Some thoughts on the poetry of Christopher Cornwell
It’s a very great pleasure to be asked to introduce Christopher Cornwell’s first collection, Ergasy. I’m an admirer of his work, and it’s a privilege to be able to recommend it to a wider readership than his circle of friends and admirers. This is all the more so because, only too often, first collections are tame and timid things, workshopped to a sterile third-rate perfection, careful to conform to the mainstream formula of their day (2017’s might be neo-Larkin + niche hybrid identity + one of the latest brands of post-Martian quirkiness). This might be understandable enough in human terms, but it doesn’t make for easy reading. Fortunately, Cornwell – albeit unstridently – will have none of this pussyfooting around; as he puts it elsewhere, there is too much at stake: ‘The repeated recitation of / platitude, adage, cliché & quotasion are the / marrowed bone of langwidge … Without manumition of prospecting new formations / worded queer, freely, / we’ll be horsewhipped down a hill towards / our destiny and inevitable mutilation’. And, as the very title of his collection suggests – it sounds as if it might mean something between a belch and an orgasm, or be the acronym of a Russian energy conglomerate (it’s actually a medieval term for ‘anything in prose or poetry written with quill or pen’) – the reader is expected to do a little work, not simply admire technical expertise and ooh and aah. The rewards, if s/he does so, are substantial, because the poetry is rich, risky and various. It eschews the even tone, its lines switching from page-edge-elbowing here to balletic pointy-toed-ness there; its language is capacious and precise by turns, and sometimes even in the same phrase. These are poems ambitious for language, implicitly rebuking the ‘close-managed’ world in which even imaginative literature tends to be praised in corporatist-instrumental terms for its ‘rigour’, ‘sharp observation’, ‘tightness’, ‘clarity’, and so on.Chris’s ambition is most evident, of course, in his taste for inkhornisms and neologisms. The poems here are studded with them, dazzlingly. Before I met him, in October 2015, in the Creative Writing M.A. class I was teaching, I had never met a student who expanded my vocabulary by much, but Chris proceeded to do so, on a regular, week-by-week basis, throughout the semester. In Ergasy, his verbal largesse includes ‘ushing’, ‘plutorental’, ‘ostracon’, ‘bregma’ and ‘assertoric’, words that make others he uses, words which would be considered ‘difficult’ in any other context – ‘drupe’, say, ‘strigil’, and ‘grimoire’ – seem simple, even Janet-and-John-like, by comparison. But these expertly-choreographed aureate riffs are only a small part of the energy shaping the verse. Indeed, long before you finish Ergasy you’re aware that their glitter is actually almost incidental to it. Rather, their disinterment by this Thesaurus Resurrection Man belongs to a larger, quasi-archaeological quest informing his collection as a whole. His sesquipedalianism is not preciosity, but part of a larger process of creative recovery, in all its senses.
In topographical terms, Ergasy traces Chris’s own wanderings, shuttling, at times shuffling, between Swansea, where he generally lives, via London, where he has had to fend for himself, to the rus in urbes near Cambridge, where he grew up. Soil, clods, shit, fragments, ashes, sherds and scenes from the lives of those who recently or rather more remotely lived in the Cambridge area loom large, as Cornwell sieves for the ‘scrap words’ and ‘obsolete expressions, half-pronounced intentions’ of his forebears which are also his own. Here is a landscape of ‘abandoned outbuildings’, grandmothers pounding poppy-heads, baking and milling, a ‘field of bitter onions’ and an ‘armful of gritty leeks’ – so much so that at times it can seem as if you’ve been drawn into the fake-spooky world of the Hookland Twitter account
beating the bushes,
and the animals wonder
at what point this might
become a dangerous place,
take cover, rest one eye
outside the empty barges are nodding
in the cold fenland night,
gently rolling their shoulders,
creaking and floating …
But beneath the gothic strains this is proper elegy and memorialisation, as the details and dedications show; family and friends and ancestors are unsentimentally recalled, retrieved from ‘layers of silt, clay and peat’, the oblivion of official histories. None of it is Heaneyesque rootsy-cutesy; excavation proceeds by unorthodox thought and grammar, its twists and turns throwing up new material and innovative forms to deal with it, as it proceeds.
