Issue 31: Adam Piette

Kelvin Corcoran, Collected Poems  (Swindon: Shearsman, 2023)


V.R. “Bunny” Lang, The Miraculous Season: Selected Poems, edited by Rosa Campbell (Manchester: Carcanet, 2024)



‘She is calling us long-distance in these poems’, Frank O’Hara wrote in his tribute to his late friend, poet and dramatist V.R. Lang.[1] A codex lyric poem arrives at the reader as printed voice, scripted as though dictated from an oral text; but distanced a long way off by the inscription and time lag, as with a letter, and sounding out as appeal to us obliquely through the unreal artifice of its management of its own occasions and forms of address. Telephones and radios are the nearest technological equivalent to the mode, insofar as they too carry voice a long way to the attendant ear, yet both now are rather creaky and antique, marginalised by the monstrous power of visual and digital media. What survives of lyric poets is still text, but with a readership glutted on image and screened networks, the slender lines of communication presented by the artifice of the printed lyrical voice on the page had better be baroque, or delightfully retro, or outrageous to eye, or bristling with anecdote, or even risk huddling in the novel’s broad shade, otherwise the long-distance phone just won’t be picked up even, you’d think. Lang’s work in her brief life as a poet in the New York School 1950s and Kelvin Corcoran’s work at the end of the 20th and opening of the 21st centuries speak to the anxieties of lyric in technocultural times, and to various possible ways of challenging the attrition and complicities of lyric when so embedded in hostile history, through tactical, dangerous and fragile counterpointing of patterns of artifice and desire.

         Kelvin Corcoran’s long engagement with the lyric is structured according to the three conditions Veronica Forrest-Thomson identified as key to a modernist poetic surface: that we have the conventional mode revisited and revivified by the lyric poet; that it be rendered ambiguous and startling by striking image-complexes; and that the poem have a third level of complexity too through the interweaving of different voices, in order to ‘preserve the necessary thickness of medium to prevent a critical reading slipping outside the poem’.[2] Corcoran’s poems turn back to the prehistory of lyric and to its earliest emergence in the West as preserved script to historicize and distance his reflections as a rethinking of the conventional lyric.[3] His Greek work is fruit of a living experience of the coast at the edge of ancient Sparta in Greece where he has lived with his partner for some years: a stretch of coast beneath the Taygetos mountains that, as if blessed by serendipity, is fabled as both where Venus emerged from the waves and where Helen embarked for Troy, a muse-saturated space where epic and lyric are fabulated as born and generated. The experiencing of the space as locale and imaginary enables a revisiting too of modernist and Romantic Hellenism, so the thick medium of the conventional has real impasto effects. The second level is achieved through canny stringing of lyric flashes of image-complex together as sequences. And this sequencing enables a variousness of voice that stops dead readerly dreaming up of biographical outsides to the artwork.

In a sequence like ‘Ulysses in the Car’ (290-294), Corcoran strings lyrics together, to pluralise and render complex the conventional forms of the I-Thou lyric contract. The sequence comprises nine lyrics, the first detailing a strange moment of alienation where he imagines his partner’s presence in the night as he stares out from his ‘dark car’, but, as the title intimates, in the guise of Ulysses, the paradigmatic modernist-Hellenistic avatar; another thinks about Athens and the earthquake resistance of the temple of Zeus and theatre of Dionysus; the third compares the longevity of art’s action (Beckett and Aeschylus) to acts of war (Iraq, the battle of Marathon); another ponders monotheism along the circle line around the world; the fifth fuses modern and ancient warfare as an exploration of martial lyric as ‘the singing of the dead’ (war’s victims); the sixth takes us along the road to the coast through ‘the villages that defeated Sparta’, and imagines lyric as falling from the sky (‘a girl’s voice, high and driven, sings’); the next alludes to James Pritchard’s Ancient Near East anthology of texts, and conjures a poem that ‘speaks of endless war’, adopting the voice of the ancient warlord (‘I seized the Lebanon entire / and cleaned my weapons in the deep sea’) that is conjoined with bardic power (‘the people I am singing to are dead’); the eighth tracks ‘Lyric voices’ that ‘crowd the sea to sing his mind away’, a plurality and chorus of those who have drowned in the Mediterranean, the ‘music of the drowned’ associated both with the poetry of Jack Spicer (remembering his Greek work and lyrics such as ‘Any fool can get in an ocean’ with its ‘Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural / You’ll drown, dear’) and Coleridge with his ancient mariner (‘Like one that hath been seven days drowned / My body lay afloat’), the lyric singer figured as ‘girl leaping from the edge of the world’; the last lyric imagines a great flood, telephone wires with ‘a thousand messages’, a lover desiring their lover, and ending with an image of weaving and ambiguous presence: ‘There’s a name for the work on the big loom / you tell me as you walk on this side in the shining air’. What the sequencing of the poems charts is a long view of the lyric and its embeddedness in the war narratives and violence of epic and history, and a juxtaposing of different points of war-culture as driver of history and destruction, from the Gilgamesh-era Middle East through Greek myth and legend to the contemporary wars in the deserts of the Middle East, pinpointing into that woven war-apocalyptic tapestry the drowned migrants from the war zones who leapt from the sinking boats in the Mediterranean sea in this century. The lyrics have tucked within them the traditional figure of the lover-poet and their loved one, play-acted for real by Corcoran and his wife, Melanie, but networked into the sequence of stories of war-torn history through the layering of voice and genre that unsettles the conventions of lyrical address.

