As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1981-2020
by Stephen Corey
White Pine Press, 2022
Reviewed by Nicole Yurcaba
In Stephen Corey’s As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New & Selected Poems, 1981-2020, readers discover a poetic winding road. Emily Dickinson’s ghost emerges. Shakespeare’s works transform into a new kind of educational tool. Life and death’s intersections are clearer to follow than Frost’s less-traveled road despite the ambiguous threads they leave trailing in their wake. Despite their allusions, social commentaries, and political insights, the poems in this collection remind readers that life’s poetry is frequently found in the unobserved silences, the unnoticed road signs, the insignificant moment from forty years ago, and that moment where life hangs precariously above death’s mouth waiting to be swallowed.
Tactfully, Corey interjects keen insight and sharp intellectualism with wry, educated humor. The first poem where this careful balance occurs is “The Ghost of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) at the Kroger Gas Station.” In this poem, the speaker is Emily Dickinson’s ghost. The poem opens with the line “I always go for absolutely full.” For the ghost, not even death can stop its want of life and fulfillment: “Re-click the pump past auto-shutdown / To the, supposedly, overflow point.” However, it’s the number on the receipt that causes the ghost to pause:
Today I pocketed my frail receipt,
Headed home, pulled out the glassine slip,
Saw the final count: 18.86.
The ghost observes the number, which is the same as Dickinson’s death year, and the ghost acknowledges that they, in reality, do not exist: “Without my calling her back she had come, / Unsensed by anyone, not even me—.” The poem’s charm, nonetheless, is that Corey skillfully and subtly pays homage to not only Dickinson, but Dickinson’s writing. In the poem’s final lines, this becomes most noticeable, as the ghost reflects “The one who sees her so often, the one / Whose dream is to enter her lovely brain.” The ghost’s reference could directly allude to Dickinson’s poems “The Brain—is wider than the Sky” or “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” allusions that Dickinson fans will recognize and appreciate immediately.
In other poems, Corey forgoes the literary references and allusions and embraces the romantic, the personal, and the familiar. In the poem “The Lovers Visit the Museum,” readers follow two lovers as the lovers enter a room marked “Nature’s Ghosts.” The poem is imagistic, and color words like “white,” “red,” “pale,” “albino,” and “brown” create a sensory, visual experience for readers. Other images like “The albino brown bat” that is “pinned under glass, / wings like peeled and drying human skin” remind readers of the fragility of life and the moment. The poem develops a dream-like tone as the speaker acknowledges, “If we could set him loose in the night / the darkness would shine trough / as if he were scarcely there.” At this point, the poem separates into the second stanza. In this stanza, a quiet, romantic tone develops as the lovers’ “hands press together to stop / whatever has been draining away.” It’s the poem’s final lines, shaped as a rhetorical question, that haunt readers and leave them returning to the previous questions as they seek an answer:
How much of ourselves can we lose
before we surrender,
how much must we lose to know
we are now some other thing?
This message of unnoticed transformation repeats in the poem “Marriage,” another poem which relies on interrogative statements to form its tone and structure. The initial question “Would you rot for me if I asked?” is bold, direct. The speaker continues the poem by providing an answer: “Most of it would be easy—like trees.” The speaker then acknowledges that the “surprise would come from the inside, / working outward ring by ring.” At first, the marriage experience seems individualized, but just as in ““The Lovers Visit the Museum,” a transformation occurs almost unnoticeably. The speaker suggests “The question would be who cracks first.” Then, the speaker introduces an allusion to death, portrayed as the “final mystery” that occurs “when one, falling, strikes the other.” The speaker once more relies on an interrogative statement, creating an emphatic segue to the poem’s conclusion: “could the stronger stand, / witness the explosion against itself?” The speaker utilizes one more question, elongated into three lines:
Or will the falling one dive through
the softening core, Baucis and Philemon
disintegrating like planes in collision?
The disaster-laden elements may not give readers hope, and they may evoke a prepare-for-the-worst skepticism in readers. If so, then the poem’s final line will undoubtedly shock readers. The speaker concludes the poem with a single line completely separated from the rest of the poem: “These are my wedding proposals.”
Nature is also a key figure and theme in Corey’s collection. The most noticeable of the reverent, nature poems is “Exile.” The journey the speaker takes is almost like that of Ish in Earth Abides. Emersonian in tone, the poem examines the idea of home. The speaker observes “Nests and burrows, sheltered corners, / Pockholes in sand, knotholes in bark.” They observe bear caves and beaver caves before they arrive at “the closed-in city: / sheds and shanties, mansions / In their own forests, stacks of dwellings.” Like Emerson, the speaker admits that its civilization’s trappings that often impede one’s ability to recenter and learn from what nature has to offer: I came here to learn, / But there are days when learning means nothing.” What the speaker seeks is education and enlightenment, an admission that reinforces the poem’s Emerson-like take on nature and humanity’s interaction.
“Complicated Shadows,” too, offers readers a nod to Emerson. With its focus on hawks, it waxes in the vein of Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawks.” In “Complicated Shadows,” humanity is at nature’s mercy, and nature’s grandeur figuratively rises above whatever humans might offer the environment: “To hawks we’re a woodland insect.” The speaker continues, describing how “Each small move we make is shading for one, / quick burning for the other.” The “quick burning” transforms into a graceful, erotic moment: “—our bodies / become one another’s clothing tugged off, / wrapped on, stripped away again in glowing haste.” From this point, the poem develops even more complex transcendentalism, as the couple’s experience in nature as their ”stomachs press close” and they embrace “a pressure of pure darkness / we feel but cannot see.” Thus, “Complicated Shadows” becomes a love letter to not only nature, but also the privacy intimacy offers and a type of communion so few are ever offered.
Meditative and observant, the poems seek to answer some of life’s most frequently asked questions, giving readers a desperately needed intellectual, philosophical experience that challenges the mundanity of the every day. With depth and wit, Stephen Corey tackles life’s most expected and unexpected subjects and layers. As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New & Selected Poems, 1981-2020 offers readers a new type of experience, since Corey’s newer poems provide a fresh lens for the older ones and vice versa. If anything, readers are left with the desire to continue to not only pursue truth, but also the inexperienced parts of their own lives where the best of what life has to offer has yet to be found.