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Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

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