Alfred Corn’s UNIONS, reviewed by Philip Belcher

Corn, Alfred. Unions (New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014)

In “No. 2, The Pines,” one of Max Beerbohm’s essays selected by Phillip Lopate for inclusion in The Prince of Minor Writers published earlier this year, Beerbohm called Algernon Charles Swinburne “a singing bird that could build no nest” (31). Describing Swinburne as “the flammiferous boy of the dim past—a legendary creature, sole kin to the phoenix,” Beerbohm got to the point more directly by writing that Swinburne “was not a thinker: his mind rose ever away from reason to rhapsody . . .” (31). Coming across this exuberant description of Swinburne was fortunate, because it provides an immediate and stark contrast for Alfred Corn’s poems in Unions. Just as there is no debate that Corn has a lyric gift—his focus on sound permeates even the most difficult poems in Unions, Corn’s eleventh book of poems—there can be little disagreement that Corn is “a thinker.” And it is Corn’s wide-ranging intellect that offers both the pleasures and the challenges—experiences that are not always incompatible—that characterize his most recent volume of poems.


Readers will discern in Unions three kinds of poems. The variety is determined by formal complexity, diction, and thematic accessibility. The most lyrical poems in Unions—and the most enjoyable if one’s taste runs toward universal emotions reflected in clear images—are those in which the poet reins in his omnivorous intellect. Readers might suspect that Corn included these more lyrical poems for the sake of variety, and they will be glad for the respite. One of the best examples of these eminently accessible poems is “Out Behind the Kiln.” After describing a potter’s dumping ground for imperfect or broken pottery, the accumulation of pine needles among the shards, and the visitor’s ability to discern the potter’s growth as an artist by surveying the cast-offs, the third stanza evokes a broader realization:

Some items, to all appearances,
are whole—like the one earthenware
Buddha, a robed plumpness seated,
unhindered and at ease. That lidded gaze
lightens every crackup it takes in—
all of them in his mind nonexistent,
so much painted illusion. Illusion, and yet
a waste, a wasteland, empty and broken. (17-24)

This poem, less formally intricate than many in the volume, shows Corn at his most transparent. The clarity of the image of the Buddha presiding over the “wasteland” does not diminish the complexity of the emotion conveyed. In fact, the straightforward diction and the simple rhythm enhance the power of the final contrast between what is illusory and yet still a waste. Even in this poem, however, one finds the poet straining against conventions of contemporary poetry that emphasize employing short, common words and eschewing adjectives. In the second stanza, the reader is purposefully slowed by “permanent sighing,” “productive year,” “accumulated,” “corrugations, calligraphic fragments,” and “readable summary of evolving skills” (10-16). Corn thrives on the Latinate, and he draws throughout the book on his vast trove of vocabulary.

Another poem that fits this first category of more lyrically satisfying poems is “On Her Blindness.” The first two of the eight unrhymed couplets provide a sufficient example:

Apart from touch and music  the world’s show closed
I can’t search out its picturesque  its jumble

can’t read what others have described or watch
my own hand trace impressions of the day (1-4)

“On Her Blindness,” particularly when read together with some of the book’s examples of Corn’s more exuberant and bold formal strokes, shows the poet’s comfort with manipulating all of the elements of craft. In this persona poem, the poet uses line breaks and small adjustments to spacing to organize a cadence that mimics the speaker’s awareness and discomfort that her capacity to communicate is limited to “words diplomacy cold-blooded / and blank as cave fish darting in a stream // dawn never touches . . .” (13-15).

Moving away from the relatively direct lyrical narrative poems, readers will notice a second category—poems that more obviously flaunt Corn’s formal dexterity and wit. The most fun example is “In the Grünewald Café.” The title is repeated as the last line of each of the poem’s nine quatrains. This repetition, together with the exact end-rhyme scheme, embodies a song structure specifically referenced in the poem’s final two lines. As with many of the poems in Unions, the reader suspects that more is going on than she is able to discern, but the formal elements, combined with an intriguing and humorous story line—a bar scene gone bad—make this poem a delight.

And now this floating view down from the ceiling:
Blood soaks the spot where your dead body lay.
What song, what words express all that you’re feeling?
In the Grünewald Café. (33-36)

This second group of poems also includes two that are explicitly erotic: “Möbius Strip” and “In Half-Light.” It would be difficult to imagine poems more personal, but in these two poems Corn avoids the hermeticism that affects some other poems in Unions and instead uses imagery and plain diction to offer readers access to very intimate subjects. “Möbius Strip” describes the sexual encounter of two men in specific, physical detail. Although it is always dangerous to identify a poem’s speaker with the poet, readers with prior exposure to Corn’s poems or biography know that the poet writes freely about his sexual orientation. Even those readers, though, may find “Möbius Strip” bracing in its frankness. Yet, nothing about the poem seems gratuitous. When the poem describes the emotion of the sexual act as “. . . the angry exultation / that can’t help being selfish when it feels good,” the reader knows exactly what the speaker means, regardless of her own orientation (14-15). Similarly, “In Half-Life” describes a scene of lovers in bed after sex. This poem, too, contains explicit imagery, but the revelation is found in the poet’s description of the change in the speaker’s sense of well-being after the act of love:

. . . Times like this used to cause anxiety,
but not now. Instead, an onflow of energy,

the outlook released when we shed a worn-out disguise,
or hear the live voice sounding, after someone dies. (13-16)

Many of the poems in Unions contain literary and historical allusions, and Corn may have included one here. He describes this time in bed with his lover as “. . . a breathless aftermath deeper / even than the undersea drama that overtakes people // in sleep” (11-13). It is hard not to recall James Baldwin’s opening line in the first chapter of Part Two of Giovanni’s Room: “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea.” Coincidence or not, the similarity is intriguing.

