Joshua Corey, The Barons. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2014. ISBN 978-1890650988.
Heart-fat and Will
R. D. Wood
When I think of epic I not only think of certain classical iterations, but modernist American instances too – Pound, Eliot, Zukowfski, Reznikoff, to name a few. But in each case I think of empire. This is not to say that epic lends itself to building empire in a way that previous critics might have said the novel was a handmaid to nationalism but that a whole set of social relations and contextual situations of epic are implicated with empire. And this seems to be more the case than other forms of poetic expression. In a very basic sense epic and empire loom large; they seem big; they grow and expand outward. They project. This is, of course, not to limit epic or empire or to suggest that epic cannot be intimate, confessional, personal, but that epic and empire display a pressing affinity.
Joshua Corey’s The Barons asks us to think about American empire and epic now. The contours of the epic poem can be seen in each and every school. Avant garde, conceptual, post-conceptual, lyric, conservative, light, serious have their epics to name simply a handful of sub-status groups. We could situate Corey in this poetic milieu for his work cross hatches, intersects, speaks to many of these groupings. We could, quite equally, situate him in the landscape that surrounds him; the material conditions and the material he works on and from. This is an America of war in the middle east, of climate change sceptics, of gun toting, bible bashing, tea partying, hard working flyover states as well as an America of bi-coastal, multiracial, farmers’ market, yoga latte MFAs. The diversity of America is metaphysical, it is empirical; it lends itself to epic. There is then a synergy of poetry with world, which is something endearing and noticeable about Corey’s work. Pop culture, personal experience, poetic archive clash and sing and devise a way to engage with epic.
In The Barons Corey wears his poetic ancestors on his back – “Whitman, Stein, Crane, O’Hara, Rilke, Duncan” are stated as influences on the cover. The most immediately noticeable of those mentioned is Robert Duncan, from whom the epigraph comes (“I write poetry for the fucking stars”), and the opening line is thoroughly Whitmanian (“Epic fail and the man I sing”) in the first instance. But as one works oneself into the book other poets come up and not only Americans. I recognised, for instance, a line from Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue” in the section on Joseph Beuys. Taken as a whole The Barons is a sampling of many different styles and voices, and one notices different tendencies in each of the six sections be that fragmentary abstraction, flash fiction prose poems or others.
One section – “Little Land Lyrics” – has a propulsive percussive rhythm and wry observations in twenty-one numbered stanzas. We are pushed along and each stanza has an anchoring and compelling line of tight rhyme of varying degrees of trueness. These rhymes are:
The rhyme acts as a hinge point in each stanza as much as a compelling trait throughout the whole section. “Little Land Lyrics” has line breaks that run counter, or really compound, the fractured images and motifs that recur.
In this, and every other section, Corey is an able stylist too of the short phrase with layered reference and meaning. See for example the following line: “My maw mau-maus me in the mausoleum made from the girly magazines of my youth.” (79). The beginning of the phrase with its repetition reminds one of Gertrude Stein in various Tender Buttons pieces, and we get from “mau-maus” not only the sonic echo of “maw” but a reference to the Mau Mau rebellion in British occupied Kenya that lasted from 1952 to 1960. There is too the use of “maus” as German for “mouse”, which not only signals the eponymous Art Spiegelman graphic novel but also a type of World War Two Panzer tank. The “mausoleum” once again provides a sonic echo, but also recalls Mao in his mausoleum. From this we could think of Nixon in China or any other set of associations – Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, Communism – implicated with empire. And finally, we hear of the “girly magazines”; which I read both as a reference to pornography (i.e. magazines of girls) and counter-intuitively as girly magazines like the “girly man” of Charles Bernstein’s poetry collection titled Girly Man from the Arnold Schwarzenegger phrase. This is media as empire, memory as complicated, expression as layered. There are many such passages in Corey’s work, passages that attest to a dense Pandora’s box of reference and relation.
One section I found particularly generative was “Iphigenia / Beuys”. This section is one longer poem and starts out in a somewhat descriptive, albeit disjointed and partial, manner. It has a Dada-esque middle where words break down into sounds. It touches on the artist and activist Joseph Beuys’ work – fat, felt, animals – and uses some German cultural references (for example, the Celan reference I noted before). It recounts in an elliptical way things about Beuys’ art and life. Beuys is the object of the poetry. We could take this invocation of Beuys as a starting point. Beuys could be the bones-fat-heart of a wider, more epic poetic project. Through his explicit and implicit critique of Duchamp, Beuys offers us a way of reading Kenneth Goldsmith and conceptualism today. Although Goldsmith has recently taken a spectacular turn (Seven American Deaths and Disasters and “The Body of Michael Brown”), in his earlier work (Soliloquy, Fidget, Day, The New York Trilogy) we see an epic Duchampian engagement with the everyday. Arguably the post-conceptual landscape (Flarf, Alt-lit, Po-con) has failed to adequately think of society and interaction as an organising principle for poetry after Goldsmith. If Beuys advocated “social sculpture” what of social poetry? A social poetry, as responsive, radical and dialogic art praxis-thought-possibility, is something we might advocate from an Australian and transnational perspective. For us here, it could be a poetics (and inseparably a poetry) that considered suburbanism more fully as part of an eco-poetic frame. We glimpse this in the readerly labour of interpretation of The Barons, which takes social poetry as merely one unclosing.
Corey’s The Barons offers us a rich, dense, allusive, elusive reading and writing of epic in an American key. In thinking about it as a set of engagements with regard to eco-poetics one may begin to think through the possibilities of empire and scale. If Whitman sang of himself and projected outwards across the continent, assimilating to his vision daisies, men, prairies, in The Barons we might want to think of experiments in form held together by an engagement with the language of the archive as well as the daily language that surrounds us. In its synthesising of past epics we get an insightful take on what exists in the library of epic without ever quite collapsing into the failings of the past, failings that were moral and political as much as they were linguistic.
R. D. Wood has worked as a kitchenhand, dishwasher, brickie’s labourer, tutor, community gardener, university lecturer, arts administrator, unionist, researcher, cultural liaison officer, publisher and editor. See more of his writing at: www.rdwood.org