The Angel and the Ass
Our word sonnet comes from the Italian sonetto — little song — but what we generally mean by the term is a fourteen-line poem governed by fixed patterns of rhyme and meter. We recognize and distinguish between Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian forms, and so on, and we acknowledge the sonnet’s venerable pedigree back to its thirteenth-century origins in Italy. It is a form with a strong, evocative tradition. At the same time, the form adapts to the zeitgeist — Wordsworth delved the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground, making it safe for Romanticism, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning fashioned it for the Victorian era. But the sonnet didn’t become a truly American form until the twentieth century with poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost tinkering with it. Ted Berrigan, in his 1693 collection The Sonnets, loosened and deformalized the form, adapting it to contemporary New York life with its references to Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe. The form has since been kept alive in the twenty-first century by poets as diverse A.E. Stallings, who stays close to the traditional form in its various guises, and the more experimental Karen Volkman.
The contemporary American poet Joshua Corey should be added to this list with his collection of free verse sonnets, although he departs liberally from any recognizable sonnet form. His poems stretch across or cascade down the page; lines are broken in the center with graphic caesuras; individual words appear to hang in white space. More properly quartorzains — fourteen-line poems that do not necessarily adhere to the structures of rhyme and meter that define the sonnet — Corey’s Severance Songs are atypical oddballs, each and every one.
Corey wrote the songs — the sonnets — that make up his third collection of poetry after the tragedy of 9/11 while living in rural upstate New York, a pastoral backdrop that did not jive with his sense of the historical moment. The poems he produced in Severance Songs evoke an idyllic romanticized past with their sonnet shapes, but they lurch head first into something less easily recognizable and more disconcerting. While larding his verse liberally with lines and phrases from Shakespeare, Keats, and Milton, as well as Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Wallace Stevens, Corey also invokes the German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, written shortly before he committed suicide in 1940 on the French-Spanish border after a failed attempt to escape the Nazis, Benjamin wrote:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin’s stubborn angel, ever backward-looking and forward-moving, hovers over Severance Songs, watching over the play and expanse of the poems, from the twenty-first century moment of composition back though to Plato’s cave with its “shadows on the wall”. The image is wedded to William Carlos Williams in one of Corey’s untitled poems (“So much depends upon the obsolete angel / pushing his transparent historical wheelbarrow”), and manifested obliquely in the “off-white / taken for light” in another, and in “the maddened bull of history” in a third.
The angel cannot avert his eyes from 9/11 and its aftermath, and neither can Corey who writes that the “poem is the war on a very plain level.” At the same time, and in the same poem, Corey acknowledges with frustration that poetry is not action; it rarely — if ever — affects real political or social change, despite Shelley’s appointment of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world: “This poem,” Corey writes, “does not spill a drop of the fluids that are yours.” Poems are ideas and not actions — and are reprehensible and laughable for being so: “we deplore the poem / and its rage that is not bravery or counter- / intelligence.”
No, poems are not bravery or counterintelligence, but, if skillfully executed, they can be verbal and imaginative representations of these concepts. They are, in the best cases, Platonic ideals, shadows on the cave wall, and Corey strives throw these shadows through “the fallible poem” — the last three words of the final poem in Severance Song. It is this untitled closing poem — or song — that gives the collection its name; “songs” is the last word of the first line, and “severance” the last of the twelfth, just before the resolution of the closing couplet.
This final poem appears after two pages of white space, an envoi or epigraph to the collection; it is this poem that gives us Corey’s peculiarly violent version of Benjamin’s Angel, “the maddened bull of history,” bestial and destructive. It also gives us the material for a new shape, a new working of the sonnet. In the fourth stanza, Corey writes that “a new pattern takes its shape”; the poet is working “hammer and tongs” at the sonnet form to create something new: a song that severs itself from the historical past and from tradition, but not at all fully.
In terms of lineation and the lack of recognizable rhyme schemes and rhythmic patterns, these fourteen-liners are unlike traditional sonnets, but almost each one of them is rich with allusion to the English and American literary canons. As the angel cannot be escaped, neither can Shakespeare, who shows up most poignantly and comically in the image of ass-headed Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The bull of history has been downgraded to a dreaming donkey. A ghost of Hamlet haunts us briefly, “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,” elsewhere in the collection — and Hamlet, who suffers bad dreams, brings with him ghosts and angels (the obverse and reverse of the same Janus-headed coin). Corey riffs further on Shakespeare’s diction and the English poetical canon, moving from Shakespeare’s pale dreaming hero to Keats’s dreaming knight in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” who appears “palely loitering” in a later poem in Severance Songs. And all these dreamers seem to originate from the original Platonic dream in the cave. The angel sees far back, moving inexplicably forward.
Corey’s angel isn’t always Benjamin’s though; sometimes he is Milton’s. Satan, the warring “Apostate Angel,” makes appearances in the collection; in one poem Corey cites “darkness visible” (a phrase from Paradise Lost, later used as the title of writer William Styron’s memoir), and in another, “Imparadised in one another’s arms Satan sobbed”. Gods, devils, angels, ghosts, and psychopomps alternately guide and haunt Corey’s poems, shuttling the reader through past, present, and future (like Scrooge’s dream visitations); history, myth, and literature seep through the lines which can be playfully allusive, but also somberly so, as evident in the following sonnet with Benjamin’s angel conflated with the figure of Icarus:
So much depends upon the obsolete angel
pushing his transparent historical wheelbarrow
through our horizontal age of wingless fire
purchased by rains of suiciding steel
before slipping on the vertical’s banana peel.
Those banal right angles, our scratched Houses of the Holy,
our bondage our fleshpots our banished economists—
while crossing every vehicle is terrified
by its tenor, like the truckers hauling radioactive waste
on the road that never quite reaches Yucca Mountain
toward primitive byproducts of theme and wattage
and the enviably imaginable desert—
pulled by noble and ignoble gases
till my spangled and awkward entry into this poem
pays for every Icarus flying.
While Corey’s poems may not do anything — may not “spill a drop of the fluids that are” ours or fix Icarus’ melting wings — they do, when successful, make us think about our human and cultural past, present, and future. The poem, as Corey writs is “made above all of words disarranged / to resemble an obvious truth.” But here’s the rub, the sleight of hand: what truth is ever obvious? The answer to that question is not made clear in Severance Songs. Platonic ideals are nice and neat, but they are just that — ideals. They don’t happen in real life. Real life is dissembling and disassembled, a confluence of forward and backward motion, words arranged and disarranged into patterns that either make sense to us or don’t. Corey’s “fallible poem[s]” (an honest phrase) approach the asymptote of truth but, like all poetry and all life, fail to reach it. We are left with an angel in one hand and an ass in the other, braying Bottom waking up from a dream that doesn’t give any clear sense of what to make of past or future. We are left with a legacy of others’ words and a traditional form that is stretched into new shapes.