Thursday, March 31, 2011



ENGLISH FRAGMENTS: A Brief History of the Soul by Martin Corless-Smith
(Fence Books, Albany, NY, 2010)

1. Somewhere someone wrote of the appreciation she had for a poet's work. That appreciation was out of friendship. The poems were still heart-breaking. I do not know Mr Corless-Smith. But I am his friend. His poems have broken me. And he is a liar! A liar!

2. ENGLISH FRAGMENTS is a retelling of the world. It is, as the blurb on the back tells us, the “final volume in a trilogy of 'alternate selves and alternate literary histories.'” It is a retelling of a world just to the left of our own, where Thomas Swan (var. Martin Corless-Smith) invents the stealing and linguistic strangeness of contemporary poetry hundreds of years before postmodernism's time and William Williamson (var. Martin Corless-Smith) riffs on being, writing out his poems and philosophy in fragments on the walls of his weaver's cottage on “a remote Hebridean island” where he worked as a radio operator during World War II. The world(s) of FRAGMENTS is , ultimately, the world in (light of) the author.

3. Aesthetics. History. Being. Lyric. The Whole.

Corless-Smith's language is stunning, to say the least. Its sounds are absolutely clear, maybe a bit yellowed from age, but the words and lyrical voices and imagery make the poetry ring brilliantly, blindingly. How does he get there? He walks backwards. There is a background awareness of postmodern language play sitting alongside a low-key visual poetry that sings through new forms and movement across the paper as well as a narrative poetry speaking in codes while remaining in the world of coffee, age and taxes. Corless-Smith backs away from the new. He is quietly aware of the whole history of English poetry...its contemporary forms and what they have evolved from...back to our not-so-English ancestors such as Petrarch. In his awareness of history, Corless-Smith longs for a lyrical poetry that speaks from the heart. He wants the honest sentiments and the music of romantic poetry restored:
Be vigilant–The same room in five years is not the same
room. You are shorter–your eyes dimmer.

For some reason–political acceptance–I have forsaken
The songs of beautiful girls.

Young men overcome their duty with energy.
Here I am again surveying the remnants of the slaughter.

One sees the hideous hermit crabs, four rayfish and
A red gunnet, wings tipped with violet and blue.

If you had time you might devise a method of escape
But you would never be brave enough to attempt it–even
Supposing that it might work.

Corless-Smith sees what it is in poetry that originally captivates us, the musicality and romance that moves us to write the “songs of beautiful girls.” But contemporary poetry assaults the source of poetry, tries to uproot poetry itself: “The labourer's heel must spade/ Through roots and ruinous foundations/ For his fruit–silent to his own antithesis.” The assault is not an assault in the end. There is fruitful work done. As he himself notes, Corless-Smith's digging ultimately leaves him exhausted and satisfied in the piles of earth he has dug into:
His hours his own–his elements apparent
All efforts are exact–all sober
Air and light until his lapse
To ordinary earth and extraordinary breath

We return...we fall back to earth. The earth we started from. The ordinary earth. Not through work. We return by exhaustion. The poet falls back to earth and breathes an “extraordinary breath” and takes his secure footing on the “ordinary earth” that stops his fall.

To recapture the lyricism and romance of past English poetry is not a straightforward task. For one, the forms and language of the past often strike us as overly revelatory, dishonestly honest: “And I'm trying not to lie, even in the pompous way I say this.” The honesty of FRAGMENTS is palatable, in part, because it is deliberate. The honesty is measured. It is meant to strike us as honest, even as over-wrought honesty. FRAGMENTS is the reappropriation of the sentimental, lyrical poetry of the past. Corless-Smith makes the old poetry new again by simply admitting a need (better: a drive) to do so. But his appropriation is more than rewriting Milton and saying so:
Song of the Swallow

It is this
Fever music
I exist

The broken language and slightly twisted grammar is wholly modern; the sound, sentiment and forced linguistic musicality is utterly ancient.

Being. History. The Whole. Aesthetics. Lyric.

