Book Review

Having read the title poem three or four times, I’m still unsure if the rock is, or is not, a rabbit. Probably it isn’t. Whatever is in the field appears to be animated only when a breeze ruffles the grass and is likely to be free from hunger and fear and rabbit lust, unable to “…breathe the world in, translating / scent into some rabbit understanding.” Probably.

Seemingly quite insubstantial at first glance, further reading reveals a kind of heightened awareness on the part of the observer, which lends these few lines a measure of significance that, just out of reach, is all the more irresistible. It’s a quality which informs much of the content in this fine collection from the pen of Corey Marks. He has the perception, and indeed the craftsmanship, to construct a scene, to highlight a moment, with just enough detail—a delicately wrought image here, a telling phrase there—to draw you in, to put you in the picture. But be mindful of the fact that it’s not always a picture you feel entirely comfortable with, sensing perhaps a glimpse behind the facade, or a distortion of what is accepted.

This is not to say the poems are in any way difficult, they are not, it’s more that they require an open mind, an alert receptiveness to fully appreciate their value. The opening poem, “Lark,” sets the tone beautifully. It describes a child’s realization that perhaps there exists something outside of oneself, outside of the known world. A boy has put a stone in his mouth, a stone tasting of dirt and ozone. Why had he put it there?

Hard to remember now – something

about its smell, like rain. Something

about the open field, a distant song,

a sense of the day’s never-endingness

That song, echoing Patrick Kavanagh’s strange light on a distant hill, seemingly wants to tell us something. It defines a sort of watershed moment. When we are young and uncynical enough to let it in, we can either dismiss it as inconsequential or we can take heed of it, and it’s perfectly clear, in the succeeding poems, which road Marks has taken. It’s a poem encompassing the confusion, misunderstanding, and wonder of childhood—aspects rather neatly summed up in three tight verses at its heart where the boy questions whether a meadowlark is a true lark at all. It’s a fascinating piece although, sadly, a couple of rather poignant lines suggest that the initial wide-eyed eagerness might, over time, become compromised:

Still, that’s what his book said

when it mattered to him once.

The subject matter explored in these pages is wide and varied. The author’s very particular slant adds an extra dimension to anything from a curious, almost slow-motion encounter between a woman and a bear, to a boy’s fear of fragments falling from the disintegrating Skylab, from a conversation with a dead cicada, to what I consider the finest piece in the collection titled “The Freighters.” It’s a longish, intricately woven and really quite absorbing picture featuring an anonymous observer on the shore of Lake Superior waving at ships as they pass and commenting on what he does and doesn’t see. Although there is a detailed story of how a German spy once infiltrated a lighthouse, it’s a gentle, philosophical meditation rather than a narrative, where a keen eye combines with a mastery of language to come up with such wonderfully observed images as:

…the wind wavering,

turning back on itself, like doubt, and the freighter

tatters its own reflection into ribbons

across its shrugged-off wake.

What unifies them all is that touch, that hint of something other which serves to color and intensify the reality of any given situation. Consider the example of “Broken Music,” an interesting, slightly unsettling poem which sees the troubled narrator walk through a crowded city where faceless people mill around, their heads bowed, talking into the wind. He turns into an unknown side street, and at a high window someone learning the piano bangs out a tune “at odds with itself, the rush of notes / splintering like glass….” The song fascinates him, being “delirious and awful and unabashed, / and so unlike what I’d wanted to say.” But it stops suddenly, and the window is darkened, reflecting a window across the street which itself reflects a bit of sky, revealing an airplane and its vapor trail. It’s a poem that picks out the tics and inconsistences which tend to disrupt the general order of things, reminding us of what may be behind the divide. Again, a fine piece, tantalizingly vague but nicely atmospheric, and skillfully laid out in a series of evenly paced couplets.

Another I should mention, a bit of an oddity really, but one I returned to for its inventiveness and command of description, is, of all things, a tale of a school arsonist. It tells of how, while the fire is raging with a drinking fountain hissing like a swan and lockers blistering, he flees into the night, his pursuers hot on his tail. He stumbles in the long grass and there follows a dramatic and evocative picture of a shower of charred pages from pupils’ exercise books circling like fireflies above him. Touchingly, there are glimpses of a spelling list with every word scratched through, a hand-drawn map of Greenland with “two tiny sharks penciled into a corner” and, curiously:

even this one, a note from the fire itself:

Do you love me? Circle one: Yes or No.

You will have gathered, I hope, that Corey Marks is inviting us to breathe the world in, unlike the rock that isn’t a rabbit (probably), asking us to recognize the reproaches, the intimations and the blessings picked up off the breeze, and in doing so, nudge us out of our complacency, our unwillingness sometimes to look beyond. In this pleasingly fashioned and wholly original collection that both stimulates and informs, he does just that.

About the Reviewer

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Allegro, The Crank, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Decanto, Pennine Platform, Picaroon, Purple Patch, and others. His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, Sugar House Review, Colorado Review, and Poetry International.