The sequences as collected gather great momentum when read right through, with work that attends to the Greek legendary figures of Dionysus, Helen, Aphrodite, and historical figures such as Xenophanes, twisting the Nietzschean base of modernist Hellenism back to a more politicized and nervy testing of the Greek waters of history and complicity, in particular exploring the ways the long history of trade routes and warfare combine to generate a destructive, exploitative grid of contemporary violence and international capital.[4] Taking on the persona of Xenophanes, Corcoran writes a letter to Parmenides: ‘a warm wind of ignition / stirred the endless sea was / once land and my mind turned / to you in the market place’, imagining fruits colliding (‘argument atoms at war’). Xenophanes wrote his philosophy in verse, and explored, as far as we can gather from the fragments, the long history of the earth, the first, for instance, to look at fossils of sea creatures on land to question evolution and fixed geologies. He was also a migrant thinker, travelling the seas, as well as kick-starting Eleatic philosophy in the Greek colony in Italy. His wanderings began as a consequence of war; a fragment states darkly that the most appropriate question to grace an evening when dining with strangers is ‘How old were you when the Medes invaded this land?’ He’d been exiled from his home town of Colophon after the invasion of Ionia by the Medes people (contemporary Iran). Corcoran’s letter, then, weaves together the sea as changeable medium within the earth’s long long temporality with the sea as host of trade and war and cultural interchange, the Mediterranean as a space of ‘ignition’, both the spark of knowledge that discovered truths of mind and nature, and the violent explosive force of war as death drive agent in the conflict zones of the West. The ‘argument’ of philosophy is equally the vocal address of the poet to reader, and of the lyric poet as recorder of the waves of history and song:


what is it

in such abandonment my

whole life strung out on wires

rigged the journeys made

lucid sea lanes of the

objective case a marvel

of song imagine song spun

around the earth even as

this letter beats its path

to you   (383-4)


The lines sing as lucid lyric, a melodious clear-cut mode that is deceptive, harbouring philosophical conjecture (‘the / objective case’), mysterious image-complex (the life strung out on wires, the song spanning the earth), metapoetic confusion of historical trade-routed commodity / epistle and the poem we read. The lineation and lack of punctuation trouble easy-going consumption of the lyric too, with questions about formal manipulation and anachronistic technology (the rigged journeys and wires) colouring the parallels between international commerce and trade in knowledge and poetry. The Xenophanes letter closes with a meditation on a storm at sea, lightning seen on the waves, a ‘revelation / along a long tunnel of / sound’ flooding the harbour, a vision of a burning map and of sinister bacchants ‘in the air around the / house’, terminating with:


