Andy Chen reviews a moving collection of poems by Martin Corless-Smith.
Martin Corless-Smith, The ongoing mystery of the disappearing self (SplitLevel Texts, 2020), 104pp.
The newest collection of poems by the English writer and painter Martin Corless-Smith begins with a short, untitled poem:
I can’t remember a thing
all of it I recall
I can’t remember it at all
At first this feels like paradox, a memory sharp and complete alongside the complete lapse of memory. At the same time, something about this contradiction rings true to the workings of memory: one moment we can vividly recall a past experience, and the next it’s gone, and we’re left keenly aware of its absence. The poem’s chiastic structure invites us not merely to consider how this process happens over time, but also to consider how, even in total forgetfulness, the memory we’re groping for is still contained somewhere within us, in all its colorful details.
As much as this is a poem – and an entire collection of poems – about memory, it’s as much about selfhood, as we wonder: Is the “I” of the first and last lines the same as the “I” of the central lines? Are we the same self in that moment of recollection as we are in moments when recollection fails? And beyond that, is the “I” of the first line the same as the “I” of the last line? Does the act of remembering change us, even after the memory escapes?
The ongoing mystery of the disappearing self – the title of both the book and the long sequence of prose poems that make up the first two thirds of the book – explores the many ways that memory works and doesn’t work, the many ways it changes and changes us. In “Love,” a poem comprised of a long list of minutiae, Corless-Smith writes, “there is no end to all the smallnesses no end to the collateral events incidental and essential to a self.” Indeed, a self is defined by innumerable events, seemingly forgettable but defining nonetheless, and this poem and others challenge us to consider: what do we do with the knowledge that our lives are made up of infinite experiences, vivid and meaningful, that at any given time, we can’t recall?
Corless-Smith’s book transforms how we see ourselves, how we look forward and backward in time, and how we understand the world around us. He leaves no part of our lives untouched, as he deftly navigates an incredible range of lexicons: at times we find ourselves in the vocabulary of gastronomy and fine Italian food, and at others we’re immersed in the language of the body’s biological processes or the Latinate taxonomic names of animals. We travel to Sicily, Mexico, and the five rivers of the Punjab. The book’s contemplation of memory isn’t limited to one lifetime, as we’re taken back to the far reaches of history: Biblical times, medieval England, and ancient Rome, to Livy’s histories and the events that history – like memory – forgets or chooses to forget. We’re often dropped into the mythological realm – yet another kind of memory – though Corless-Smith’s mythologies are frequently more sacrilegious than pious: Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, eats prawns, “without sauce, shell and tentacles whole,” and “she doesn’t wash her mouth, a scent of dirty and offal from her pits and crotch.”
For as much as we’re in the past – the historical past, the mythological past, and also a lived past – the poems feel very much of our contemporary moment: Nancy Pelosi and Google show up, as do oil spills and seasonal affective disorder, and the poems often evoke a familiar twenty-first-century malaise – toward technology, our consumer footprints, and the possibility that our phones will be housed in our bodies before long. Corless-Smith’s leaps across time and across registers of language enact a complex logic of association, as leaps often occur multiple times within the same poem; however, these leaps never feel arbitrary – they’re disarming but careful, both knowledgeable and in search of a knowledge just out of reach.
This search to understand memory and selfhood feels by necessity very intellectual, but among the many impressive feats of this book is how skillfully and inventively Corless-Smith moves between the intellectual and the emotional. In “Death of a stranger,” one of the many poems where fine food appears, he writes,
Soak the beans overnight a carrot rosemarino fagioli cipolla. The mountain butter a noisette brown. And the bread crumbs added are a memory, soaking up the broth. I’m left so fragile that recollecting a long-forgotten rival can eviscerate my calm.
From the intricacies of this dish emerges a metaphor for memory – one of many that appear in the poems – yet just as we begin considering the intellectual nuances of how memory soaks up what surrounds it, we’re hit with the emotional power of a raw, urgent memory.
A death serves as the occasion for this poem, and in many poems throughout the book, explorations of memory feel haunted by memory’s failures at the end of life. The poem “Nostalgia” begins, “If he were to die now upon this bed, the last sight his eyes would see is the treetops of the plum orchard. He has a lasting memory of a faint first kiss long ago.” The poem concludes by circling back to this opening moment: “And here we are again on our deathbed, Aletheia then Lethe. What was her name? Was it Alison?” This time around, two major changes have occurred: first, “he” becomes “we,” as the speaker now imagines himself in this moment and compels the reader to do so too; second, instead of focusing on what’s remembered, the focus is on what’s lost. In doing so, we’re forced to consider a frightening prospect: What if our final moments are occupied not by remembering but forgetting?
Like much of Corless-Smith’s previous work, the intellectual project of this collection is filtered and interrupted by the realities of simply being, in all its messy vulnerability, and these poems always feel burdened by the real emotions of lived experience – one of the many reasons the book is ultimately so moving. While any meditation on memory may by nature be abstract, the explorations in these poems are driven by pressing emotional concerns: death and grief, love and the costs of loving, the doubting of religion, the art we make and leave in our wake – and from here, perhaps the most pressing question of all, when it comes to memory: what memories will we leave behind? We follow Corless-Smith with such trust on his winding, painful, necessary search because the preoccupations that unnerve him are our preoccupations too.
Andy Chen was born and raised in New Jersey. He is a Kundiman fellow and holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, december, The Offing, and Denver Quarterly. He teaches at John Burroughs School in St. Louis.