William Wright reviews two chapbooks by Daniel Corrie: Words, World and For the Future
Words, World | Blue Horse Press | 2016 | ISBN 978-0692699263
For the Future | Iris Press | 2016 | ISBN 978-1604545005
To swim to a ceiling of waves—
To rise from the tides
in a sun-seeded world—
To have risen from tides—
To be one self
hunting after itself,
finally to hunt into
some selfhood of a species—
— from “For the Future”
Daniel Corrie’s poetry is scripture for our troubled Anthropocene Era. Patiently distilled, sometimes over many years, Corrie’s poems are deeply imaginative, clear, sonically rich, stylistically ambitious, original, and significantly meaningful.
Corrie’s life as a poet is reminiscent of Amy Clampitt’s extended postponement of publishing a first book. Corrie’s early manuscript several times ranked as finalist for the Whitman and Yale competitions before he began his decades-long postponement of seeking book publication. However, in the past year, Corrie decided to release two chapbook samplings from his full-length manuscript. His two recent chapbooks, Words, World and For the Future, reflect how poetry of remarkably patient distillation can exist in our current “moment of mania,” as Robert Penn Warren called it in Audubon: A Vision. These collections prove that profound statements about time and ecology—the two motifs on which Corrie’s poetry is centered—can be realized via patiently unfolding imagination, deeply sustained curiosity, and meticulous crafting.
Corrie’s poetry is an unusual melding of largeness, vividness, dreaminess, and the meditative. Much of it is tantric, much of the pleasure in the work lying in its restraint, its patience. Corrie’s main preoccupations are time and the non-human world as it relates to and is influenced by human beings. For Corrie, such a poetry necessitates vast and complex considerations of Time with a capital “T,” as in All Time—distinguished from the sense of time that comes to feel to be the norm of our lifestyles in the early stages of what is coming to be called our Anthropocene Era. Other prevalent themes include the perceivable and unperceivable non-human worlds as they connect to human epistemology, ecological-evolutionary reality (the only reality, as Corrie suggests in his work), and human consciousness.
Corrie’s is a poetry of consequence: his work is deeply committed to the creation of artistic means of addressing our time’s environmental degradations, including climate change and species extinctions. Yet, while Corrie’s poetry without apology engages such concerns of the world, his poetry extends beyond green poetics. Corrie’s poetry often is ritualistically incantatory and of dream imagination. The poetry considers sensorial phenomena and the imaginative power of image in ways not merely “realer than real,” as James Dickey called it, but in a manner that actually constructs new realities. His poetry encapsulates the microcosmic and macrocosmic, spanning the galaxy of the human mind into the external world’s details and galaxies. As such, this poetry is of a richly fresh poetics.
Much of Corrie’s poetry finds its physicality from natural settings around his home state of Georgia. His poems are particularly influenced by his wife’s and his home, their 300-acre Longleaf Dharma Farm in Tift County, Georgia, where they carry out restoration of longleaf pine ecosystem, 98 percent of which was destroyed throughout Corrie’s native South during the past century and a half. Thus, the journeys that this poetry takes—even in the longer, multi-layered works—are derived from actual experience in the world as much as from the poet’s commitment to the artistic imagination. Though Corrie has had such firsthand experiences, his poetry does not read as didactic. Rather, the poetry chooses to dwell within an ecological version of Socratic ignorance/wisdom, in a humility of asking difficult questions within the context of the elusive complexities of the human reality’s immersion with non-human reality.
