Joshua Corey wrote the 61 sonnets in Severance Songs between 2001-2005 while writing a PhD on American modernist pastoral at Cornell. Though very much a self-consciously post-911 book, its first few poems were actually written in August 2001, before the author knew they would lead to a sonnet sequence or predate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like all pastoral, then, the poems in Severance Songs are problematically called back to, and severed from, a prelapsarian past of sorts. As a work of self-described “postmodern pastoral,” it reflects on itself reflecting on this condition. Beyond pastoral—or perhaps in keeping with the tensions by which pastoral is generated—Severance Songs is also a specimen of that other thoroughly outdated and suspect mode, serial love poetry (in this case addressed to the poet’s future wife). It is a work of improvised yet layered experimentalism, commendable both for its deep engagement with the thorny philosophical problems of writing pastoral in the 21st century and for the smart, sensual verve of its verse-craft.
Corey’s work centers on modern forms of utopian speculation, primarily the flowering of experimental pastoral poetry from late-modernism onward. Most recently, he co-edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012), an anthology that calls us back to the original meaning of the word (a “gathering of flowers”) in its repeated staging of the nature-in-language problem. The volume does not offer a core concept of “Nature” to be sentimentally upheld or critically deconstructed, but instead convenes a multitude of literary ecologies in the work of contemporary poets. Through it, we gain access to the “junkheap of Nature” as it has been imaginatively constructed—and composted—in language since classical times.
The challenge of avant or postmodern pastoral (the rubric is unstable) is not to find new, organic forms of natural mimesis, nor is it to offer ecological wisdom. Rather it attempts, as Corey has written, “a more difficult and complex form of representation, one which situates the human subject in relation to a socio-ecological totality that cannot be presented solely through images (whether sincere or ironic) of shepherds, birds, beasts, and flowers.” Avant-pastoralists do not shy away from or whitewash the disunities, contradictions, deceptions, and dangers of post-industrial reality; on the contrary, they invite them into their poems in a bid to move beyond both naive reification of nature as a numinous space and postmodernist reduction of “nature” to text.
Some versions of contemporary experimental pastoral, like Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, fashion a kind of meta-pastoral logic of nostalgia for a time when it was still possible to write pastoral. By a similar token, Severance Songs, like XEclogue, negotiates a knowing return to chronically obsolete forms like the sonnet, the love poem, and the pastoral. The interest here is generated by the author’s investment in what might be called “avant-formalism”—another contradiction worthy of the pastoral tradition. Corey ostensibly joins any number of other contemporary “avant-formalists” who have courted form in a bid to dissolve it, unseat it, break it up, or otherwise renovate it. One thinks of Karen Volkman’s sprung-rhythmic, rhyming sonnet sequence, Nomina, or D.A Powell’s “corydon and alexis, redux,” which resituates the sonnet tradition under the sign of the AIDS crisis (Corey also has a Corydon poem, possibly a punny one).
Yet one senses that Corey is less interested in placing himself on the experimentalist-traditionalist spectrum than he is in staging encounters between genre and what he might call the pressures of reality. His sonnets take many forms, from solid blocks to distended, caesuraed floes. They are interlarded with scraps of Milton, Keats, Shakespeare, Woolf, Williams, and others, but not in facile homage to these masters. In interview, Corey has said he wanted both to apply pressure to the sonnet form (by way of inducing textual density through allusion, word-play, alliteration, collage, and so on) and to relieve the form, or “ventilate” it. Both tactics recall the work of Ronald Johnson, whose work shimmers with ecstatic puns and who “ventilated” Paradise Lost to such stunning effect in Radi Os. As in Johnson, there is an embodied aural pleasure to be had in Corey’s text; the pleasure of language that takes pleasure in itself.
Severance Songs is a timely book in large part for its prescient coverage of the credit crisis (the dot com bubble also lurks in the background). In one poem, Corey writes, “When the crash comes to housing, how my eyepiece / will shiver.” Writing well before the 2008 crash, his eyepiece seems to have been a crystal ball. Even so, the predominant mode in this book is not visionary so much as a more tactile critique of pastoral capitalism, to use architectural historian Louise Mozingo’s useful phrase. Pastoral capitalism, as Corey understands, is a death-wish, a form of “necropastoral”: “we wish for an ocean to swim in for capital / commensurate with our capacity for drowning.”
One of the most attractive trends in recent postmodern pastoral is the tendency to literalize natural figures to reveal how they have been “denatured” and/or instrumentalized by contemporary use. A notable example is Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, with its extended riffing on the nebulous systems (meteorological, financial, religious, etc), which govern our lives. In Corey, clouds, as well as deserts, flowers, leaves, and other natural phenomena also emerge as key figures in this regard:
Seeded clouds fattening. I batten on a promise
of new markets. But the horizon’s saturated,
no longer even an image, and the desert swells.
That iceman breathes his last like us,
Suspended in a dream of death’s flowering.
These days, “seeded clouds”—that is, governmental and corporate tampering with the natural order—saturated markets, and “death’s flowering” in the form of wholesale environmental catastrophe seem more and more like the depressing horizon of our cultural imaginary. An earlier poem begins, “Towers dimensionalize this desert of wind;/ that is, what interest wind earns from the froth-tops toppling.” While this elegizes the Twin Towers, it also critiques a system that was too big and failed; or better yet, it is a poetic retooling and retuning of the words and concepts associated with that system. As in Donnelly, or Robertson, or Jennifer Moxley, Corey’s language of the marketplace clashes and cross-pollinates with the language of “nature” in the service of a sophisticated avant-pastoral vision of the socio-ecological totality of things.
One of the volume’s finest poems extends the sand/desert motif in an Ashberyan (and Bernsteinian) key:
This poem is the war on a very plain level.
Look at it cherishing you. Look how trustingly it sits
in the wrinkled palms of the wise men.
Now they shake its can full of tax dollars
and rain exploding food on the countryside.
We recognize the sand, you and I, we deplore the poem
and its rage that is not bravery or counter-
intelligence. Suffering is reasonable as love
but this poem can’t barber its own hook clean.
It twists in the shrapnel breeze of my credibility.
It is made above all of words disarranged
to resemble an obvious truth.
This poem catches your hands
and releases them. It has no reflecting surfaces.
This poem does not spill a drip of the fluids that are yours.
Here, “the lone and level sands” of Ozymandias become the “very plain level” on which we recognize that poetry, like sand, often forms a desolate space in which nothing happens and which can make nothing happen. This is liberal guilt at war with itself, unable to “barber its own hook clean.” Yet, like the other poems in this collection, this one “is made above all of words disarranged / to resemble an obvious truth.” Here we have a handy précis of the avant-pastoralist ethos, writ large across Corey’s collection and challenging us to confront obvious, if exceedingly disturbing and complex truths.