This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

Meaning and the Meaningful in Joshua Corey’s Severance Songs

We easily call anything vaguely conceptual “ambitious” and anything that succeeds above and beyond its concept “brilliant.” Of course, all art is “conceptual;” but, when I say “conceptual,” I generally mean gimmicky, overly concerned with or overly proud of its form. Any artist picks her medium and hopes that the medium can reveal something about the subject (and vice versa) that isn’t otherwise obvious. This, subtly or otherwise, is true of the best of artists. Unfortunately, it too often seems the worst artists are too enamored with their clever concept to produce any content that would make the concept interesting.

We’re at a peculiar place in the post [perhaps post] modern era when the quintessential form of the English poetry, the sonnet (14 lines divided by a volta, a turn that reframes the meaning of the poem) can be read as gimmicky, a tired form that cannot be used without implicit reference to its obsolescence [perhaps I’m overly skeptical], but, for 59 sonnets, in content and concept, Joshua Corey’s recent book, Severance Songs, couldn’t be more ambitious. A sequence of courtship poems set against the backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War, Severance Songs does exactly what Corey intended it to, as he explains in the reader’s companion to the book: put the sonnet under pressure. Corey tests the form and, perhaps, poetry (which he describes as “language under pressure”) demanding they prove their relevance both as a form of artistic expression and as an element of life.

So, how does the sonnet hold up? Is writing poetry after 9/11 barbaric?1 The first poem in the sequence, beginning “To be party to it I come invited but unrecognized,” sets the paradigm for the work and its themes, and provides the lens, so to speak, through which we can answer, or at least essay, these questions:

The house was quiet and the earth was unmade.

The reader sits or stands or leans listening outside
the shower curtain. My world is calm
and the rooms of the house embodied by lights
stream past the windows past a watcher on the lawn.

No one knows me here, the outstretched fingers recede
like serifs in the downfaced book. The earth heaved,
worlding, and the house skated downhill.

The outside gets recognized and is faithfully excluded
from each interior, though loving in every detail.
The house was raucous and the world asleep,
newborn and trusting the blood on its skin.

Unknown and from the book I step out reading its gift.

Windows, mirrors, televisions, radios, books, poems, and, I suppose, shower curtains all serve to sever the viewer from the viewed. Trying to solve the riddle of the observer’s conceit, the speaker is confronted at every turn with an image of reality it cannot reach: “it is words disarranged / to resemble an obvious truth” [in a poem that “is war on a very plain level” recalling Ashbery and General Disarray]. In the wake of 9/11, the world in chaos, and the speaker’s government in a death spiral of war and racism, the inner turmoil of the speaker, the observer seems quaint.

And the sonnet is the perfect form to explore or test the incongruity and tension between inner and outer framed as micro and macro.

I said earlier that the sonnet is the quintessential form of English poetry. This is partly because I have a somewhat mystical belief that English wants to rhyme, wants to be iambic or trochaic [and anything of quality outside these forms earns its quality only by resisting them (creating a tension between something like desire and expression)], but it is also because the convoluted lexicon, with many words with many meanings, wants a turn or, in sonnet speak, a volta.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

I say thesonnet, perhaps I mean the riddle is the quintessential form of the English language.

The riddle of Severance Songs‘ is consistently how to reconcile the world at large with the deeply personal and the deeply personal with the world at large, whichever seems more “meaningful” at any given time. While few of these present a clear volta dividing the poems between one meaning or interpretation and another, they can be read as having many volte turning between the speaker’s immediate circumstances and feelings and those that it’s observing, always filtered through some media that at once presumes and precludes meaning.

History: its ‘comportment’? / Its circulatory system? // Its bald mechanics / abstract me from my distraction // distract me from my abstraction.” The distraction/abstraction here, the “nightmare from which [the speaker’s] [presumably] trying to escape,” could be [is] many things, but anything it could be functions along the meaning/meaningfulness divide. Both meaning and meaningfulness are abstractions, but that latter is more abstract than the former. Meaning, however convoluted or obscure it may be, is easier to identify than meaningfulness, but the sense/sensation of meaningfulness is much more tantalizing.

The tension between the desire for and difficulty of finding the sensation of meaningfulness across various impenetrable divides as they translate and transpose the personal life of the speaker with the historical context of post-9/11 anxiety and the Iraq war drives Severance Songs; the poems try to make sense of/find meaning/experience the sensation of meaningfulness in the deeply personal experiences of love and fear while simultaneously trying to do so in the experiences of fear and love in the context of an impersonal and abstruse political climate that presents itself, if not more meaningful, more urgent than idle matters of love and life.

The sequence doesn’t answer this question or solve this riddle, but, in the sonnets of Severance Songs, Joshua Corey has found a particularly fruitful way of approaching it, as the pompous sonnet, ever skeptical of its meaning but never its meaningfulness wrestles with and pins these immense and wily abstractions under its equivocating lens.

  1. Ignoring the barbarity of comparing 9/11 to the Holocaust []