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Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.”

Tables proves a raw, every-which-way roaming collection, an enterprise in full creative recall and exposure. Not only do we meet historical people here (Anthony of the Desert, Hadrian, Audubon, Brodsky), but also some related to the poet (Corn’s father, mother, grandmother, Pinsky, Hacker, Fenton, etc.), as well as some convincing shades of people affected by both personal and broader circumstances, like the imagined “senior chef” prepping bread in one of the towers on 9/11 in “Window On the World” and the “Unknown Soldier” who trails off by saying, “From nil and dark the self I knew calls out/For the small tag love once attached me to” in “From the Prompter’s Box.” The endeavor in Tables and its accomplishment/s are truly Dantean.

Corn’s latest poems consequently say there is no way through both the real and imagined life than living through them, which entails the facing and/or voicing of ugly or exalted extremes within families, relationships, friendships, the historical/spiritual, even such out-of-immediate-control externals as national or international conflagrations. Still, and this is what touched me most about the poems taken together, about the poet’s possible nature, if it may be deduced via the energy that made them and their sentiments be, Tables/Corn does not depress, does not sink into self-pity, sanctimoniousness, or misanthropy. Nor do the poems set the poet as above or better than the rest, though the poet is cognizant and communicative of his education, erudition, discipline, striving to grow, succeed, even please as an artist in our tragi-comical, rapidly changing world.

This is not a poetry/poet of self-indulgent escapism either. A poem like Corn’s “Window On the World,” which dares to offer critiques of and possible revisions for the way the 9/11 event has been told, its artifacts valued, proves it; just as do his more personal lyrics like “Resources” and “Series Finale,” where we only need an actual name or names to be dropped that we may have the personal drama/s more true-to-life. Alas, the poet errs on the side of manners/gentility here or perhaps what Aristotle termed “the universal.” Tables has its delicious moments of mirth, too, which lend a needed sweetness, for example, in the wistful, almost Disney/Downton Abbey-worthy poem “Dinner Theater,” where “Sharp Knife starts bantering with Mrs. Fork—/Quips and metallic whispers re Parsnip,/The fossil he’s been trying to butter up.” And more of this table-ready whimsy is at hand while deciding upon a dessert in “Fig”: “What’s to put forward but the sleek green fellow,/The veiny, five-lobed leaf your wineskin swelled/Beside?—like the one Vatican marbles wear/To spare shy gazers a betraying blush.”

So what exactly does Alfred Corn give to those who attempt an ambitious read, a daring to be moved by what is pondered over in Tables? Not only a voice that says life must be lived despite failures, gruesomeness, confusions, deaths, or residual/accrued pain, but a voice that says it is best done when we pause to reflect, consider, reconsider, talk, gaze, read, play, love, pray, eat, drink, fashion art; to pick, smell, consider not just the thorns on the rose bush of life, for they are there, but to acknowledge and celebrate the roses they protect! In effect, Tables shows how we can try and leverage as well as apprehend meaning in a rough and tumble, sometimes painful, sometimes misunderstood world of relations and situations with roots bitter and sweet and in-between. The collection insists upon a world and life that can be enjoyed, lived, examined, leveraged—personally or in community, over a meal, say, whilst at table, reminiscing, joking, or just breaking bread.

Poems from Tables that explore the above and ask for loving rereading: “What the Thunder Said,” “Resources,” “Series Finale,” “Window On the World,” “Coals,” “Dinner Theater,” “Corn, Alfred, D. Jr.,” “St. Anthony in the Desert,” “Priority,” “Vines,” “Upbringing,” “Audubon,” “La Luz Azul,” “Poem Found….,” “Futbol,” “Fig,” “Bond Street Station Underground,” “Letter to Grace Shulman,” “Letter to James Fenton,” “Domus Caerulea,” “New England/China,” “Antarctic,” & “Lighthouse.”

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.