These fragmentary poems and philosophical notes weave together bits of Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Petrarch, et al. Fragmenting history and bringing it back together, Corless-Smith erases the lines (“the whole book resembles/ a poem–from/ beginning to end”) between all fragments and eras, all writers, all genres and disciplines; and the result is a new history of English poetry that gives the author permission to explore all voices and concepts and forms:
The book is one model of the possible (nonexistent) interior. When we realize the self we have called into being is not touched by our invocations the book is our only resort. It is neither ourself, nor our consolation, nor strictly the articulation of our loss. If a book can fail to articulate the truth then it must. The nightroom illuminated in an infinitesimal (untraceable) tracing collage of sensations that I turned into memory.

The author traces for himself what is not there, but does so thickly, as a book, making his tracings real, a memory, a history.

Without the ordinary sorts of boundaries, the untraceable trace lines are all we have and FRAGMENTS is a work of living. It feels alive. Or, it is a life(live). There are at least three (four, five?) books in this one book. The opening unnumbered pages are titled Added here from last pages of Notebook and these pages are taken up again in the last unnumbered pages of FRAGMENTS. In between, there are at least two books trading (numbered) pages with one another. There are philosophical fragments together with the author's own philosophical notes. Thomas Swan's poems. William Williamson's poetry and philosophy. Martin Corless-Smith's own poetry and poetic fragments. But there is no clear line between a fragmentary interpolation from a foreign work sitting between two pages of a single poem and the organic form of a poem that grows freely with a single stanza on one page followed by its remaining lines on a second and third page.

Take, for example, the first page of the poem “Dark Matter”, a single stanza:
For (matter) he has made my soul
Just as a mirror (is) held up to a room
For how (else) (to) else know thyself/hisself
And in so doing a dark otherness

This opening rightly stands alone. It is a look inside the poet's notebooks. The reader peeks at his perfect thoughts, the moments when the author falls back “to ordinary earth and extraordinary breath.” We linger on that perfect moment. Why leave? The language is...perfect. So we linger, listen. The next page is not the rest of the poem, but a quote from Williamson: “Soul is the ever-expanding surface of experience.” And then we go on with the rest of the poem...on a third page. But elsewhere, we read “Reflections of a poor eye”, the first two quatrains on the left-facing page, the final 4-line stanza on the right. And those “poor eye” pages can sit separately, as notes by the author to himself for later use or correction. But the reader wants to read them together. “Soul is the ever-expanding surface of experience.” The pages of FRAGMENTS grow into one another, interpenetrate one another, regardless of their “intentional” relationships or simple, accidental besidedness.

The lack of clear lines is implied by the book's title, ENGLISH FRAGMENTS: A Brief History of the Soul. Fragments are small, separate units...but, usually, of an original whole. These fragments can be taken as separate pieces, but they want to be part of a whole, the book. There is present the idea that none of these parts belong together. John Locke is quoted: “We should do well to commiserate our ignorance,” suggesting that there is no hope in grasping FRAGMENTS as a whole with a unitary underlying substance, except, maybe, as some vague feeling:
There is something adrift in thinking consciousness can exist as something in its own right.
–Susan Greenfield.

Still, the parts hang together. At least, they are all beside one another. And the besidedness seems to make them a single being:
Language lives on the surface – unconsciousness withdraws from and overtakes the
spoken (which evolves into the written). Consciousness is light on the surface, reflected or projected.

The surface is immediate and impenetrable – penetration merely extends
the surface.
The surface trembles with possibilities – with elemental life.
Everything is played out on this dimension.

The surface is constantly moving into and out of being. Being is not apprehensible, just as the surface avoids apprehension. Apprehension is another aspect of the surface – of being.

We apprehend these pages of fragments as one; they are one. Maybe it is the multiple voices, created through different fonts and philosophical positions, poetry and prose, giving the appearance of a conversation across history and real and fictional worlds...maybe that is how FRAGMENTS becomes the apparent product of a single consciousness/listener/speaker...the author. I don't know. I don't care. It is beautiful.

