Book Review

There’s a sense in The Melancholy of Anatomy that the grave intellect monitoring the process of the poems is skeptical of a lyric’s passion. In this way Martin Corless-Smith binds feeling in a boundary of wit and reverence; that is, one feels the conception in emotion, but the writing and revising in a temperance. Where the heart began, the brain almost immediately took over.

Sometimes this results in smart restarts, or interruptions, of that learned “I” into the fabric of the lyric. In “Regarding the interior,” “I wish to begin / again—to unfling the crumbs of a moments past feast” pauses a poem exemplifying “Solomon and the blind Samson” as—what, exactly? The program is interrupted. The lyric becomes creatively mangled between classical subject and its classical treatment, and the undammable weight of the mind overseeing such subject’s construction. That mind is, of course, Corless-Smith at work.

Immensely learned and attuned to so many years of English’s music, the poems riff on their influences and seem to dance into a personal canon of ballad and conversation poem. Reading permeates the narratives, and a self-consciousness toward poetic aspiration is less meta-poetic than it is the same awareness of the “motionary carcass” defined in the first line of the titular poem: the speaker is a poet, and the anxiety of a failing body is the anxiety of a daedal fate, the consequence of ambition delivered onto the body.

The anatomy of the collection’s title must primarily be the poet’s own, but the book’s best moments extend the melancholy to the poet’s father, or at least justify the self-directed sadness by presenting the case of the future: the dead body. “I grow incorporate / with loss” is the wandering survivor-speaker’s moan. A strange word, “incorporate” most immediately seems to mean “embodied,” but, because of the ambiguity of its prefix with the “corpus” etymology, it might just as well signify “out of body.” That ambiguity is part of Corless-Smith’s extreme awareness and intellect.

If the analytical mind of the poet is well trained, so too is the formal one. In “Bible stories before bed” the iambic beat, varying line to line, brings a mythological life to a child’s imagination of Noah’s flood, and even consciously provides the musical distraction from World War II’s bombings: “The flute, the flute / the bear the flute the bear.” The sudden lack of punctuation casts the iambs as “The sound of the imaginary flute,” spirit ditties for a dancing bear, concealing “an air raid 30 miles off.”

There is the ghost of a formal decency here, and he doesn’t shy away from a dark comedy interspersed between the heavier poems. In the cynical “poète maudit,” the poem mocks its own attempt at levity, even while it is light:

I shall fall over
comical and fat
rolling between tables
an embarrassment

This is not to say the formal poetry is comedic by nature, rather that the poet, in his melancholy, has put on the mask of a comedic quatrain so he may frown while he writes it.

There’s a torturedness to the tone, however, in the opening poems, and where the language amplifies toward academic, the passion suffers and his reason hardens grief to coldness. That may be intentional, and less a propensity or even failing. Of a snow globe: “shake the globe as if to register intentionality / contained in an exemplary universe in miniature . . .” Such a surrenderedness and ironic outlook can be difficult to read, but may at last be honest.

“(Sea Poems)” affirm their title parenthetical as an interlude between the first and fourth section’s centerpiece of metaphysical lyric, allowing Corless-Smith an indulgence in Coleridgean fantasias of seascape squall:

Shipwrecked satyrs baulking at the tide
Vomit morning’s reckoning: green bile
Matted mane on futtock shrouds
Gaskin strained. Unheard alarum bells.

If Corless-Smith is an Englishman in Idaho, then he sounds here most like his shadow: Pound, the Idaho in England. Here he is most honest about his sound’s heritage, going back to the prickly Browning of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb . . .” and “Caliban upon Setebos” that so influenced the earlier Cantos. As Pound’s vast learning inspired immimicable diction, so here Homeric words encounter an Anglo-Saxon vulgarity and combine into something fresh and ravishing:

Hither waking on the glaucous plain,
beach before dawn after rain
a pale puke-coloured dessert
with micro-beads and dabberlocks

It would be hard to imagine the first and third lines of that stanza together if they were presented apart, but they merge a Greek vision of the sea with a modern knowledge of the plastics in it. As is the case with the entire book, lines do the work of punctuation, and their control renders periods redundant until he wants an audible caesura.

Death creeps in from the edge of every page, and the overarching elegy reads, “this one died, like me”—the seascape gives way to the carcass of a blind whale, and we’re back to a material seriousness. To “muster sympathy for my own skeleton” seems to be the book’s reason, its impetus, and as with all good elegy, the result is heavy and ambivalent, having arrived at an answer that does not provide the consolation it had promised.

So rather than answers, the book arrives at a place, “The bird zone,” its last section. The remnants of the book’s mythological interest are treated most bitterly in this other place, Daedalus a “desiccated ape / discarded by ambition.” We are reminded of the earlier poems’ presentation of the body in similarly disturbed and ridden ways, as we are of Yeats’s heart “fastened to a dying animal.”

Indeed there are “late poetics” at work here, and that is no doom for a poet—it is an invitation; there’s a technique so confident, it moves fast between interests and takes turns that young poetry cannot. “The bird zone” feels like a quiet afterlife in which Corless-Smith recalls moments of his father and seems to join him. “(Twilight summer)” approaches what must be the most quietly sublime moment of the book:

after the birds’ resounding vesper
above us out of sight we hear
a stranger in a tiny plane fly over
what we know, what’s left to discover
we can’t say, we just hover
in shared solitude for an hour
passing thoughts between each other
watching Phoebus-Apollo lower

An American might call it bleak; an Englishman, true. Rarely is monorhyme so elegantly executed, and even more amazingly, so silent. Those “er” endings and the comfort each line has to itself drive its somber incantation, the remnants of a mythological imagination having, it seems, their last breath, to call the sun its old name.

About the Reviewer

Keene Carter is from Charlottesville, Virginia.