Since his Selected Poems came out in 2004, Kelvin Corcoran has produced two substantial books of poetry. "Backward Turning Sea" was a fine collection, and this new one, "Hotel Shadow" seems to me to be even more accomplished; indeed, a major achievement, picking up the themes of the previous book and broadening them out in poems of great scope. The same concerns are there; the role of classical Greece in contemporary culture - re-appropriating its history and mythology for our own times; the radical politics, which includes the mixing of the personal and political which Corcoran does so masterfully; and the dialogue with other writers, including Thomas Campion, Ezra Pound, W.S. Graham, Douglas Oliver and, most notably (as in previous works), Byron. Corcoran is a Poundian poet, in the sense that he wishes to "include history" in his poetry - though without Pound's misguided politics; which in fact, he reasseses and questions:
"What does Pound find to admire in the Sigismundo and the Medici?
Hands grasping the rods of power, banking and patronage..."
The other aspect of Corcoran - again a parallel with Pound - is that he is essentially a lyric poet. This is, ultimately, why we read his poetry. There are some marvelous passages, as this, from "Epicurus Is My Neighbour":
"The wind blows and the house stands,
the roof holds and I see us lie under it;
I see the garden thrashing all night and
the village launch itself into deep water,
the wind rolling off the sea explodes thought.
In mountain clamour the high meadows
blown white and bare and detonate particles at swim
against our silver window, a lexicon
smashed and scattered uncoded bright beads
remaking the swept world by morning."
Some of the writing is in long, loose lines that almost amounts to prose, as in the "Hearing Mishearing Doug Oliver", and it occurs to me that Corcoran would make a good writer of prose. The section "In the Vaccinaton Queue" has some well-observed, quite accurate description:
"Many were the respectable poor who no longer exist in any political discourse. They wear cheap clothes; the men in pressed grey trousers and thin brown slip-ons; the women in sensible three-quarter-length coats and shapeless slacks. You queue up here because it's free - and they have paid all their lives. So they act sniffy, like a posh hat on humility. I'm at home with them and try to be helpful."
The pathos of "they have paid all their lives" and the insight that these people are ignored by political discourse marks out this passage, but there are several like it. The book is divided into four parts, and the third part,"The Family Carnival", contains most of the personal poetry. There is "Season Below Ground", a beautiful and moving poem addressed to "Melanie" whcih talks about a life lived in partnership in an elegiac tone. The poem has a sense of the speaker emerging from a period of illness:
"It was always this road, up and down the country ,
always the blinding cartography in endless parallel
missing the point of where we go."
This section of the book merges family history, personal reminiscence and History itself, with flashes of Corcoran's trademark lyric phrasing:
"We woke in the bowl of mountains,
snowbound peaks shining up the sky chemicals
of the big fat day on its feet and shouting"
There's much more to be said about this book than can be fitted into a short review, but I'll briefly summarise the rest. The opening section, "Sing Campion Song" is a dialogue with three poets, Thomas Campion, Ezra Pound and W.S. Graham. The whole section constitutes a discourse about lyric poetry and the role it plays in the life of society and of the individual. If that makes it sound heavy, I can assure you it's not; it's a lively set of song-poems. The second section, "News of Aristomenes" is a long historical poem which would really need a review to itself; suffice to say that it continues to mine Greek history and mythology, with some playful textual games along the way. Part three, "The Family Carnival" I've mentioned, and part four is "On the Xenophone Label", originally published as a pamphlet by Longbarrow Press. Short, tight lines - classical Greece made new - as if it were contemporary. Writing about Corcoran's poem "Helen Mania", from "Backward Turning Sea", Alistair Noon says: "There is a clear, explicit and acknowledged link to the present here, no disingenuous denial of the text’s situatedness in the here and now. No pretence is made of the thing being anything other than a 21st century echo and resonance of Homer". Noon goes on to praise Corcoran's use of anachronism's, comparing them favourably with those of Simon Armitage in his Homer translation. This link to the present is there in "On the Xenophone Label":
"Plato's thought police and their like would not have it"
However, this poem largely steers clear of anachronism and contempoarary reference; it does in fact inhabit the Ancient world, its ideas, as well as our ideas about it, very effectively. The list of sources in the notes shows that Cororan has done his homework. But the touch is light, and the language is musical:
"In the chapters of sweetness
yellow honey gods made figs
made all things clear
iambic frogs meteors first principles."
From the passage quoted earlier titled "In the Vaccinaton Queue", to the broad sweeps through the classical world and the blending of politics and life, this collection has tremendous scope. It is learned, political and up-to-the-minute; but ultimately, what shines through is idealism, in the best sense, the yearning and the belief that better things are possible:
"But imagine a common purpose in breathing the next breath
and the blossom bursts so candid, like love unfolding,
like a river of untethered clouds making a new country,
to make us unsay each hectic word in the artless plan."