The author argues (as a subtext) the more surface he offers, the more the book is a separate reality. I believe him now. Williamson tells us that “[t]he surface isn't so much dimensionless as it is the field of multidimensional interaction.” Corless-Smith has played this out on many different levels. FRAGMENTS is the conclusion of a trilogy (or a tetralogy, if you include the pseudonymous A Selection from the Works of Thomas Swan.) The multiple type fonts imply multiple works or voices. Quotations from historical and pseudo-historical figures imply a conversation across history on poetry, being and the soul. Even the division of the book into paginated and non-paginated, prose and poetry sections creates fault-lines that add surface area. As the author tells us in the quotes above on apprehension, surface and being, he has projected being onto the surface of the pages of his book. The multiple books/voices/histories penetrate one another, creating more surface area because we tear into that new third area where the multiple pieces are now interacting... “penetration merely extends the surface.” Even if Corless-Smith had chosen his fragments without deliberation, something new emerges. The ideas of the past mixing with the lyrical poetic language and philosophical speculations of the author makes a work that “trembles[...] with elemental life.”

The Whole. Lyric. History. Being. Aesthetics.
Officers (off her soars?) cavort
All heaven (all having?) a torn garment
Hysterical (his terror calls?) running and falls (anvils?)
A honey bird pinned in the wheat

A page before this stanza, which sits alone on its own page, “the wind turned into words/ which thus disjoined my leaves from me.” These lines may or may not be a part of the same poem quoted above. But they read into the poem. Wind is mistaken for meaningful speech, causing us to shudder. Language misleads us in the mishearing. The lack of pure, crystalline aural clarity gives us lyricism. The accident is poetry. “Ghosts emerge in our peripheral vision.” As the poet notes in his philosophical mode, “The language of poetry is infinitely open, and as such is a model of the divine soul.” Stumbling from word to word is the method of poetry in FRAGMENTS. The historical fragments move in the same way. The folds and fault-lines discussed earlier are accidents of recontextualization. Lyricism in poetry is similar. At times the music is the echoes of our words, as in the stanza above. Music is in the forced grammar of “Song of the Swallow” and in the unerased erasures of “Dark Matter”.

The stumbling, happy faults/harmonies discovered between words also drive the quotations and even stealing of other writers' material scattered through the book (and across Corless-Smith's other works. He even steals from himself.) FRAGMENTS hears the total openness of language. “I now think language deaf/ Its sentence blind unconscious read/ So much want these hundred hairs/ My face his eyes her ears unsaid”. Language is not a living, metaphysical being demanding to be read in one clear way. It is a deaf, blind physical thing to be used by want. That openness gives rise to so much. Music. Also, metaphysical entities:

Mind is, after all, the almost unimaginable complex emergent quality of the languaged organism.
[…]It is our dormant senses […] that engage with such a performance to convince ourselves the dream has a body.
– W. Williamson, Notes on Being

Language, found or heard or imagined, is open to making. To building. With.
“If it is linguistic, then it is external.”

Accidental language opens up everything, just as it sees to the core of art. Poetically phrased:
Painting the river's volumes
Depth from surfaces retracts
The sunken amber globes (glows)
Destitute of purpose or of finishing this present task

Depth is made by moving away from the surface. Loose, purposeless language...calls to mind echoes. There seems to be something there, we feel it, almost grasp it, but it is not there. Or, if it is there, we have read it there ourselves. We make it. SO, stealing. to retract from the surface, the original setting of the thing, and allow the stolen object “to make this art as it appears to want.” Corless-Smith says it so hauntingly:
Death disturbed the body
Blood whirling pointlessly in a circle
The faculties of the fallen died with them
The soul itself bubbled up.

Death reveals the soul... as nothing at all. Death leaves the body as a piece of meat. There is no meaning to the body except as a life, a person with thoughts and emotions and senses, the old-school faculties. There is no value to our art except as art. The soul of art is our taking it as art, using it as art. I am not detracting from the value of art by pointing out a rather simple and often ignored fact (at least ignored among artists and philosophers, who like to suppose a platonic heaven where their thoughts and feelings are alive like gods giving form to matter). I can say it differently: life is me making my own soul (and it dies with me.) That is a bit more positive, I suppose. Just don't let art die.