a voice in the resinous

body of night of earth

articulated a thesis

rising in a sort of song


The compositional question shaping this figuration, what is it that defines the inspiration of philosophical poetry, turns out to be both a blank mystery (what voice is this that issues from the ‘body of night of earth’?) and a revelation of a political unconscious shaping a world at war beset by visions of apocalypse. The tunnel of sound looks like the poem we are reading if we articulate it, a stretched column of voice from the past (whether it be Corcoran or Xenophanes) ululating along the l-string (lation - along a long - nel) struck into being by the ‘lightning’ of violence igniting this world. The bacchants as gods of this world are the war-mongers of the market place as burning map displaying their lurid psychopompous effects on the lyrical imagination, thrilling the ‘air’ around the house of the mind just as they shape the articulation of the air as poem. The thesis rising in a sort of song is both Xenophanes’s practice as philosopher-poet, Eleatic voice of skeptical migrant resistance to the war culture of the invaders of mental space, and intimates the kind of poem this is, a lyric that thinks, adjacent to song as lyric must be, and yet more importantly engaging with the forbidden zones of epic and history with philosophy’s force of analysis, and art’s hold on unconscious desire. It is a resistant form of argufying, ‘resinous’ drawing us towards a manner of engaging with the creative imagination within the body and night of text-production that is secreted, as resins are, as protective response to injury, a thick medium that is beautiful, fragrant, wards off pathogens. This Collected probes this migrant resistant imagination from a villager point of view facing the Spartas of this world, with a counter-cultural attention to the radio-waves of vanishing and evanescent voices at the borders of states and powers, constructing a Mediterranean zone of dream and revivified lyric that is song enough to think through theses and counter-arguments possible that connect loving threads and nets of relation across times lit up by the burning map: a body of work of the first importance.

One of Corcoran’s meditations on Orpheus, ‘Orpheus/If I could’, imagines the moment of his dismemberment as Dantescan revelation in a dark wood where no birds sing, and in that silence, Orpheus says to himself ‘My heart’s a stone, I cannot speak, / I don’t know what I’m doing’, and he is beaten up, ‘propelled into a wall of obsidian’ as he realises ‘the mineral density of his loss’, the loss of Eurydice (524). The trade in obsidian was an important one, the dark volcanic glass imported along trade routes deep into Asia Minor used as knives, tools, mirrors and ornament by the Mediterranean communities. The fact each volcano produces its specific obsidian means the artefacts can be traced to their origins and trade routes drawn up, these obsidian routes lasting from the Palaeolithic to the end of the Stone Age. It is characteristic that it is this symbol of the emerging trade routes that smashes into the grieving Orpheus, as though lyric song suffers the violence of commerce from its mythical origins, felt as a crushing loss of the goddess held underground. The transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlements and city-states is another guilt-ridden tipping point.[5] The Greeks mythologised the transition with the story of Cadmus, who founded Thebes after years fruitlessly wandering the seas seeking his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus as a bull: the founding of the city occurs only after Cadmus sows the land with dragon’s teeth to create warriors, a myth about the origins of agriculture. His seafarer, city-founding identity is equivalent both to the consolidation of trade routes and of written language: Cadmus introduced the alphabet to Greece imported from Phoenicia like a commodity.[6] Dionysus punishes Cadmus for not respecting his divinity in Euripides’ The Bacchae, and he and his wife Harmonia become snakes in the underworld then endlessly swimming the Mediterranean, plundering the Greek city states that spring up. Corcoran in ‘Dionysus’ mashes these stories up and ponders the sea-faring origin of the alphabet (‘the alphabet in waves’) capturing the ways ideogram and phonemic symbols materially model thinking: ‘the sound the waves make shaping thought’ (514). Cadmus’s written language is coeval with the trade of city-states, and the art of song, drunk on inspiration in Dionysian ecstasies, is one way of playing out and against the guilt of the cities of commodity, traceable in the conflictual distinction between a theatrical voicing of a poem (‘Dionysus begins the action by walking on stage’) and its inscription (‘[Cadmus, tracing] rounded circles and scratches’ in his trading vessel, ‘at first light engraved a lexicon, trade routes and ascent’. Corcoran imagines Cadmus with his wife Harmonia sailing to Hellas from Lebanon, the trading vessel crammed with gifts: ‘a graven model of speaking silence, a notion of connected harmony and other goods – copper, wax and dye’. ‘These things, and a band of men, were needed to found a city and forget seafaring’ (515). The alphabet is a graven model enabling a different kind of music, poetry, which records and sings as commodity emerging in the Copper Age. It is also, the poem speculates, the epoch when the status of women is bargained away as city-states generate their armies, figured as loss of Eurydice, and in Corcoran’s as Harmonia seduced by Dionysus into accepting Cadmus’ commercial and martial warlord dominance with his band of men.[7] On the little ketch, she loses her identity and is lulled by the deep song of the sea of trade and war: ‘She was herself and not herself, the material of the deep song always sounding’. But it is the same deep song that performs the end of patriarchy, in the punishment meted out to Cadmus and his compliant partner, and in the dismemberment of Pentheus by the Bacchae in Euripides’s play.

