Monday, June 20, 2011

body English – Peter Cornwall

I really enjoyed reading this collection, and what I loved is that Cornwall is not afraid to play with words and form, to experiment, and to focus on sound. Poetry today seems full of caution and self-consciousness: sure you can express the depths of your soul, but don’t let your words do anything interesting. But not Cornwall. He writes
The exigencies! You put in a word of hope against
the exigencies. You put in a word of hope against
our clasped hands, pressed to your lips.
Our clasped hands, pressed to your lips:
your lips pressed to put the exigencies in a word
of hope against your clasped hands. […]
Peter Cornwall knows that poetry began as sound, and must concern itself with sound. Even when not writing verse, he often weaves rhyme and other sound devices throughout his poems: The rhythm in his poem “Gavotte” builds to a fantastic energy, like a waterfall or a rock slide. 
September remember the ochre the red and
the golden beholden to shadow, burnt umber
penumbra, the chill wrapping warm in the mist;
the time that our kiss took the form of a beam
unlocking October’s first dream, the days not as
long as they’d been just before, still peace and
still war, rotation dilation translation mutation
beneath a bough soon to come bare. It were there […]
Playing with words includes puns—not the heavy-handed groaners that we all dread, but the occasional winking drive-by witticism, such as 
[…] She love a man
who know a code she do not know but do.
He write it on her wall her grace.
She love a man in cuneiform.
My favorite poem was the last in the collection. There is something distinctively English about it, it seems to me. It reminds me in ways of Philip Larkin’s poetry, and Rudyard Kipling’s, too, maybe in the quite dignity and remembrance of the past, maybe in the mixing of childhood and military honor. Though not formal verse, the poem is clearly aware of itself as verse, which captures the mood precisely.

Standing on my grave

Children, do be careful!
Stay with me, stay with me.
Look now, a pretty falling leaf:
who will bring their colours here
who will take a rubbing?

I grabbed my crayons resolute
and newsprint in my hand, I
climbed the hill halfway and then—
A leader of our finest men!
A credit to our land:

Rest sweetly on the sand.
I meant to go up further still and
catch the leaf atop the hill.
I did not mean to misbehave

But stood beside the admiral’s grave.
I’d found the rubbing that I wanted
Modest life and yet much vaunted:
sea and surf and love, and haunted
stood there with my crayon blue

that I might get a bit on you
to take back down with me, Sir John
(who lead as I meant to go on) and
did not mean to be a knave but
leant across your fulsome grave

that I might get a rubbing,
that I might get a rubbing.
Miss Brown I thought might be upset
but even still she seemed to let
me tarry, let me get you still

Sir John; in one tremendous act of will
your name upon my newspage rested:
Always calm and never bested
And now it’s 1939
and behind a glass of wine

a second thanks I give,
a second thanks I give
and make my way across the brine.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Theodore Roethke

A review is on its way, but I wanted to take a moment to post a poem I came across on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  If I time it right, I can catch this brief show on the radio on my way home from teaching my night class.  One night last week I caught this poem by Theodore Roethke, whose work I love, even though I never made a thorough examination of it.  In fact, I could only name “My Papa’s Waltz” and “I Wake To Sleep” as poems of his I know (the latter of which I parodied as “I Wake To Eat”, and published in The Formalist a while back).  So I was happy to stumble across another one of his.
I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor, 1974.
It feels like this poem would be at home in the court of Henry VIII alongside Thomas Wyatt, or the Cavalier Poets like Robert Herrick.  It’s a shame we seemed to lose poets like this in the 20th century except for a few like Roethke.

You can always see the current Writer’s Almanac at, and search the archive as well.