Opening Day by William Corbett
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2008)
The Whalen Poem by William Corbett
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2011)
It is an honor as opening day approaches once again to respond to William Corbett’s 2008 book Opening Day, full of tight poems from this century’s first half-decade, and his newly published book-length poem from 2007, The Whalen Poem (2011). Both are from the folks at Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn who seem to have stepped in where Zoland was for a long while, into the role of making sure we get Bill Corbett’s books. I have always been happy to have them. In my excitement, I’m going to give myself a little permission to intrude here with fragments of my own lived experience of more than just the poems.
This is poetry as an art of showing how living with a sense of response to each thing in its moment might look. It solves the Ashberyan dilemma by putting anything (not everything) in and leaving out what would keep what’s in there from coming across. It is, in its way, off-hand art with a steady hand that moves lightning-sketch-like over the pages and leaves you with something meanwhile. In Opening Day we have a fine display of the line-by-line technique that I’ve seen too few using fully since Ted Berrigan stopped production. It is especially fine in how the lines do have enjambments of sense and grammar but are each units unto themselves in the build-up. That is the firm hand of this off-hand technique. Not every poem in this book is his best work; heck, the Red Sox lose a few too. However, there are many fine passages.
These are poems of maturity. I’m not going to say any crap about fine wines; they are vodka sharp or beer fresh, but they reflect time spent and paid for.
Yes, time will
darken all we know, all we think we know.
Why is this a comfort? The outdoors in?
As if this splendid day were the under,
the other side of some filth, the truth
we know to be there and are relieved
to face, no hand raised in defense. (25)
The trick is to shake off
what we know and what we think
we know, to be not merely right,
to know what to let slide, to encourage
the love in others of what we love
so that what we love well remains
revived for us, alive in them. (29)
These are pieces of a long poem called “Backandforth” where he implores us, “Imagine this as a letter / in stanzas” (35) and reveals another angle on the poetics of WCW, whose friend EP cannot be missed in that passage above. The fact that “what thou lov’st well remains” and “the rest is dross” is true of anyone’s life, and here it is expressed.
I too am a deep-hearted baseball fan and lover of the Red Sox though from an odd distance: I went to the high school in San Diego that spawned Ted Williams (the other Williams here); I tell a story from those days of being slammed up against the trophy case holding Ted’s trophies when Commander Kosky didn’t like my haircut or the fact that I “forgot” to rise for the presentation of the colors one day during the Viet Nam war. This kind of memory and imagery is greatly what Corbett is working with in this book and on many pages of The Whalen Poem. That and how to get it all down “instanter” (as Olson did say) in tensely active wording. “Trotting Cucumbers” works with a case of the trots while job-hunting as a young man, remembered now sitting on the same bench four decades later. “Overtown, you travel there” works from the use of the term “Overtown” in a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel Corbett has opened in a bar and how he flashes to the “Overtown” in the town formerly known as East Mauch Chunk, PA, where his grandparents picked up the mail and went to the movies. Gratuitous moments where memory lights up and sneaks in or out, taking us with it into an enlargement of time.
Speaking of greater ruins in the book’s last poem “Cue,” written while editing Jimmy Schuyler’s letters, Corbett admits gladly
Imagine the highway desolate,
A ruin, treasured like a Roman viaduct.
I can’t. Or not convincingly in words.
I leave that and much else
To my more imaginative kind.
I write about what I see
And hear, what’s right in front
And disappearing fast behind me.
I write to cast a net of words
To catch more than I saw,
To surprise myself because
Without that surprise
It’s not worth writing down
In the first place. (132)
When he asks in the Overtown poem “Where’s this heading? Nostalgia?” and then answers blithely “Yes,” he moves in the next lines through that Connelly connection to Miles Davis and his “fake Spain” as an image of the classic tone that bridges artifice and artfulness. And Corbett simply expands upon that, suspending judgment, to include the change of name intended to bring business (through Jim Thorpe’s fame) and the way it has evolved into “a second-home town” for those who could afford to buy “the homes / of laid-off railroad men” and commute to NY. There’s a lot more than nostalgia here.
In the process of helping to edit Philip Whalen’s Collected, Corbett came up with another poem of memory association and heart-sharp imagery. The Whalen Poem seems a little uneven in its way, but it nicely hangs on the many ways it plays off of Phil Whalen strategies and occasionally drawing him in. The strategies seem to let Bill Corbett take some bigger loops here, and the bits of PW are not so much hooks he depends on as bright detritus in the greater flow. My favorite is an anecdotal reference to PW’s waning years and the near-blindness that caused him to have to put his nose to the page in order to read or even write his name. A friend
Called on Philip Whalen
The master who saw him
Anyway. Whalen’s sight had
All but gone. He told Dan
He missed reading Jane
Austen another time.
At some point Whalen
Rose clumsily, stepped
In his wastebasket
And shook it all about. (31-32)
The master “hisself” is not the focal point of much of the poem and certainly not masterful here, though masterfully portrayed in an image he would have enjoyed. He is very present when Corbett borrows from Whalen’s “October First” (Collected pp. 675-678) to make lists as compositions (TWP pp. 46-48). Even more so on pages 34-35 when Corbett perfectly imitates the master’s way of bringing in a gone time through its proper names:
Home in the suburbs
Like no other
Bendix Zenith Fruit of the Loom
Pressure Cooker Blender Aspic
Adolph’s meat Tenderizer
And even adds the old F Troop joke:
Where the Fugawi?
Having grown up partly in that world, I see it composed in those words, but also because I know how Whalen did it with his world of The Dalles with early mid-twentieth century names. This is not nostalgia of an escapist kind. A world of memory as it presents itself is being composed here. Where
Barefoot Thelonious and Bruno
Run in the grass of memory (16).
There is also the pain of reaching the time when things have changed so much that you are wont to turn the catchphrase upside down to catch the moment:
Until memory no longer servesAnother classic Whalen move is to focus the line that pops into your head without its source. Pound wrote too about that, asserting that it was the very definition of culture when something was so ingrained that its source was left behind. Corbett takes from Whalen another take on this, emphasizing more the annoyance in not remembering which book. In one of two places where he uses this in The Whalen Poem, I had an out-of-Whalen experience in mis-reading a word and getting a better line from “The trail of the serpent is over all” as “the tail of the serpent” (16). Mis-memory and benign mis-quotation or jazzy re-representation of lines is a Whalen turn. Not knowing which book would lead the master to days spent thumbing too, and he put that in the writings. Corbett does it with the last bit of one of his lists:
The unexpected has come to pass (37).
20b. Can’t find Whalen “Fat shaving brush flower” line (48)
I couldn’t find it either. And then Corbett has it on the next page without answering the question:
Fat shaving brush flower
Where I wasn’t looking for it
Among all those naked ladies (49)
I laughed and sighed and wondered if it were in Highgrade among the doodles or even in one of Bill’s own peony poems. I went ahead and wrote my own poem beginning with that line, one about an artichoke heart “enarmored.” That’s the funny energy Corbett got too, and he used it certainly and well in The Whalen Poem. Opening Day probably has more variety to offer, even along the lines of what you can get from poets you love well. But both books practice the art of loving what words do and loving the world through that.
T.C. Marshall is a beautiful curmudgeon living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, chasing the seasons as they come to him, book by book. He pays the bills, accepts gifts, and teaches. Friend him on FaceBook to converse and to find out more.