Kelvin Corcoran’s rewrite of the Cadmus and Orpheus stories traces lines of correlation between Orpheus turning to stone in the dark wood and the engraved language of script, and finds a complex net of foundation myths tracking how language shapes thought and the entanglement of gender relations and poetry in the history of culture. In one sense, it recasts the transition from a matriarchal pre-agricultural world to a city-state world of commodity and agriculture run by a male military caste that figures in the Demeter-Persephone myth; where we see Demeter ceding power to Celeus and his son Triptolemus as she teaches them the arts of agriculture, grieving for the loss of her daughter in the underworld. V.R. ‘Bunny’ Lang’s Miraculous Season, a selection of her poetry edited by Rosa Campbell, has early on the curious poem, ‘The Pitch’, featuring an I-voice relishing the return of Spring (‘Marvels sparked everywhere burning from bracken / Lichen leapt crackling, and long grass’):


And everywhere my feet went the ground swung up giddy

Green and joy-panicked, then winter went under wonder

Sun stormed white furious skies where we went running


Then nothing I touched that didn’t burst out into flames,

Nothing I cried out that didn’t catch fire,

Nothing I called that didn’t know its name (43)


Lang conjures a Demeter-Persephone double capsuled in her persona, but one with powers of destruction and naming, combining the energies of Dionysian joy and Pan’s terror,[8] and turning Demeter’s winter melancholy into an underground Id-free fury and stormy feeling. The figure dies a death and enters a state of gravestone petrifaction: ‘Itched in the creeping stone that ate my flesh, / Until in stone I stumbled’, and accompanied by the dead in the ‘underground of seasons’, walking in circles ‘voiceless, weary, monolithic’. The stone that Orpheus is turned into has its analogue here in the figure of Persephone metamorphosing into her own gravestone, as her name is etched into the mineral surface.

         This is an relatively uncharacteristic poem, influenced by H.D. and Laura Riding most of all, but bears the traces of Lang’s fiery energy, the drive and power she showed as a co-founder of the Poets Theatre, and as aesthete-socialite writer in the emerging New York School. Her friendship with Frank O’Hara has governed a deal of her reception since her death at 32 from Hodgkin’s Disease, not insignificantly due to the very deep effects her death had on his work and styles, as Andrew Epstein has shown; but also because of O’Hara’s tributes to her during and after her passing, in memoirs, in poems like ‘An 18th Century Letter’, ‘V.R. Lang’, ‘A Letter to Bunny’, ‘A Party Full of Friends’, ‘A Step Away from Them’, ‘To Violet Lang’, ‘To Hell With It’, ‘The Unfinished’, and in the plays they wrote and helped stage at the Poets Theatre.[9] There has been a strong movement to advocate for her status as a significant New York School poet, with the most important interventions by Alison Lurie, her memoir and edition, V.R. Lang: Poems and Plays, With a Memoir (1975), Maggie Nelson with her Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007) and this Rosa Campbell edition plus her forthcoming St Andrew’s thesis, influenced by Nelson, The So-called New York School : A Feminist (Re)vision in Six Poets. Nelson is accurate in her sense of Lang’s gifts: ‘her voice is snappy, driven, and vaguely formal.’[10] Nelson with her grasp of this combination of factors, the stagey and imperious personae, the compelled energy, and the loosely crafted shapeliness of the poem on the page, pays tribute to the contradictions and originality of the work, and understands the sudden emergence of some breath-taking poems out of the run of exercises de style. She notes Lang’s ‘tremendously agile and ambitious mind moving in and out of imitations and exercises, and at moments, striking out with confidence (and sometimes loneliness) into its own queer idiom’ (142).

