Paul Valéry has written, “The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition.” The paradox of being defined by being indefinable is essential to Corvus and Crater, the new poetry collection by Erin Coughlin Hollowell. With indefinable harmony and elegance, these poems invite us to participate in their mystery by actively engaging in language and form that resist convention.
Corvus and Crater expands a conversation with Max Porter’s novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, which he wrote in response to Ted Hughes’s poetry collection Crow. At the center of the intricate dance across all three works is the aftermath of loss. In Porter’s and Hughes’s works, the Crow character serves as a guide through a man’s unspeakable grief following the suicides and accidental deaths of women who were loved.
The poems in Corvus and Crater battle grief that results from, as Hollowell explained to me in an email, “so much loss, so much pain in living in a world where good friends die suddenly, love goes astray, things break apart.” Hughes and Porter both question a merciless god; Hollowell’s god is enigmatic. In the poem “The unpredictable solicitude of decomposition,” Hollowell writes “there is one shadow so / great, she lives inside it and calls it / home.” A line in the title poem, “Corvus and Crater,” asks the “roadside prophet” to “Tell us, / who loves the keyhole over the key?” In this poem, we come to understand that there is no key to the mysteries of life and death. There is only the keyhole in the “hag-stones,” amulets from the Irish coast, that “rattle you along.”
The Crow in Hollowell’s poems is female, “fighting for her place in a hostile landscape that she loves,” as Hollowell told me. In this collection, Crow provides a pathway through “concentric circles of pain-weaving” and by “lift(ing) her wing to pull up the sun / from its warm bed.” These concentric circles reappear in the poem “Sainthood made of isobars”:
After she finds
her edges, the smudge
of moon-glint through spindrift remembers
herself to herself. Like a blunt print
of a careless god’s thumb. She
meant to let go of her miracle.
Wings made of darkness stitched to her back.
The hostile landscape in these poems is clearly the Alaska that Hollowell calls home. “Snow gathering deep,” “the grey static of this icescape,” and a “frigid sun” describe these winters, where corvids are regulars. The constellations Corvus and Crater are visible in Alaska in the winter skies. According to Ovid, Apollo gave the crow a crater (“mixing vessel” in Greek, a two-handled vase used to mix wine with water) and sent the bird to collect the waters of life. The crow did not obey immediately; when he finally returned from his task, he blamed a water snake for his delay. An angry Apollo cursed the bird with eternal thirst and threw him and the crater into the heavens, guarded by Hydra, the water snake. In some interpretations, Corvus, Crater, and Hydra cast death symbols that mark the gate to the underworld.
This is not the first use of the Crow persona in Hollowell’s work; Crow made an appearance in at least one earlier poem. Every Atom, Boreal Books, 2018 (first published in Blast Furnace literary magazine), features a poem with a title taken from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. In “Not asking the sky to come down to my good will, scattering it freely forever,” Hollowell writes of a crow whose “compass swings wildly.” The poet appeals to Crow directly: “Saint Crow, I am a shabby petitioner. / One of your feathers tucked behind my ear.” In Corvus and Crater, Crow is neither saint nor demon. Hollowell’s Crow “comes clapping / her black wings like laughter.” Crows carry cultural connotations of tricksters, transgressors of limits. The poems in this collection interrogate multiple limits. As with Porter and Hughes, Hollowell challenges the notion of nature as oblivious to the feelings of humans. In “The way we recognize each other”:
a vast labyrinth, scented
with beeswax and rain on rotted wood
planks. Crow likes to dance there.
some rough song. One-two-three.
Memory. Memory. Memory.
Then the whomp of her wings as she leaves.
Also like Hughes and Porter, Hollowell stretches the limits of language to describe experiences that exist outside it. These poems bewitch the sounds of language and are meant to be read aloud like incantations, like a spell that releases its magic when spoken. In “Navigation of certain bold species,” Hollowell writes: “She only understands her cell spells / a tang like brass moonlight on reaped fields.” In “She bleak breaks,” “…siskins / ornament such trees with flickering / and their shattered smattering of song.” The poem “Most like an erratic” plays with language while its subject matter remains dark. It is left to us to enlighten:
The river is snow sluice,
among the stones on which she washes.
was never vaunted, symbol
of no quickening, no sacrifice.
The sky, a flat pan of beaten tin
and still she scrubs,
voice casting split snare.
In Corvus and Crater, Hollowell sheds the narrative style of her earlier poems and distills them to an expanded haiku. In “A dissolving language,” she writes:
Before sunrise, anything could be
Crow. Eldritch creep of hoar-frost along
slate seams and still
the light is swallowed.
Dim chills the pulsebeat. Rosehips shrunken
down dream pathways, not this door
All the poems are presented in a form of Hollowell’s own, inspired by poet Charles Wright’s sestets. Every poem has precisely 54 syllables—nine lines of six syllables each; the 54 poems in the collection are organized into six groups of nine poems, each with at least one dropped line. Hollowell told me she wrote one poem a day during her 54th year when she had started a new job and “needed something to spur (her) into creation.” Her response was to tackle creation itself.
Hollowell said in her email that after reading Hughes’s Crow, she “began to wonder how the book would be different if Crow were female—how does that change the way Crow looks at God/god, creation, difficulty, grief?” Hollowell’s poem “The rotten handle on the scythe” is in direct conversation with Hughes’s “The Apple Tragedy.” In her poem, Hollowell reimagines the telling of The Fall:
Where did the snake go in the winter
when apples shriveled
beneath the snow?
The garden even more silent, lost
the way she hummed
as she made her
way to the river.
Who tells that story of winding now?
In Hughes’s poem, after Eve is unfaithful to Adam and incriminates the snake, “everything goes to hell.” In “The rotten handle on the scythe,” Hollowell redeems Eve, giving her a life after her expulsion from a landscape she loved. Corvus and Crater questions who gets to tell these creation stories. She allows the women in this collection, who are “curious and insatiable,” to create the life they want rather than the one that is imposed on them by society. According to the poet, in some ways, the entire collection is about a “history of defiance.” Corvus and Crater defies convention in multiple ways and invites us to join the journey.