Alistair Noon reviews
Backward Turning Sea
by Kelvin Corcoran
The seedlings of Kelvin Corcoran’s latest full-length collection are the poems "Helen" and "Helen Mania" from his New and Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2004), a book praised in the Guardian for the "simple magnificence" of its lines. The two Helen poems have subsequently grown into the extended version of Helen Mania published as a pamphlet in Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and made Poetry Book Society Choice in 2005.
The growth of this book seems to have been engineered using a genome mapped out by Basil Bunting, whose stint as a spy in Persia is the subject of one of the poems here. In Bunting’s magnum opus Briggflatts, sonata form is applied to the mid-length poem: themes of home and travel, age and youth are developed and recapitulated, and “something different” – the dream of Alexander the Great – interposed in the middle of five movements.
Corcoran applies a similar kind of structuring not to a single longish poem but to a book of shorter poems and sequences. The rewritten, refocused myth of Helen in "Helen Mania" (section 1) expands out into the poems of "The Subsequent World View", which touch on various places and people: Mogadishu, Teheran, Sappho, Dylan Thomas, as well as further Greek figures and locations.
The themes – in the musical sense – of (quasi-) Greek myth and contemporary observation are set off against “something different” in the third section, an engagement with the painter Roger Hilton in his Cornish setting. In the fourth section, myth rewriting reappears in a developed form: the figure of Alexiares, who speaks here, is wholly invented. Another group of more miscellaneous poems follow in section 5 under the title of "Ulysses in the Car". Here, a mythical character and one of modernity’s key icons are brought together. Formal devices such as first person prose asides or mock interviews recur in the sequence code of the book.
If the title alludes to the 2005 tsunami, it also ropes together the maritime aspect of the two main geographical locations in the book – Greece and Cornwall. It also creates a sense of the force of the events tangentially approached – the events of now. In the last ten or twenty years, terms such as "topical", "relevant", "contemporary" have often been used to promote certain kinds of poetry – some parts of Bloodaxe’s list spring to mind. They’ve also been thrown back by some critics as buzz words too often employed to gloss over a lack of depth of thought. Corcoran’s poems avoid superficiality of reference by situating recent events in texts able to go elsewhere too. Take these lines:
"the belief in mythology as fact
comes roaring out of the tunnel"
which echo the earlier line
"as in another country the sky is sucked down a roaring tunnel."
The 7/7 bombings in London and the total organ failure of Iraq are clearly meant here. Short of political reorientation on a world scale, however, future readers may – awfully – be able to fill these lines with a contemporary/topical meaning.
"Ambitious" is one of those loaded words in poetry. The prefix ‘over-’ often seems to be lurking in the background. It’s ambition, though, that creates a gulp-inducing breadth of reference, combined with a thick aural texture, in lines such as the following, about the Middle East as one of the simulacra of world culture:
"We had invented six languages in the dust,
mastered the olive, grape and grain."
Corcoran offers memorable phrases for the politics of our time, phrases I would like to see in a future Dictionary of Quotations: "the circuit of mineral rivalry", "the voting servants", "the war on abstract nouns". He also serves up vivid, surprising but apt descriptions: "the sun, a golden hand trailing in the water", "light picks its way down the mountain", "desire lifted us like the tide". I think these exemplify an approach to poetry which Corcoran mentions in the course of the book, the "sublime literal". The words are down-to-earth but aim for the sky.
Andrew Duncan’s characteristically flippant but amusing description of Kelvin Corcoran as "Britain’s best Greek poet" shouldn’t obscure the seriousness and novelty of this strand in Corcoran’s work. In taking the events of Ancient Greece and fusing them with contemporary references, Corcoran, like Seamus Heaney in the Bog Poems, has found a translocal correlative to the violent political events of his time.
Among the undergrowth, bushes, and trees of Corcoran’s previous work – in fact anybody’s – this collection stands tall. Somebody someday will do a study of poets’ responses to the early 21st century, and this book will be a necessary specimen. In the meantime, I’d urge any T.S. Eliot Prize Selectors reading this to proactively seek out Backward Turning Sea.
Alistair Noon has reviewed previously for Eyewear. Links to Noon’s work online can be found here. His translations from German, Chinese and Russian include Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman. He coordinates the annual Poetry Hearings festival in Berlin, coedits the magazine Bordercrossing Berlin, and is guest-editing an online symposium on the work of Sean Rafferty this June.
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