Accumulus by Ethan Paquin. Salt Publishing, $15.95.
Reviewed by Eric Pankey
I hesitate to refer to James McCorkle's first collection, Evidences, as a debut. Such a label suggests the work of an apprentice. Evidences is a mature and ambitious collection and would seem as ambitious and mature if it were McCorkle's fifth or sixth book. The poems are accessible without every sacrificing their intricate complexity. McCorkle's poems call to mind the epigraph Wallace Stevens used by Mario Rossi for "Evening without Angels": "the great interest of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, and the voluptuousness of looking."
The first sentence of the book's first poem, "Estuarine," announces the bounty of the seen-world's air and light, the precision and bounty with which the body beholds it:
It would be here, the light soaring
Above the grasses, the flats that stretch
Across the bay or river gap, here the light
Molten, the birds glints
Of turned glass, the wash of things
In and out of vision, the water pushing
Out flat, tarnished, tannin seeped,
It would be here what is as
Abstract as light finds its measure,
Heaping up in weight, the sky
Pressured by fullness, where everything
Is below the surface, below light's press.
Whether in the body and the mind, or in both, each poem in Evidences is a journey through time, thought, and landscape, a lyric-meditation that pushes toward the not-yet-known
Where the fresh water of a river and the tidal salt water of the ocean meet and merge is the estuarine. Throughout the collection, the journey across or sojourn at such a threshold is the here. "What we know hurts us, and /" he writes later in "Estuarine," “What isn't known waits." McCorkle reads and rereads the oracular evidences before him, whether an epic-sized painting by Anselm Kiefer or the seasonal changes, but rarely settles upon a reading of what waits to be revealed, deciphered, or envisioned. In "The New Season," “Everything is a guide, I had thought, / But then the world would be here / Only to keep us from being lost.” The mind at work in McCorkle's poems wrestles with and against the conclusive, with and against the lyric's headlong plunge toward an end. He pushes to unearth new evidence, struggles to find what is consequence and what is coincidence.
McCorkle's sentence-making tempts us with the finality of their form. But their termination is then questioned and parsed, and the truth (we thought to be certain) transmutes into the indeterminate and the process begins again. The poems in Evidences keep "The dwindling and the absent tallied" and denote the "Convergences among / Script and light."
McCorkle archives as much as he can because "Everything holds it own beginnings." History, philosophy, physics, and botany serve as ways toward figuring the world, a world, as momentary and uncertain as that world might be. Theodore Roethke writes, "A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more." McCorkle is a good reporter and a good deal more as is evidenced in the closing lines of "Pyromancy," by their voluptuousness of looking and of seeing:
In one thing another becomes and then passes on
To the next, resplendent to the dark, and back,
And yet there all the while--
A blue light that flashes off the Pacific or Gulf of Campeche,
Another sudden divinity that comes, evanescent,
Coming each summer, when the salvia turn to sparks
Among blades of freesia
And spiked globes of beebalm,
That stays with us through winter, iridescing
The snow, the wings of crows,
The water running off our skin as we rise from the streaming bath.
Ethan Paquin's Accumulus is, in fact, two books: a reprint of his lively first book, The Makeshift, which was published in England originally and not available here, and a new collection, Dead July. If James McCorkle's work calls up Stevens and Ashbery in the rational, contemplative, and introspective habit of his syntax, Paquin will remind readers of the mischief that Stevens and Ashbery can make as they follow sound into sense into nonsense. With the book closed before me, I remember a smart, wry, witty, and elegant voice more than any single poem. I do not mean to suggest that the individual poems are not whole, but that style is at the heart of this poet's project and it is a style here that can haunt, tickle, charm, and even throw a knock-out punch.
Where in McCorkle's work, you can observe the path of the mind at work, the mind in conversation with itself, Paquin's mind darts about with almost dizzying speed. Paquin is a poet of leaps and strange juxtapositions, as in one of three poems with the title "Woe":
Such is my little disease--
like a poodle in a meadow
she makes the sky fall out of its joints.
She makes me ask what it's
been through--"What did you go through?"
I crouch. Creaky little melodies--
Can no longer stand the heft
upon which clouds shatter.
Paquin is a poet who is willing to embrace and discard a bit of poetic convention in a single instant, using it for all its power, while admitting to its obsolescence, as with the pathetic fallacy in "Thunder Over Louisville." a love poem of sorts:
Did you come last night
but at least the lighthouse light
swung around the sky a bit, a bit
of consolation on my lonely grass
so even if you didn't
The tongue-in-cheek allows for sentiment--"my lonely grass"--as it mocks sentiment.
Paquin's poems play often at the boundary of the carnivalesque. Both Paquin and McCorkle confront what McCorkle calls in "Disruptive Patterning" "the old press / of contraries, the law of here and gone." Paquin does not strive for gnosis and insight, but something much more ambivalent: the melding of the self as performer and the self as spectator, the merger and marriage of dis-ease and impatience. We laugh, but feel uneasy in our laughter, as in "Bolus": “That bolus Z is no more mealy than your retinal discord, / The caldera in your stomach, the lymphatic gnosis your eyes corral / in vernal seascape--lone boats, toss'd umbrellae, ad inf.”
As Paquin shuttles from "Z" and "ad inf.," we discover a new world unhooked from gravity, where language is a world and the principle product of that world. Accumulus calls to mind poets such as Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. Dismissing Surrealism, Stevens writes that it is "invention without discovery." But Paquin's poems invent and discover. Then they innovate upon the invented, push beyond toward discoveries not always coupled with the previously discovered.