≡ Menu

St. Anthony in the Desert

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
Tables_by_Alfred_Corn_coverAlfred Corn, whose “La Luz Azul”/”The Blue Light” and “St. Anthony in the Desert” from his Tables (Press 53, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform his life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Alfred Corn: About a decade ago I was staying in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. It was mid-month in August.  I had come down with something and was staying indoors, in bed with a fever.  Walls were painted white.  There seemed, though, to be a sort of blue illumination that gathered in the corners of the room.  Feverish hallucination?  August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, who is associated with the color blue, the color also of the sky.  I had been impressed during my several visits to Mexico by the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who seemed to command more reverence from the people than Christ himself.  In my illness I wanted to be taken into that blue light, to be healed by it.  Those times when you are seriously ill, the thought occurs to you that you might not get well, indeed, you might die. And there is a certain kind of silence that, once heard, never becomes inaudible again. Determined to put all these sensations and feelings in words, I also decided to write the poem in Spanish.  I’d studied the language and had some practice speaking it during visits to Spain and Mexico.  Also, I’d read the major poets in Spanish and knew that hispanic meter counts syllables not accents.  I settled on nine syllables per line, even though that is not a common meter in Spanish poetry.  “La Luz azul” is the result. Though of course hispanophone friends corrected small errors.  I’d first wanted the title to be “Luz azul,” which is a palindrome, but my friends said that it didn’t sound quite right without the definite article. They were also a little doubtful about the word “asunto,” which means “subject,” “undertaking,” “matter to be taken up.”  But I left it as is because its etymological connection with the word “asunción,” “assumption,” and the poem says it was the Feast of the Assumption.  Having arrived at my Spanish text, I then set myself he task of translating it into English.  That was difficult, despite the fact that I was the author. I couldn’t bring across everything that is in the original. But I feel the result is close enough to give a general idea of the poem.

As for “Anthony in the Desert,” it was written about a decade ago when I was teaching in Oklahoma.  Familiar surroundings and friends were far away.  I had been reading a book titled The Desert Fathers, about the early hermits and monk of Egypt, and I recalled Flaubert’s play titled La Tentation de St. Antoine (“the temptation of St. Anthony”). Suddenly the idea of writing about a desert hermit became appealing, partly because you could try to describe some of the apparitions (or “temptations”) he was exposed to.  Once my early drafts began moving in the direction of the sonnet, I decided to avoid perfect rhyme and instead rhyme voiced consonants with their unvoiced counterparts.  The sound “d” is a voiced consonant, as “t” is the unvoiced equivalent. The same for “v” and “f”, and for “z” ad “s”.  I’m not aware that anyone has ever taken this approach to rhyming, and of course poets like to develop new techniques and practices.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Alfred Corn: I’ve never been certain what the distinction between “voice” (in literary terms) and “style” is.  In our time I suppose the word “voice” is used for style, possibly because it sounds less literary.  The kind of style I try for is one not too far removed from the spoken language.  I admire Milton and Hopkins, but I wouldn’t myself try to write in a special, anti-conversational mode like theirs.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Alfred Corn: I’m not sure. Many of my poems are meditative, and certainly “La Luz Azul” is.  “Anthony in the Desert” has a minimal narrative, but is essentially meditative as well. Most of my poems present a dilemma (“un asunto”?) of one sort or another and then seek some sort of resolution for it, if only acceptance. Possibly these two do that. I hope I’m answering your question.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Alfred Corn: Among the classic poets, I would mention Dante and Shakespeare.  Dante for his “architectural” skills in building an epic, and for the sense he gives that life choices have an importance that extends beyond the individual’s death. With Shakespeare, the first thing I note is that his people are plausibly individualized, not at all stock characters.  And then the way they have of speaking sublime poetry, if only in short bursts.  He is able to convey considerable knowledge of what the world is like and how people are likely to feel and behave. Many of his lines have become proverbs, quoted by people who never read him.  That in itself is a kind of poetic immortality. As for contemporary poets, there are too many to name. I think we live in a very rich time for poetry, when all sorts of approaches are being tried.  It is a rich compost out of which much that is enduring is sure to arise.

 

La Luz Azul*

San Miguel de Allende
Dia de la Asuncion

Mediodía. Ligeros velos
Transparentes del ancho cielo….

En la estancia una sombra amorfa,
Blanda, no acabada de anunciar
Ese alto silencio que jamás
Ha de callar:

_________Tan comprensiva
Como dulce, recíbeme, luz
azul, que colmas los rincones….

¿Pues, inmóvil? No, mejor fuera
Salir en busca del asunto,
La palabra del mortal piedad
Caída como una flor ardiente
Entre las piedras de la calle.

 

The Blue Light*

San Miguel de Allende
Feast of the Assumption

Twelve noon. The open sky’s transparent
Weightless veils.

In the room, a mild, amorphous
Gloom wouldn’t give up announcing
That exalted silence that will never
Again hold its peace.

_________________As comprehensive
As you are gentle, gather me in, blue
Light, you, filling up the corners….

Immobilized, then? No, better to go out
In search of assumed subject—
The word, embodied, compassionate,
Fallen like a flame-red flower
Among the street’s rough cobblestones.

*Written in Spanish by the author (previous poem) and translated into English by him as well.

 

St. Anthony in the Desert

To be filled with that hallowed emptiness
The hermit sojourns in a desert cave.
Fasting and prayer will make seclusion safe,
His daily bread, each word the Spirit says.

Chimera stirs and rears her dripping head;
A slack-skinned reptile puffs and makes a face;
Vile, harrowing nightmares shimmer through long days;
The sun beats a brass gong and will not set.

Faint shadow on cave walls, you foretell grief
Or joy, not known till whose the profile is:
Love itself may corrupt and then deceive
Its object, hiding venom in a kiss.
Anthony kneels, embraces his fierce lot,
And hears: Be still, and know that I am God.

________________________________________________
Alfred Corn has published eight previous books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has also published a novel, titled Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat, a study of prosody. Fellowships for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. Poetry magazine awarded him the Levinson, Blumenthal, and Dillon prizes. He has taught writing at Yale, Columbia, Oklahoma State University, and UCLA. Since 2005, he has spent part of every year in the U.K., and Pentameters Theatre in London staged his play Lowell’s Bedlam in the spring of 2011. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, preparing a translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. His first ebook, Transatlantic Bridge: A Concise Guide to the Differences between British and American English, was published in 2012. Unions, a new volume of poems, is forthcoming in March of 2014. When in the U.S., he lives in Hopkinton, Rhode Island (alfredcorn.org).

 

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.”