And why not borrow, cheat and steal from others, since we find music in echoes and it is in our nature to learn by aping others:
But I am prone to shadows, anxious matter in its dance
Consoles and Lunges after emptiness, and properties defile
the fields
excellent midnight, the shade of surplus agency, which drains
Heaven, makes a promise of the virtual or real.

Here, Corless-Smith steals from the past by taking its misplaced capitals, giving a visible form to his ancient sounding language. In stealing the old capitals and ancient lyricism (not to mention the metaphysics of the past), the author admits that he is shadowing others and embodies that shadow in a poem.

Even more astoundingly, Corless-Smith is able to shadow the works of Thomas Swan, at times lifting ideas and lines practically verbatim from Swan, yet Swan is not part of history. Corless-Smith has stolen the feel of a poet of the 1600s and smuggled himself into history as Thomas Swan! That is not all! Thomas Swan steals the lines of a contemporary, Nathaneal Culverwell. He admits to citing Culverwell in “from: The Dialogue of the Sunne and the Moone”. But the citations are unclear. Swan says the lines are “[q]uoted in this part from the manuscript of Nathaneal Culverwell's Discourse of the Light of Nature.” But the quotations are scattered and not really quotations in the ordinary sense. They are quite postmodern. Swan lifts small pieces of Culverwell's work interspersing them with his own writing and other bits of Culverwell's Discourse. Where Swan is quoting or rearranging or writing is impenetrable confusion, unless the reader wants to search through Culverwell's writings. (I did, but I am not telling what I read. That searching and mystery is part of the joy of the book we are reviewing.) More importantly, Swan does not exist. He never existed. Corless-Smith has stolen an identity, smuggled himself into the past, stolen the historical sense/feel of the poetry of the past and fused it with postmodern rearranging and stealing and grammar. The poet works against what is given: “my miracle is that which I cannot affect. My greatest part is that of which I can take no credit.”

This is poetry at work. FRAGMENTS is a workbook, in one sense. We steal, we shadow. We rearrange and we mishear. Ideas are lifted from Thomas Swan and developed by Corless-Smith, so that the opening stanza of “Dark Matter” evolves out of a fragment from Swan: “The soul conceived in God's alembic flesh.” Ideas are reworked in search of the proper articulation. So, we read that “Mysteries and corn stand side by side.” Later, “Stirring behind the curtain is a field of corn.” What is the proper articulation of a mystery in a life so real that it involves curtains and corn? Lines are recycled. “The Evening of a Faun” ends: “Dark house standing in a darker field”. The author is searching for the proper setting for an “extraordinary breath,” as he has lifted the dark house out of an earlier fragmentary poem:
How shall a modest love be had
The dark house stands in a darker field
The cuckoo plaints its seasonal
And nothing will oppose the fates

So FRAGMENTS is a method. One that works. That continually produces simply because there is something else there, “that of which I can take no credit”:
The object will make shadows unwittingly.

Its being written and its being read.


In our expanding universe the poem never manages to catch up
with the reader – or to reach the author.


I've written this before
I meant to.
However quickly it happens.

Poetry works...continually. Corless-Smith's work shows that in so many different ways. Poetry is in different voices, different fonts and textures, philosophical ideas and lyrical language, found texts and the newest writing. In lifting fragments from other works, Corless-Smith has realized a new artistic value/context for his fragments, a context not realized before. So, in a sense, a fragment is too early. Or, when Corless-Smith returns to rework an idea or line, he is admitting that the poetry fragment wrote itself, through him, without a clear sense of where it belonged. The poet is in search of the proper settings. The poet makes a fragment his own
Where the flesh of one body is indiscernible from that of another.

The poet scribbles down his perfect fragments, unclear of their contexts,
Transcribing the momentous sentence (no nearer than the voices are).

