among these three sections is “Letter to Marilyn Hacker,” an epistolary poem in dactylic hexameters:

Marilyn, quick-witted author of poem epistles, I trust you
Won’t mind receiving one, drafted and sent with affectionate wishes. […]

I love the poem as a metrical feat, and I love knowing I’m not alone in liking to play this ancient music.

Each of the three last sections has one (and Contradictions has two) of the long, meandering pieces in which life and art and history tangle up with each other and the poet’s imagination for several pages at a time. All are skillful, though some feel more successful than others. The peripatetic attention of “The Mousetrap,” which caroms through thirty-three tercets of alternating hex-tri-hex, appeals more than the free-verse journeying of “Seeing All the Vermeers.” “Mousetrap,” with its ping-ponging unpredictability through Hamlet, Agatha Christie, nursery rhyme, New York, and the poet’s head, is just more fun than the deliberate itinerary of the museums. “Window on the World” also appeals with its back-and-forth among many kinds of memory about 9/11, while “Eleven Londons” is, again, deliberate, missing the punning fun of the early long poems.

Am I just grousing about an aging poet’s use of memory? No, because several memory-based poems on the shorter side are also delightful. Among them, “First Dictionary” takes the prize, in pentameter couplets that trace every adolescent’s exploration of any book in the house, however dull-looking, in pure hunger for experience.

Words like “various,” “peripatetic,” and “meandering” have appeared often in this review. Variety has also turned up in the critical reception of Corn’s work. There is a certain amount of envious-looking snark, as in the case of a critic I won’t name who remarked that he could only get through the book-length journeys “by forced march.” There’s the view of Fred Chappell that Corn’s books seem to alternate, the less strong with the excellent. But by and large, critics have embraced Corn’s work, not stuffing it into a New Formalist subcategory, but lauding all its aspects: its elegant forms, the wide range of its attention, and (to quote Tom Disch) “a poetic persona as distinctively affable . . . as those of Merrill or James Schuyler or (when he’s in flaneur mode) Frank O’Hara.” All those laudable elements abound in The Returns. 

At seventy-nine, Corn shows no sign of being done with poems. I think he declares his intent to go on in the last lines of “New England / China”: “While you breathe, you won’t retire.” Already a volume of Rilke translations is out. No, “collected” does not mean “complete,” and I doubt that this will be his last book.