Just one example: ‘A Meeting of Several Hands’ takes as its topic the party-going of her coterie: ‘A party, a party, we went to a party! / We toasted to hope and the health of our host / In the cup of his porcelain eyes’ (60). An odd stanza imagines voices dropping leaden and posey bons mots (‘Beauty must be convulsive, trumpeted our leonine interlocutor’) only for the poem to finish with:


Crabbed and cold the wine was from the porcelain.

We splashed and sucked – and our generous host turned to laugh at us.

When we shivered and turned to stone, he continued to laugh at us.


The petrifaction suffered by Persephone is here figured as a lethal social paranoia about the possibility of a snobbery out-icing the socialite-aesthetes’ cold and crabbed demi-monde attitudinizing, the pack of them worsted by a mad hatter Dionysus with a Gorgon eye. Social death is often figured in these party poems as the nightmare of being cut by an even more ruthless cold heartedness.[11] Or it takes the shape of an uneasy dream about the victims of modish witty malice taking their revenge:


And all the poor and the rich and the blind and the beggars

Shouting and shaking their sticks; they said,

You are older and have taken your Letter,

Now wear your eyes inside out into your forehead

Else we tear them open like unwanted envelopes, in the mail (61)


This Edward Lear-like language speaks to the childishness both of the malice and of the dreamwork, and as such reveals superego anxieties about the lordliness of writing anything at all. The social accusers in this little fantasy equate her powers of vision with her letter-writing, and threaten to tear her eyes open as if they were dead letters. The hubris of her writing and sending her mail in this (male?) social space is fraught with the injunction to stick to self-absorbed poetry, a self-seeing that will turn her caustic powers of satire in on her own self. This invitation to turn upon herself succeeds insofar as what we are reading here is perhaps just such a wearing of her eyes inside out, a grotesque twisting in of the image-complex powers of the lyric poet.

         It was in the form of letters that O’Hara praised her in their time together: Lang was a prominent poet already and O’Hara learned a great deal from her verve, her seriousness, her anarchy, her drive. They spent every day together, reading and criticizing each other’s work, in a passion of friendship and making; with long phone calls daily after that. The epistolary form their poems to each other take is telling, taking tone and manner from the letter and the phone call, and often is a safety valve for their anxiety about lyric communication in a hostile world. O’Hara’s ‘A Letter to Bunny’ tells her about his fear of the ‘soundless, cold’ incinerator in the ‘heavy cave’ of the basement of his building, a fear that develops into a fear about poetry as a destructor of the props of social theatre, the ‘tinsels and the / velvets of the stage, the broken sets / and used drapes and tattered scrims’ of the Poets Theatre, presumably. Bunny and Frank are ‘we troupers in private’, and their communication is intimate when just a letter sent from one to the other. As an epistolary poem, though, it becomes a potential harbinger of destruction: ‘all notions, all collections of sentiment’, O’Hara writes, thinking about the drafts of this poem, ’that make a poem another burner full of / junk’.[12] Their friendship, O’Hara suggests, is built on the routines and role-playing of their jokes and exchanges, that find useful outlet in stage plays since embodied, ham-acted and voiced. But as script of a poem on the page, the routines risk lifelessness, become open to the destructive cold of indifferent readership, the poem a nightmare textual space that won’t even be voiced or burn, but is a cold and soundless container of discards and second thoughts. The problem lies in the presence of a host of critical readers in the space between: ‘When anyone reads this but you it begins / to be lost’, O’Hara fears. His voice is imagined ‘sucked into a thousand / ears and I don’t know whether I’m weakened’.

         That epistolary anxiety about lyric, that it is overheard by a multitude of cold, soundless blood-suckers turning the poem into a tomb or burner, is responded to by a poem of Lang’s to O’Hara, ‘Two Cats Have Killed a Bird’ (Miraculous Season, 48) which features the two poets as lazy, glutted pussycats:


We lay fat cats in a meadow under a milkweed sky,

Still from the thrush, the circling crow, the dragon-fly,


Incurious, complaisant, drunk with heat.