4. ENGLISH FRAGMENTS is the book the poet wants to write. the book the poet wants to read. to discover (secretly, in an old library, in the corner of a collapsing cottage). So Martin Corless-Smith has written his “Memories of an unread book.” The bits and pieces of historical and pseudo-historical characters, plagiarized lines and lies and original, “extraordinary breaths” are the life of a shimmery, infinitely folding, apocryphal being. Wonderfully, this book was in every moment of history until now:
Everything is an omen for everything will happen

FRAGMENTS is/sees all of history and every aspect of being as potential material for a poem. Or, really, it is all material for a poem the poet (whose identity is too fluid to hold in one poet) must write, compelled by what he hears and reads and touches daily:

The past seemed almost inevitable

The horizon is where the eyes run out

Not the author but a copy of his own book

It is, as it were, the presence of the absent,
such as we feel
in contemplating a familiar empty chair.


i. note on I Am Still Here and lying and art...the con as art

The central figures in Martin Corless-Smith's trilogy/tetralogy, besides the author, are William Williamson and Thomas Swan. Working on this review, I pored over pages of Google searches and ripped through Wikipedia and even read over old genealogical records in search of Thomas Swan and William Williamson. Thomas Swan seemed the easier target. I had more information on his background. But no references to Thomas/Tom/Tho Swan/Swann matched his apparent home in the area of Worcester as well as his birth in 1653 and his death in 1680. I was intrigued. A mystery...not merely written into a book of poetry. Corless-Smith's books were the mystery themselves.

A Selection from the Works of Thomas Swan (West House Books, Sheffield, UK 2001) was a treasure I discovered in my search. Originally, I came across a copy on Amazon and ordered it. It was the only piece of Swan I could find. The Worcester Antiquarian Society did not seem to exist anywhere...not anywhere appropriate. There is a Worcester Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts (which is not in England)...they have nothing on Thomas Swan.

From the beginning, I suspected something was askew. The philosophical writings of William Williamson sounded too familiar. His aesthetic tracked Corless-Smith too closely. And then Thomas Swan's work arrived. Edited by...Martin Corless-Smith and Alan Halsey. I convulsed with laughter. And then I read the book. And I convulsed with laughter, stopped by astonishment, then recovered, and I laughed convulsively with astonishment.

Corless-Smith's commitment to his alternative worlds and histories is complete. I believe that somewhere there is a cottage on a remote Hebridean island, and Martin Corless-Smith spends his summers there writing poetry and philosophy on the walls of that cottage and then carefully burns a small part of the cottage or leaves a window open to see what the rain will do to his fragments on the walls.

A Selection is quite obviously a fabrication. But the fabrication is not a waste. The poetry is beautiful. The small clues of the fabrication Corless-Smith scatters through the work...tickle me. They are small jokes (but not the “wink-nudge” that Michael Robbins is insulted by – an angry reviewer, offended by Corless-Smith's attempt to “dupe” him, and raging because anyone would ever write a book of lyrical poetry and philosophical fragments for its own sake rather than as a cutting edge treatise on metaphysics. Robbins, apparently, is unfamiliar with the vacuity of virtually all philosophical claims and aesthetic theories. Start with Gödel and Wittgenstein. Then stop until it is all fully absorbed. Then read Buddha on the direction the fire goes when it goes out. Then stop until it is all fully absorbed. Then start fresh.)

Reading over A Selection I noticed first that there is no discussion of Thomas Swan, except for a short bio on the back of the book. There are no notes explaining the editorial insertions throughout the work and there are no notes on where the editors see Thomas Swan in the history of English poetry. There are none of the usual trappings of historically important literature. And Swan would certainly be important given his very postmodern artistic sensibilities. In other words, the editorial notes are themselves part of the poetry. The alternative readings, the way that alternatives are indicated, the lack of the usual editorial remarks all tell us something about what is being written: a poetry that uses contemporary aesthetics within the context of the poetry of the 1600s, permitting the author to play with spellings, neologisms, music and form in a way that strikes the reader as proper to the time-period. But, of course, there is nothing proper about it. It is all fabrication and lies.

