By Joshua Corey
Omnidawn Publishing, 2014
136 page, $17.95
Reviewed by Laura Carter
“I write poetry for the fucking stars.”
Thus begins this excellent, finely-wrought volume of poetry, which includes, among other poems, chapbooks from Corey. The opening quote is by Robert Duncan, and I wonder at its inclusion: it echoes the lush pastoralism of Corey’s ambitious (and lengthy) book, and I think immediately of poems like “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” That said, Corey’s book is darker than much of Duncan’s work, though the two do share some things in common: attention to the political, fragmentation, and the thought that seeps through the work that there must be, ultimately, a better world after the one (or even inside the one) we’ve currently been given or dealt. Corey’s poems also reach into French theory and intellectual Marxism in a way that Duncan’s probably didn’t get a chance to. That said, the moniker that begins the book is an apt one.
The Barons is divided into sections and begins with a reference to the epic mode: “Epic fail and the man I sing,” which carries its own resonance. It’s like starting from postmodernism, and I immediately think of Samuel Beckett’s injunction to “fail better,” as if the world would expect or could bear more. Poems that approximate Browning’s use of dramatic monologue are rare in contemporary poetry, but Corey pulls it off. We are whisked back to the nineteenth century, maybe the early twentieth century, in terms of content and diction, and we read about all manner of people who are victims or bullies in or of the system. Corey also makes use in this section of a wide variety of poetic tactics and moves, including the gorgeous poem “It Goes by in Flashes, It Bows,” in which he emulates Emily Dickinson with her signature dashes at the end of her lines.
There are a wide variety of forms in the book, everything from free verse (or at least it seems), poems with longer lines, poems with shorter lines, and even many awesome prose poems that make the book really work. The themes are theoretical and political, but with a musical touch that makes the book ring true in a deeper way. In “In an annex of the road,” Corey writes:
If we get to elect our emperor then the real emperor must be someone else, this person thought. He sat upon a phone book full of the most recent polls. Hannibal’s elephants climbed the Alps in a frieze outside the kitchen, where this person’s egg salad sandwich dried out underneath a heat lamp. To dry out is to get sober, this person thought, sipping gin fizz through a straw.
Corey’s work exudes a richness of language throughout. I think the characters make the book ring novelistic, considering Corey’s recently published Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. In “The Novel,” Corey writes: “No more poems, only novels. Novels are easy: you write one sentence and then a second sentence.” This sort of criticism of the paradigm is part of what makes this book work. It’s a critic’s book, and it offers couched criticism of politics, characters that Corey develops, and even, poems themselves, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek kind of way. The poems include all the right moves, too, from fragmentation to anaphora, to make them really capture the spirit of what The Barons is doing.
In the section “Little Land Lyrics,” Corey tells us a bit more about what he’s up to. If one writes for the stars, then, as the quote he chooses to use tells us, “Ontology is the luxury of the landed.” The poems in this section are weirder and more avant-garde in form, including lines like this: “I was born, I died. In the interval: sexed time.” We get many stanzas that resemble the earlier modernists and make me think immediately of Mina Loy and her coterie, with fragmentation and breaking of lines that make the poems more angular.
“Compostition Marble” and “Hope and Anchor” are the middle part of the book, and they are both chapbooks that Corey published previously. The book is a pretty ambitious length, so these stand out as a good choice for the middle section. Hope and Anchor makes up perhaps my favorite part of the book, using block prose and lots of fragmented sentences and such to talk about modernity and its discontents, a common theme for Corey. We get a sense that there’s a poet in a city taking down notes, kind of like Hart Crane or Ezra Pound. Corey also takes a stance on language, or uses linguistics as metaphor, as in the following lines:
To make of reading a spectacle takes sideburns and suede—a tree to sit under, an apple in freefall. On the plane read the scene, in the car “Think different,” on the subway to eat the apple giving thanks to regulations. Syntax devolves around who eats whom, right hand never left hand. “Why do they kill me?”
We get a fast-paced lyric here, with lots of paratactic lines, moving along into the next thing, always. “Make it new” is a theme of these poems, though they draw from history and theory in a way that I haven’t quite read before in other poets. In all the poems in the book, Corey seems to straddle the modern and the postmodern, using liberal references that one who has read about history or theory would catch, but always coming up with something that anyone can catch onto if reading closely. The book ends with a self-titled section. We get a long ode to them as a final piece. Who are these barons? I wonder as I finish up. Seems to me that they’re the overlords of the market, perhaps, whose shadow falls in this book like none other I’ve read. Maybe they’re also just the monsters in your closet that you can’t quite escape if you want a simpler reading. But their elegy, and I think it is an elegy of sorts, a clearing-out, is a fitting way to end this spectacular book of poems.