The poems in the third grouping are characterized by formal virtuosity, diction that trumps rhythm, and an inwardness that trends hermetic. They are the most numerous and most difficult poems in the book. Although other poems better illustrate Corn’s formal genius, “Eleven Londons,” at fourteen pages by far the longest poem in the volume, is the best example of the poet’s inclination in Unions to bend the lyric toward prose. The poem’s eleven sections, each designated by a year (a forty year span beginning with 1967 and ending with 2007), comprise a travel and cultural narrative, pitted with pop cultural references from the relevant years. By the end of the poem, readers are almost certain to ask for what audience Corn wrote this poem. Its private nature is punctuated by the initials of several people the speaker mentions in connection with his London experiences. It is entirely possible that something other than personal prose is going on in lines like “Ed White dropped in from Paris, inviting me / for drinks at Le Caprice with Alan J. / and Nigella L., new talents I’d never heard of,” but whatever that something might be is not apparent (137-39). This is not to say that Corn has abandoned his exquisite attention to sound. Alliteration and assonance adorn each of the sections. Take, for instance, lines like these: “Rain sent down dark floods on the backs of brown / brick houses, over the chimney pots, spilled / from the pewter cloud cover” (156-58). The musical effects of lines like these, however, do not conquer the reader’s suspicion that the poet is writing for himself in a diary of sorts or, perhaps, for close associates who will “get it.” Neither does Corn’s use of popular cultural references enable readers to experience any of the emotion the poet might be trying to convey. The following description does this better than most:

During dinner with D. and N., one wearing
red and black, the other, grape and green,
we heard that Spender’s daughter was engaged
to an Aussie comic famous as “Edna Everage.”
Had Auden at Christ Church been prescient, wondered
D., would he have failed to comment, “Stephen,
what you’ll most likely end up being is
the married father of a daughter whose
husband is a brilliant drag performer. (181-89)

Two other poems in this third grouping highlight the unevenness of Unions. In “Poe Lucifer,” Corn displays his finely tuned sense of form, and one can also find here hints of his lyric strengths. This eighteen line poem is divided into two stanzas of nine lines each, and the stanzas mirror each other exactly. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second stanza; the second line of the first stanza is repeated as the penultimate line of the second stanza, etc. Not merely a formal exercise, this poem engages the reader in both form and content; they work together seamlessly. Contrast “Poe Lucifer” to one of several overtly political poems in the book, “Credit Crunch.” In this poem, Corn also employs a strict formal discipline. Each of the first three lines of each of the seven quatrains contains eleven syllables; each fourth line is exactly five syllables long. But form cannot turn this poem into anything other than a rant:

Boom or bust, economy played like blackjack,
Shakedown sharks infesting not only Vegas,
Hell, they’re epidemic from Washington to
Silicon Valley. (9-12)

The veiled lyricism of “Poe Lucifer” is AWOL and sorely missed by the reader.

Writing of Swinburne in “No. 2, The Pines,” Beerbohm declared that Swinburne’s early work would be the poet’s measure. “Had he died young, literature would have lost many glories; but none so great as the glories he had already given, nor any such as we should fondly imagine ourselves bereft of by his early death” (p. 31). Beerbohm saw no need to look beyond the poet’s first efforts. The inconsistent quality of poems in Unions, however, does not lead to a similar conclusion about Corn. Indeed, one leaves this book with a renewed appreciation of Corn’s talents but also with a sense that the poet is distracted. Given Corn’s abundant gifts—his lyric ability, his enormous intellectual appetite, his willingness to engage readers on an emotional level, and his undeniable literary energy—one has every reason to hope that Corn will harness them in his next outing in a way that will engage the reader through more than a display of the poet’s urbanity. Corn’s brilliance is undeniable, but even a fantastic light is most powerful when focused.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. 75. Print.
Beerbohm, Henry Maximilian. “No. 2, The Pines.” The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm. Ed. Philip Lopate. New York: New York Review of Books, 2015. 30-49. Print.
Corn, Alfred. “Credit Crunch.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 35. Print.
—. “Eleven Londons.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 5-18. Print.
—. “In the Grünewald Café.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 29-30. Print.
—. “In Half-Light.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 77. Print.
—. “Möbius Strip.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 76. Print.
—. “On Her Blindness.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 74. Print.
—. “Out Behind the Kiln.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 45. Print.
—. “Poe Lucifer.” Unions. New York: Barrow Street Press, 2014. 61. Print.


Holder of an MFA from Converse College, Philip Belcher lives in Asheville and has published both poetry and prose.  He is a frequent reviewer for Shenandoah.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.