The improper layout of the book is very subtle. For instance, the book begins with a poem that opens:
I take myself up
over cliff trees
as swimming
a bright bursting off

And off to the right in the margins, we read the alternatives Swan apparently jotted in his notes:
i take myself on up
over clifftrees off
a swimming brimming cup
a bright bursting off

Notice how much is going on here to tip off the reader that something is not correct. The opening pronoun is not capitalized in the marginal variation, a very contemporary way to play with the notion of self. The words “cliff trees” are inconsistently run together in the marginalia. The stanzas, both/either, are mesmerizingly lyrical...but neither of them really says anything clearly meaningful. The lines are virtually purely postmodernity has opened up that possibility. Shakespeare did not have that option.

In other places, different methods of noting alternative lines or words are used. At times variations are marked “var.” with the variant to follow. In other places, the variants are noted below the poem, apparently found somewhere in Swan's papers. Still other places, inserted variations appear to be the work of Swan himself, and we are expected to simply know that the alternatives we are looking at were copied exactly as they were found from Swan's notebooks. The lines “that you may not another day as this day end/ in furious retreat from what is done is out             ;(from what has beene)"look like they show the reader notes and erasures made by Swan. The parenthetical remark is set off in the margin of the book, apparently an alternative to “is out” being considered by Swan and then rejected. But the reader has no guidance from the editors. This is not merely sloppy editorial work. This is a whisper to look closer.

Corrections to Swan's work are just as loose. In the poem, “[To a friend]”, the brackets apparently indicating a title added by the editors, but who really knows, we have no guidance here, we read: “Nothing one days deed enough to end a life”, a line which fails to properly mark the possessive “days” with an apostrophe. On the page facing this poem, we read: “Was not the horses [sic] start”, the editors noting the unmarked possessive.

Brackets and parentheses are used to insert alternatives and editorial notes, but at times braces are used to indicate alternatives as well as give a feeling of antiquity:
The day a vast tree with a wasp-like waist {An Oak or Pear}
The day a spirit in a shell (vase) {a faerie whisper in a fearie ear}
The day a bell rings once at least {which makes both sides}
The day moves water north and west and south and east {the tides}
the day encounters of itself more (mostly) bravely {as an ant}
like the animal that faces death impartial and in fury {tiny giant}
                        in impartial fury

The different uses of different sorts of brackets are not explained, so it is left to the reader to discern their purpose. Square brackets seem to indicate the editorial notes of our contemporary editors, as in the stanza preceding the one just quoted, where we read: “The day as[?] a song we near cannot quite recall”. (Notice how the editors inject a question...without explanation! As if a question can exist simply by inflection or punctuation!) Parentheses, as we see above, indicate alternatives given by Swan in his notes, and the braces are, apparently, used to bring our attention to...what...thoughts Swan had while writing his poem...possible additions...a feeling of an antiquated note.

Probably the clearest declaration of the identity of Corless-Smith and Thomas Swan, besides the similarity in the sound of their poems, is the note on the title of the poem “Epistle of the Martyr”. In brackets to the right of the title, we read: “[Possible an erroneous title]”. There is no alternative title given, no justification for the note, which raises the question, “How can something be erroneous per se?” There must be some possible alternative or some different hand-writing used to pen the title...something to justify the suggestion that the title is erroneous. Otherwise, the title is just a title. Corless-Smith wants us to see his lie. The lie is part of the poem. He has adopted the conventions of historical scholarship as a method of writing poetry.

A Selection is not just a game. The few philosophical notes are poetry and the poetry is enjoyable, worth reading over and over out loud to no one:
The boundaries of forgiveness need not be confused with those of
I am overrun with pettynesses – a hovering image of my alternative grace
the most galling

Martin Corless-Smith may be a liar, since he claims to have unearthed a poetic treasure. The lie is honest. It admits itself if the reader looks closely. The reader will want to look again.

ii. var. are

iii. The strange case of literary notes: they start as fragments and grow into each other.

iv. Don't just let art die. Steal it and give it new life.


Micah Cavaleri lives in Michigan, where he runs and sleeps and writes and cooks while his wife explores the mysteries of the natural world. His book the syllable that opened an eye is available from Dead Man Publishing. Poems, etc are scattered about the web, with his most recent work forthcoming in the always beautiful elimae.

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