What did we do, how did we live before we met


The stillness of the fat cats stages a tableau vivant and fable of their lazy satisfaction and encouragement of each other’s whims, their shared predatory wit, the hedonism of their indulgences and addictions. The conspiracy of cats enjoys the glorious sexual nerve of comparing their odd couple to Donne’s lovers in ‘The Good-Morrow’ (‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?’)[13] whilst acknowledging that all changed when they discovered the joys of killing wit:


Once, we could have done with One,

Before we leamed the claw’s design,


Before the needles of the tongue

Learned to strike the spine!


This is a little cryptic, but the ‘One’ they could have done with before they met is taken from Donne’s poem, partly (‘If our two loves be one, or, thou and I / Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die’), and partly contrasts with what they meet: for the question ‘What did we do, how did we live before we met’ is enjambed across the stanza break into ‘Our Variety?’. The cheerful celebration of fusional love in Donne, ensuring immortality in a dream of endless mutuality, is jettisoned for the larger joys of predation of many species, not just the one bird of the title, but the many possible victims in the huntable world. The two cats follow up their bird-dinner with a lizard and a cuckoo: ‘Now there are Three – to kill, to keep, to claim – / We cannot lie with all of them’(48). The delicious viciousness of this, the three victims engendering the three imperious verbal actions, reveals the two poets as the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte, sexual predators corrupting the objects of their desire, caught in the arch ambiguity of ‘lie with’.

         The Laclosian rhetoric of the poem admits the lure of sexual pride and murderousness when faced with a bourgeois readership, but at its edges is the same lyric anxiety that featured in O’Hara’s letter to her, the niggle that the poems are doomed to end up as dead letters unread: ‘The lizard leaps from us! The cuckoo died / With a queer, bold cry!’ O’Hara’s queerness, Lang’s boldness is parodied in the imitative victim’s cry, and their very energy is stolen from them, the fat cats stilled in contrast to the leap and cry of their victims. The precision and satirical violence of their raillery, the claw’s design, the needles of the tongue, are answered by the passionate dying call of the cuckoo, which may be relished by the killers, but which stands as an ethical judgment on their malice, with again a counter-lyricism straight out of Edward Lear (think of the ‘lessening cry’ of his pelicans).

         Another of Lang’s letter poems is ‘Dear Steve’, which tells the correspondent to go south in the winter to counter immobility, which ‘Confounds by the taunt of waste’, but admits she cannot afford to. The tragic super-tragic statement of the case, the immobility of the still, petrified body wasting time in a waste of time, is turned on its head: ‘Harried, / I remain free’. She stages her self as escaping determination by the ‘Pressure, principalities’ by a formal scrapbook paste-up of her fears as externalisation: ‘I out shapes. paste them out / Color them and call them by name.’ The strategy of a girl in a nursery school perhaps, but also with the naming, shaping power of a Demeter-Persephone. The poem’s making out shapes means something like making the shapes of the pressures on her stand outside of her through manifestation as words on a page. She pastes the shapes out, as an editor might paste up an issue, and sometimes these shapes answer back, she says, ‘and I seldom lack conversation’. The dry pride in her wit and powers of repartee is earned here as a brave gesture of self-liberation, whilst also, again, drolly dampening down any possible heroics in the statement of it. The next section sees her beating a path through a wood, and there again there’s no unreal pride: some follow the path she stamps out, but mostly people ‘scratch their own’. The meditation ends with a strange dreamlike encounter which may explain this tactful diffidence, the emergence of the white crow that haunts so many of her poems:


Only in silence the crow in the corner

Stares at my performance, makes me make

Mistakes and mix my words


This premonition of her early death is Keatsian without the fake lyricism of forlorn faery diction that lured Keats away with its pressure and principality. The lines have a Poe-like spectrality, and figure forth a more nightmarish externalisation of inwardness than the pasting of shapes could achieve. The courageous theatricality and nonchalance of the attitude struck in the face of danger of the first three stanza blocks (‘Harried, I am well enough’), lays bare the harbinger at the back corner of the mind, a troubling presence that mimics social self-consciousness and saps confidence in language and poetry. The crow gathers together the paranoid figure of the reader, but plays another role, of censor, of terminator, the role of those who vaunt their power to disrupt, the counterpart with the cold eye of the indifferent lover, hostile spectator, unreadable other and secret sharer. The mistakes in the voice are enacted in the glitchy ‘makes me make / Mistakes’ and its awkward enjambment followed by the tongue-twisting ‘mix’: what is mixed up are the words as address to the Steve of the title, the death-drive crow scrambling the communication, shading it under the wing of melancholia. This letter was never sent, one feels, just left as a note to harried self.[14]

