Corey Marks. The Radio Tree. New Issues, 2012.
Corey Marks’ 2011 Green Rose Prize winning book The Radio Tree reads like leafing through an enormous, time-damaged photo album form an estate sale, looking into the faded photographs and clippings of a lost history that could at once be many of our own. With scorching precision and control, Corey Marks crafts a lyric narrative scratched through static on a poet’s dream radio, a difficult journey into memory through the meditative mind and the landscapes of wilderness that provoke it: “When the rains came I was, for my own purposes, / on the far side of the river. Who could’ve known / the drizzle would ratchet to torrent, or the river / unbuckle, swallow its bank, ring the scattered trees” (“Three Bridges”). The Radio Tree arrives twelve years after Marks’ first book, 1999’s National Poetry Series winner Renunciation, a collection which moved Philip Levine to note: “Marks believes so completely in the power of the imagination his words can burn you.” With titles such as “Sleeper Lake Fire,” “Hotel Fire,” and “Fire & Tulips,” appearing in The Radio Tree, not to mention countless allusions to fire, “Touch it with a match— / a red- / rimmed crack will open the paper backing, / a false horizon, / a yawning / and bewildered / smile” (“Fire & Tulips”), the reader can trace the poet distilling his obsession, this burning intensity with which he dauntlessly stares into the violence of loss.
The poem “Lullaby” appearing in the center of the book identifies a key issue in its confrontation with memory and its erosion: “Pay attention, the world demands, but something / always stutters and blurs, and anyway I can never / get enough of what I’ve already gotten wrong.” The poem becomes a long meditation on the destruction of illness, addressed to a private “you” that seeps a confessional tone into the poems, and with it a distance from the reader: “you showed me the first speckle on your forehead, / the trio burst minutely on your cheek […] Wait and see. A rash, / something small and already fading. A little tale / we wanted to believe.” This four-page, 111-lined poem feels sleepy, hypnotic, and it casts a spell that necessitates the sharp language bullets Marks crafts to keep it alert: “Shut up. But the birds / wouldn’t stop—Don’t you know who I am? / Don’t you know, don’t you know? // When he found the door he would open each cage / and wring the piercing notes from every last throat. / What did he know of how the body can change?” Other densely meditative poems also often reference birds—”And how do the sparrows soothe their panicked / away, away to return, return?”—that help to stir up a mood of worry and uncertainty.
There is a cyclical, merry-go-round feel to many of the poems in The Radio Tree. In “Sleeper Lake Fire,” the words “burn,” “dream” “tree,” “radio” “pines,” “fire,” “daughter,” “house,” “child,” and “birds” revolve and repeat through the poem’s twenty quatrains to the point that it seems Marks is inventing his own form of sestina. “The Poet’s House” too exhausts itself with seventeen long-line tercets of revolving vocabulary and phrasing. Not a single poem, however, is without a stunning simile, metaphor, or mood-inducing reference to birds. This same poem houses the remarkable image: “you must cross an empty field’s billowing / lines of snow, beneath a helix of birds, doubled, / tripled in a distant undulation and belting a swirl of fray.” The references to birdsare also the most musical and sonically enriching moments, like having a film strip of various flushes of sky textured with patterns of bird movement and sound, as in “The chirr and squabble of birds all morning […] flocks of sound / skimming long corn rows brown // before thrashing and fingered through with shadows” (“Bell”). The extent to which Marks evokes birds provides an astounding music and cacophonous mood that layers into many of the poems.
While the book itself is slim, the poems are dense and relentless. They are careful, controlled, and vivid, but they leave almost no room to move. This density plays on the notion of static, both the audible fuzz of searching and also the quality of being fixed, unmoving, or lacking change. While both of these notions show form and content informing one another, some of the best poems in the collection are kept brief and given more air. “Dumb Luck” and “The String” both appear in shorter-lined couplets, and the power of the poet’s command of language is more open for the reader to appreciate. “Dumb Luck” conjures the death of a race horse in musical and rhythmic lines that lend a fresh complexity to the collection, “each breath ragged and expendable / and replaceable as the printed bets that drift the grounds, skittering / between knuckles of grass.” His pairings via simile and metaphor are hair-raising.
Marks is a poem-smith; he forges poems into terrible brick walls (in the sense of Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets”) or a dark thickets of danger and intrigue. Such is the nature of memory, death, and the present emptiness stuck between them. In the book’s final poem “Fire & Tulips,” the poet examines a “photo left among its losses // room for something new: a whole minor history.” This “whole minor history” is the pulse of the book, the personal and seemingly trivial quotidian life that is often rife with devastating loss. The poet flipping through “this constellation of photos / cast across my desk for you,” seems to mourn aloud to a beloved to for the reader to hear. Inside this mess of photos is one of himself, leaning against his “father’s battered truck / that must be a shell of rust by now / if it survives at all, brittle, mottled in orange // a slow and heatless fire / that smolders—exactly unlike memory— / with a mindless purpose to undo what / it never knew how to make in the first place.” The book suffers aloud, offering this raw, personal, and controlled look into memory, loss, and death.
—Jennifer Marshall Lagedrost