Take, as a very minor example of this, the opening line of ‘The Three Silences of a Year’: ‘Till the pessimistic earth to gravel / where nothing will grow …’. ‘Till’ at first and maybe second reading seems an adverb of time, but is revealed as a verb with an as-yet unspecified subject at ‘to’. A later line in the same poem – ‘The men are bleeding a chicken against a silvery sky’ – shows unusual word-ordering (courtesy of a transferred epithet from the missing word, ‘knife’, or ‘blade’) informing Cornwell’s gift for phrase-making. For, among many other things, this is a ridiculously quotable book, full of phrases that will live with you – try ‘lupper her dish’, ‘boiled-ham household’, ‘work-toward street’, ‘that purgatory breath / the next gum-rotten morning’, or Unwrapping Johnny’s ‘smears some liniment on his bleeding frenulum of prupuce’ (a line which has to be read, by the male reader at least, with something between a gritted-teeth grin and a wince). Who said those long words couldn’t be visceral? At the other extreme, destabilisation entails formal innovations at the level of an entire poem or sequence, most marked in an earlier work, the hyperlinked Tube Lines sequence. The headnote to that work told the reader of a ‘specific’ desire to allow the reader to create his/her own poetic journey, and Tube Lines is represented in Ergasy by its strongest sections, on Nicholas Culpeper, Omar Pasha, pottery and ‘Mother City’, on London.
Before he tackled Creative Writing at Swansea, Chris Cornwell studied philosophy, and this underpins his writing, however vivid it is on the surface. His sprawl is therefore apparent only, and not to be confused with colour or chattiness; on the contrary, it is a style of considered, ironic discursiveness, some of whose sources can be traced back to the laidback, scholarly-but-demotic tones and spatial sense of postwar US poetry, filtered perhaps through John James, a Cambridge neighbour and acquaintance of Cornwell’s, and David Jones, with (to me) similarities with the work of Elisabeth Bletsoe or early Trevor Joyce. It is the style of someone who is both attached and uprooted, and it’s telling that Ergasy’s two most (knowingly) exotic poems deal with Omar Pasha, a Serb (born Mikhail Latas) who joined the Ottoman Imperial forces and rose to become a Field Marshall and provincial Governor. Pasha is a dubiously admirable figure of success against the odds – he spent much of his time ‘pacifying’ insurgents against Ottoman rule – and his choice cuts athwart the bien-pensant urge to simply celebrate hybridity and cultural variousness for its own sake.
One of my favourite poems, ‘Bagnio’, is similarly large, resistant to the banal, and full of doubling and redoubling thought. It begins with a dictionary definition of its title, followed by the attachment-detachment double-bind, here overlaid with that of writing itself:
It’s exile from this state into which, by
governance & obedience
you have become.
A state which now
you can only come to know
and writing tomes on,
By the end of the poem, but in no way forced to it, this predicament has acquired a more existential, universal dimension:
The future is the furniture of the horizon, sitting like a crease
across the paper palm of our own hand –
our severed thumbs in one of a pair
of bronze pans, counter-weighted with lead.
Or take ‘The Uninvited’, one of the opening poems of Ergasy and another favourite, which concludes ‘my mind is still divided, / my clothes composed of two cloths’, but reaches it through a casual yet beautifully weighted consideration of the necessity of turning one’s back, at some point, on ‘doubt’, while accepting: it may also be read as a poem which is at one level, it seems to me, about suicide:
best not to credit the dour sphere at all
but turn against the world’s own turn with joy,
reject the disclosure in revolutions
& modish rehabilitations, because we’re still filth
but for now we’re hot filth, convected: filth on top,
celebrated so long as the chooser had no choice
– for that would be a perverse decision
to choose a difficult disposition –
if inborn or unchosen, it’s almost a distinction
to take the path the free would never choose.
The whole passage bears careful study and consideration, because it is an example of that rare thing, genuinely philosophical thought in poetry. Readers who turn the dial of this collection (the archaic metaphor is just about justified) will find others like it waiting to reward them, flickering into clarity, above the enjoyable scrunching grittiness underfoot, and out from between the odd bands of white noise.
John Goodby lectures at the University of Swansea. He is the author of The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013), and edited the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (2014). He has published translations into English of Heinrich Heine, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pierre Reverdy and the Algerian poet Adel Soleïman Guèmar (with Tom Cheesman), and of Irish women poets into Spanish as No Soy Tu Musa (2008, with Carlota Caulfield). His own books of poetry include uncaged sea (2007), Illennium (Shearsman, 2010), and A True Prize (Cinnamon, 2011). His poems have won prizes in the Arvon/Observer (1990) and Cardiff International Poetry (2006) competitions and feature in the Forward’s Poems of the Decade (2012). Mine arch never marble (Argotist Online) and The No Breath (Red Ceilings Press) were published in 2017, alonside the anthology The Edge of Necessary: Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966–2016 (Aquifer Press, with Lyndon Davies).
Christopher Cornwell lives, studies and works in Swansea, his poetry has been featured in The Lonely Crowd, New Welsh Review, The Lampeter Review, The Crunch and Wales Arts Review, for whom he also contributes criticism. He is Editor of The Gull online magazine. Ergasy is his first collection.
© John Goodby, 2017. Photo of Christopher Cornwell © Michou Burckett St. Laurent.