         This selection is a precious gift to poetry, a real discovery, and consolidation of the reputation of a vital, odd and lively poet, alert to the balancing act of her poems on such fine edge, at the threshold between public and private zones of feeling and display. The poems shine and bristle with routines, tones, intonations, from the breezy and brittle to the entranced and desolate, with something of the power of Stevie Smith’s fiction, or Elizabeth Bowen, quite astonishingly various in their quick bond-making, genre-shifting, their dark play at a range of dangerous intimacies: quite a find, quite a long-distance call.

[1] ‘A Personal Preface’, posthumously collected volume of her poems, quoted Andrew Epstein, ‘“First Bunny Died”: Frank O’Hara with, and after, Bunny Lang’, Spoke 4 (2017), 227-37 (p. 236).

[2] Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice, edited Gareth Farmer (1978) (Bristol: Shearsman, 2016), 204.

[3] For Corcoran and the lyric, see The Writing Occurs as Song: A Kelvin Corcoran Reader, edited by Andy Brown (Bristol: Shearsman, 2014), particularly the interviews with Andy Brown, and the contributions by Simon Smith, ‘Kelvin Corcoran and the Late Modernist Lyric’, and John Hall, ‘Kelvin Corcoran on and in Song’.

[4] For a fine study of the representation of mercantile trade, luxury goods and commodity in Corcoran’s work, see Martin Anderson’s essay in The Writing Occurs as Song, ‘The Imperial Franchise Endlessly Renewed’.

[5] John Hall, in his essay in The Writing Occurs as Song, ‘From Where Song Comes’, notes the influence of Maurice Bowra’s book, Primitive Song on Corcoran’s representation of this transition: ‘Bowra looks for signs of the origins of song among surviving hunter-gatherer people, and relies for his source date on the work of linguists and anthropologists, codifiers at the edge of the dark forests of capitalism’ (111).

[6] This reading of the Cadmus section is indebted to Scott Thurston’s essay in The Writing Occurs as Song, ‘The Pleasures of Reification: Kelvin Corcoran’s Lyric Lyric’. Thurston examines Corcoran’s exploration of the origin of writing systems and what he terms ‘the micro-architecture of writing’ (131).

[7] John Hall on the impact of the adoption of writing codes and the shift to agriculture, supply chains, and lines of plough: ‘acquisition of code is experienced as a great loss and terror’ (119).

[8] See Freud on mother-goddesses, ‘both creatures and destroyers – both goddesses of life and fertility and goddesses of death’ (‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’, [1913] Standard Edition vol XII [London:Vintage, 2001], 289-302, [p. 299])

[9] See Andrew Epstein, ‘”First Bunny Died”: Frank O’Hara with, and after, Bunny Lang’, Spoke 4 (2017), 227-37. For some of the plays, see The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil (Kenning Editions, 2010).

[10] Maggie Nelson, Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions (Iowa City: Iowa UP, 2007), p. 64

[11] O’Hara was aware of the lure of the very cold to Lang; his poem to her, ‘V.R. Lang’, has ‘You are so serious, as if / a glacier spoke in your ear’.

[12] Frank O’Hara, ‘A Letter to Bunny’, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995), p. 22.

[13] See Denise Riley on quotations, which ‘may work benignly, or as a poetics of violent diction’, The Force of Language (London: Palgrave, 2004), 49-50. Tom Jones quotes Riley to show how it might be therapeutic to realise that 'the potential violence of ideologically hateful inner speech can be neutralised by a recognition of its entirely contingent nature' (Tom Jones, Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present [Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012],  p.158)

[14] Many of the letter poems style themselves as letters never sent; for instance, 'Already Ripening Barberries are Red' reads like a letter-poem but end  'Someday, not today, I’ll write you' (40), and a poem begins 'You didn't mail the letters that began, / "I am ashamed for both of us", didn't write / The letter that began, "I pity you"' (45).

Adam Piette teaches as the University of Sheffield and co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939-1945, The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam.

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