I usually seek out the books I want, primarily through online shopping. Those books, along with articles and social media connections, suggest other books. But every once in a while a book finds me. Alfred Corn’s first book of poems, All Roads at Once, published in 1976, is a peculiar instance of this. Many years ago I had noted his name as the author of one of the better essays on Ashbery in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views edition on that poet. So when strolling through a used bookstore I came across Corn’s book I bought it. But I didn’t read it.
I took the book home and for many more years it went from shelf to box to shelf again, along with many other unread books, through moves and vagaries of living. One day I would get to it. The book seemed old when I got it—covers worn, pages yellowed; a previous owner had placed a weed inside that completely disintegrated and consequently hastened the process of book decay. But incredibly, late last year, when I finally pulled All Roads at Once from the shelf and opened it, I was more years from its date of purchase than I had been then from its publication. Since that time a whole new world—the online world—had emerged and established itself.
Even more incredible is that I had no reason whatsoever to read the book. In other words I have no answer as to why I finally decided to read it. I just pulled it off the shelf, opened it—and fell into it. And I’ve been rereading it since. And—strange world—since I was now of a mind to seek out information on Alfred Corn, I discovered that about the same time I pulled that old hardback off the shelf, a forty-year celebration of its publication had taken place. Here is Corn’s beautiful reading of two remarkable poems from the collection:
It’s hard to believe this was the poet’s first book. The maturity and sophistication of the poems suggest someone older. There’s no doubt in my mind the book found me when I was more ready for it, even though its title is an itch that’s not easy at first to scratch. It comes from the poem, A Prayer by Marina Tsvetaeva: “I long for all roads at once,” the poet cries out to God, urging Him to give her everything life has to offer all at once, right now, even if it means madness and early death. When I read the phrase I am intrigued by the idea of a poetry that seems to offer a panoptic glimpse of the world and one’s experience of it, even knowing this is impossible. And yet my curiosity is chastened by the conviction that I, myself, would not want all roads at once. So what does the title mean, coming from a poet mature beyond his years? Did he want all roads at once?
Following along with the two poems he reads in the video (poems written as a young man that one would not be surprised to see coming from an older man) a meditation on time emerges. The question, then, is not, did the poet want all roads at once, but what would it mean to want such a thing? And this certainly is a possibility for poetry, a rich one indeed. To explore it, the way Alfred Corn does, is to set aside the youthful burning one senses in Tsvetaeva’s poem, in favor of a sober meditation that takes all the time it needs.
Corn sets up the proper tone of mind for such meditation in the first poem, perhaps the most complex in the collection but for that reason one of the most remarkable as well. He does this by erecting in four carefully composed stanzas a scaffold comprising image and question. It is from this scaffold that one will build one’s meditation with the help of the poems to come.
The image is simple enough: a lake at night reflecting the sky. But he calls it an “inkblot”—something to be interpreted—and describes it as
a bristling zone of black pine and fir
at the dark fold of the revealed world.
But what world is revealed, and when? The second verse announces that we are to answer these questions. And when we begin the process of visual scan we are soon led, through sound, to “guess” at elements outside the field of vision. To further complicate matters, through ricochet or echo, the guessed element comes back to us:
…. the guessed boat, the voices
that skip across sky to where we stand.
Night further complicates everything until, finally, “silence/names us to the asking boat”. And now, the poet asks in the final stanza, “Who echoes who in the black mirror?” We are now in the edge, the partition, the dark fold, and here riddles are answers. But we are far from adolescent madness. The night is completely still and quiet. And we are wide-awake and completely lucid, open.
And still, we can imagine some clear call,
a spoken brilliance blazing the trail . . .
ourselves moving out across the sky.
But do or will we speak? Or do we, will we respond? Listening and responding strangely comingle in this poem, suggesting the way in which they are one, that one never speaks without first listening, and that the poem we build is always a response to what we have heard.
This poem does something even more remarkable, something elusive and difficult to describe. I would call it a feeling we sometimes have that, even when our cognizance of the world is overwhelming, a nameless and wordless still point of lucidity seems to hold us in suspension, and promises to carry us through to the next moment of decision. “All roads at once” or ready to go anywhere?
How about when life hits you in the face? Several of the poems, Accident and Interim in a Waiting Room among them, explore this possibility. These poems spoke to me directly immediately. Strange how, even when misfortune strikes, we turn to poetry.
Thought stumbles on many moods and words
Come in curious ways, the language
Of discovery and emergency.
—Pages from a Voyage
From stumbling to falling:
All fall forward daily into death, to what conclusion?
The thick air labored in breath around me; I was afraid
To drop into sleep, its sighs, its suspect calms.
…. A memory in the breaking flesh
Moves and quickens into momentary music, and world
Complicates in stubborn refusals to be all bad.
…. And still
Experience falls forward into words; falls short
Of an answer; though everything is well perceived.
Even when words do the thinking for you, because of the nature of those words, the mind still wants to move them around, to feel itself move. My reading of this poet has barely begun, and I know I’ll seek his books out. In the meantime here is a passage I’ll hold close:
Sickness and health coexist unjustified,
Become a part of each other.
There’s something electric about life—
One feels protective of its ignorant optimism.
The body, like a child, doesn’t know
About meaningless or death;
It’s ready for dinner or a kiss.
Things always begin….
—Pages from a Voyage