While some poets’ poetry is intentionally difficult, Corrie’s poetry is not. However, Corrie’s poetry has been invested with protracted attention, with many of his poems having been contemplated and composed over a span of many years, even decades; thus, the patience he dedicates to his art is proportionate to the reader’s need to slow down in order to fully absorb and appreciate aspects of the poetry. This is something I have had to learn over the course of knowing his poetry. For instance, his poetry’s liberal dappling of gerunds and present participles has a function I didn’t immediately grasp. Indeed, words that feature the -ing suffix are so prevalent in the work that the poetry suggests that what is perceived and attained is always in process rather than conclusively perceived or attained; natural and perceived progressions are “becoming” rather than wholly realized. Corrie’s poems often eschew the “rules” imposed by contemporary graduate-level poetry workshops—such rules often risen from the pedagogical impulse to guide the student as novice to avoid techniques tricky to master—such as in Corrie’s employing liberal adverbs and consonantal doublets (“find the feel,” “dark’s distances”). Examples of such techniques are evidenced in the sonically hypnotic poem, “The Dancing Bear,” in which a river and a bear merge into one:
through river’s roar—
its back bristling
twisting in sun into
the hunting world—
While all good poetry might influence readers to see the world anew, Corrie’s poetry does so to a degree that for me feels particularly heightened, seemingly from his prolonged attention fixed on his poems: the more one has gazed on a thing, the more he has seen into the thing and into the world of the thing.
In spring of 2016, Blue Horse Press published Corrie’s chapbook, Words, World. “Rising, Opening, Encompassing,” the poem that opens the chapbook, subtly recalls James Dickey’s early work; specifically, the stresses and confident (or declarative) structure recalls such poems by Dickey as “The Heaven of Animals.” The poem’s hymnic opening engages the non-human context and identity in the world of dynamic becoming:
Through different trees, wind becomes different sounds.
The pines become the wind’s sound, here. I hear it.
Again the creek leads me along its seam, from my name.
Its artery opens out from trees, to a heart of water.
No identity will be time-honored. It will be time.
I feel mine. It is blood-honored. It is change-honored.
Compound adjectives and medial caesurae recall Old English poetics, and the impersonal pronoun “it” helps the concept of identity join into the grandness of time’s movement. Corrie’s main preoccupations—time and the natural world—are immediately engaged, and sonic textures reinforce the deliberation of the poem’s unfolding. The seeming paradox at the heart of the work is that knowledge can be transcribed but ultimately is ephemeral: “The pond is left as ripples stilling, evaporating / from my knowing.”
Corrie’s attention to sonics is not limited to free verse; indeed, his strictly formalist and semi-formalist work is impressive. Corrie’s “The Day and the Night” is one of my favorite pieces from Words, World. Here Corrie uses the sonnet form to invite the reader into an incantatory ritualization of meaning and manner, with the latter crafted to feel organic rather than imposed. Its diction commands attention, though it does not overwhelm, again reminding me of Dickey’s, with traces of James Wright and Roethke:
I dream the quiet moccasin cuts its path
on a shimmering surface. New apples gleam
in the orchard I remember. The horizon’s seam
glimmers, a thread’s line stitched through cloth. . .
Described in a nearly hypnagogic rhythm, the poem’s day passes into the crepuscular. Just as the movement of the transient day darkens into night, the poem’s unfolding translates to the movement of wakefulness into drowsing and the archetypal images associated with the nightly ritual of drifting into sleep and into the releasing of the familiar world.
Corrie works in variegated tones. “The Dancing Bear” begins with a style closer to prose:
In some fashion, they taught the bear to dance,
to guzzle Cokes and beers, to swallow cigarettes.
Kept in a cage beside the Texaco, it brought in customers.
If I heard this section without context, I might mistake it for the beginning of a newly discovered Flannery O’Connor short story. However, the poem’s tone and cadence change quickly. Separated into seven sections, “The Dancing Bear” moves from the narrative into the lyrical (“suddenly swept far / beyond the high and dark blue dome / of memory”). The words become metamorphic voices: the speaker’s, the bear’s, the earth’s—being’s. There is a gently mercurial merging here as the poem sparkles and speaks through and from different perspectives and distinct planes of consciousness or being. Though ambitious, the poem never discombobulates.
