Review – Kelvin Corcoran, Facing West

Kelvin Corcoran, Facing West, 84 pp, £9.95, Shearsman Books.


“Abduction Zone”, the title sequence of the first section of Corcoran’s Facing West, illustrates some of the attractions and challenges of his writing. He’s a master of metre and rhythm, both in the singing and the speaking line. This is a constantly varied source of pleasure as he shifts between different tones, registers and contexts. However, I feel that this sequence of more than 150 lines interweaves its allusions to classical myths, classical and twentieth century Greek history and the country’s current economic and political situation too loosely and sketchily to make a coherent whole. That said, the way the poet’s mind moves between personal experience, myth, history and legend gives his writing a distinctive imaginative depth. There’s a fascination with conflicting interpretations, with the way our perceptions are framed and filtered, whether by deliberate spin or less conscious bias. Setting current affairs in the language of myth or vice versa is a way of undoing the accepted framing. Each is seen in a light coloured by the other. So when Corcoran writes “After Argos Io really was in Egypt / sand in her mouth sperm in her lap” the mythical rape takes on an unsettling reality. Despite moments of crudity, as when Ino is described as keeping the baby Hermes safe “indoors, unseen by sun or moon, / those drones of spiteful gods plotting smoky vectors”, this shifting interplay of perspectives is one of the pleasures of the volume. However, Corcoran transcends such methods when he describes Paris and Helen in their fleeing ship like this:


They sit fixed and unfixed in their story,
she stares back at the city of her past;
a man’s face, a city of men, blanched.

The sky blazes and the sea boils red,
they breathe darkness into themselves
and can’t keep their hands off one another.


Starting with simple scepticism about being able to reach an objective truth behind the competing narratives, this catches fire as a moment of visionary empathy, making us feel the overwhelming absoluteness of Paris and Helen’s experience as it occurs, beyond the chatter of opinion and the wisdom of morality.

For me, the stand-out long sequence was “Radio Archilochos”. Structured as a series of imaginative raids on the biographical record and literary remains of an admired but almost wholly lost Archaic Greek poet, it has a solid dramatic core. The sketchiness of the record and the doubt surrounding its interpretation give Corcoran imaginative freedom. The real Archilochos seems to have been a complex character, a gifted poet, a tough soldier, a lyricist and a savage satirist whose invective allegedly led to the suicides of his ex-fiancee and her father. Corcoran’s version of him speaks and sings compellingly on the page. How skilfully the poet has breathed life into scraps of text can be seen by looking at Fragment 41, apparently a metaphorical description of sex. Compare this colourless scholarly translation – “a kingfisher flapped its wings on a protruding rock” – or W L West’s rudely exuberant “Up and down she bounced / like a kingfisher flapping on a jutting rock” with the sensitivity and yearning of Corcoran’s:


A kingfisher
flicks its wings
delight flutters
wrapped in her
nectar flows


The description of Archilochos’s death is an outstanding short poem in its own right. It ends with a wonderful flickering of temporal perspectives interweaving images of darkness and light. On the dark side, it asserts how much meat the old poet’s satirical teeth would find in the evils of our own day, and suggests how death awaits us all; on the other, light endures. For me, the stunning image of the giant Archaic statues slumbering in the marble not only evokes the creative glories that lay in the future as Archilochus died but also touches the same nerve as Shelley’s declaration that the evils listed in his sonnet “England in 1819” “Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day”:


……..below him lies all the geology of Paros
where young marble giants wait to take their form.

Get up, get up Archilochos we need your bite;
will you bring us the news, say who benefits this time?
Archilochos has gone to the rushing night, the dark sea,
he hovers one moment in the light over Antiparos.


This is a very slightly longer version of my review in The North 59, and I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost it here.

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