The collection ends on a potent piece of ecological conscience, “The Struggle to Exist.” It is one of Corrie’s ambitious ecopoetic pieces, concerning our species’ rapidly expanding global population and the concomitant impacts on our biosphere’s beauty and capacity to continue sustaining life. Again, the poem’s opening declarative style invites: “There is a solitary oak / in Georgia / in a soy field.” The poem shifts to the dynamism of trees crowding among other trees, each competing for life-giving sunlight. Each leaf must “feel the sun” and incandesce in greenness “like a Chinese lantern’s paper screen.” Soon, the poem widens into the sudden advances in human awareness, as in science’s relatively recent discovery of all existence’s origin story of the Big Bang, our scientifically informed minds “suddenly glimpsing // existence’s shape / like shrapnel // in its starry explosion.” Like a tree, Corrie’s vision moves upward and outward, feeding on the light of intelligence and sensitivity to consider the infinitesimal (“where breeze tousled leaves / scattering light, dappling ground / with bright ghosts”) as well as the astronomically vast (“our reach of nights”). The poem seeks hope inherent in what Darwin described as evolution’s struggle for existence:
Flocks will pass over trees
flying into their living,
filling their flyways
The great losses
must be the great guides
In the summer of 2016, Iris Press published For the Future. The chapbook’s opening poem, “Now,” portrays a NASA camera photographing galactic distances receding out into myriad light years. Again, Corrie pivots from macrocosm to microcosm, shifting into the poem’s speaker rising from the pulsing tide of a beach at night. The poem’s form is fitted to its matter, with this poem being one sentence that captures one moment, a single sentence’s single moment like one vast and vividly detailed blink of “the ancient suddenness of now.”
In For the Future, Corrie’s poetry continues to lean firmly into the ecopoetic without assenting to green didacticism. “Death of a Theologian” is a long poem that began for Corrie as a short memorial poem he published on the occasion of the death of process theologian and amateur ornithologist Charles Hartshorne, the poem’s initial version appearing as the frontispiece in the philosophical journal, Process Studies. The poem begins with a sort of academic joke (“Theology is / a great courtesy / and a profession / which speculation / grants itself”), quickly shifting in aural texture into, “Sun spilled through the green / and the birdcall” and expanding the poem’s vision by orders of magnitude: “The passing of all time / dreams a morning’s / verdant fullness.” Bird language dominates, so much older than human speech:
The near-words of birds
play a while at mocking
of human speculation—
With bird-like nimbleness, the poem’s short lines move through image after image of archetypal power, becoming directly environmental in its comparisons to the destructive advancements of our own kind:
Trees topple. Branches break
to asphalt highways
humming and hazing, cities
swarming and hazing.
Such a vision is stark, particularly when paired with the dwarfing perspectival swing into the next stanza, wherein celestial process is again pronounced: “In flight through eons, / the myriad wheels / of galaxies turn // diaspora of dervishes,” though these eons also seem to be in “flight through a moment.”
In his poetry, Corrie does not settle for depicting the natural world. A central preoccupation of Corrie’s poetry is to create a means of expression equipoised between internal and external worlds. As poet and scholar Bruce Bond has written in Immanent Distance, “[T]he poet must go inward by going outward and go outward by going inward.” In such a way, Corrie’s poetry is both centrifugal and centripetal in its force. Because Corrie’s poetry is embedded in the senses, its sensuousness creates an amplified phenomenological exactness and consciousness. Corrie’s poetry enacts an earnest ecological mode of a Heideggerian quest, seeking “the ‘thereness’ of being.” Corrie’s work engages with Earth-identity within all life’s dynamic mutability of being and becoming. In this deep probing, Corrie’s poetry creates a reality for and of the evolved human.
The concluding stanzas of “The Struggle to Exist” from Words, World encapsulate much of what Corrie’s poetry investigates. Even though all of Earth’s life always has struggled and even as continuing human existence depends on the ways in which we decide to treat the Earth, there is hope. As humans given the gift of intelligence, if we are open to learning to wield that gift, we might become one with the world, constructing:
a spanning bridge
in coming to love
the teeming otherness
of the world we are—
into the anciently fresh
worth of the world
in its birthing forth.
Header image by ColiN00B, courtesy Pixabay.