by Gregory Stephenson
Reflecting on the poetry of the late Gregory Corso (1930 – 2001), the phrase “internal combustion” comes to mind: compression, auto-ignition, energy. (Fittingly, his second and perhaps most famous collection of poems was titled Gasoline.) And indeed, Corso’s work arose from a combustive mix: he was an orphan, a grammar school dropout, an ex-con ravished by the English romantics, a street-surrealist steeped in the classics, and a poetic iconoclast with a penchant for archaic diction, all leading to a volatile compound of sensibility and swagger. But there was always more to Corso’s poetry than verbal energy; it was also an art of oblique angles and displaced perspectives, of words set aslant and things eyed askance, of lyrical raids on the vertical world.
The Golden Dot: Last Poems, 1997-2000 gathers, as the subtitle suggests, the final writings of this audacious poet. Through much of the time these poems were written, Corso was afflicted with the illness that was to be the cause of his death. These same years saw the deaths of many of his friends, while the poet himself became reclusive. Reflecting this sere, severe latter era of Corso’s life, this collection has fewer of the verbal pyrotechnics that imparted such verve to the poet’s earlier work. The poems gathered here are for the most part bare and spare, the tone conversational, the mood most often subdued. Even the punctuation of the poems is subdued: question marks far outnumber exclamation points, and individual lines, stanzas, and poems commonly end in ellipses or dashes. Still, for any admirer of Corso there is much here to be relished. There is dash and dark fire, offbeat insights, and a serious engagement with the unfathomable mystery at the heart of things.
Thematically, the poems fall into three groups: those engaged with the poet’s personal life; those concentrated upon human history and the fate of humanity and the planet; and those concerned with cosmology, with the history of the universe, its origins and evolution. “Redundant, Chaotic, profoundly heart-felt; / without order,” Corso describes these poems in a lyric titled “From birth to ’80 no one I knew died…” (Nearly all the poems in The Golden Dot were originally untitled, titles assigned to them by the editors for reader convenience are taken from the first lines of individual poems). This is an accurate, if incomplete, characterization of the poems assembled here; among a number of other adjectives I would add are candid, confiding, self-scrutinizing, self-assessing, self-recriminating, self-deflating, and unself-pitying.
Corso’s personal history in these poems bears scant trace of nostalgia. Again and again, he recalls his lonely, loveless childhood, the bewildering brutality of his father, the aloof indifference of six sets of foster parents, his repeated incarcerations, the terrors and griefs of a “lovelack boy” in a relentlessly unkind world. In a poem titled “I can predict with 99 percent accuracy…,” Corso deploys the metaphor of a foreign child riding alone on a train through Nazi Germany, surrounded by suspicious, hostile faces. Yet revisiting in memory these painful events impels him to attempt to understand the Great Depression-driven desperation of the impoverished foster parents who gave him such bleak accommodation, and to attempt to reconcile with a father who mistreated and abandoned him.
Two luminous childhood memories include Corso’s stamp collection and his discovery of poetry. In “Used to be the stamps of Egypt…,” Corso recalls gazing on the grandeur and mystery of the Sphinx on an Egyptian stamp, the heroic faces of great men on French stamps, the paintings of Utamoro, Hiroshige and Houkusai on Japanese stamps, the depiction of a wild west cattle drive through snow on an American stamp, kangaroos, musk oxen, gorillas. The little colored bits of paper opened a world to him, proffering an exotic elsewhere. In a dozen other poems, he celebrates the glorious occasion when first he was visited by poetry. This crucial epiphany, occurring while Corso was incarcerated in Clinton Prison, was preceded by a portent – voices in his head whose words he recorded on paper. Soon afterward, he discovered the book that opened his soul: Ideas and Forms in English and American Literature, Volume 1: Poetry, by Homer A. & James B. Munn Watt, 1925. “Smart, Herrick, Hood, Marvell, Milton and the immortal Romantics” induced in his young, damaged spirit transports of joy. In a soiled, blighted world poetry was a thing set apart, a thing exempt: “bright, flawless, eternal” (“Head—bowed like a bull…”).
There are wincing recollections of follies and failures of later life: the time he callously abandoned a pet cat, the time in Paris when a waiter knocked his teeth out, regrets for his longstanding addiction to heroin, remorse for his seeming inability fully to love another: “My lips took but never gave / . . . / Starved of love leaves one fat with emptiness” (“When something of power dies…”). Repeatedly, ruefully, he accuses himself of hubris, of having lived his life in a trance of ignorant pride: “Little did I know how little I knew” (“Not recognizing just the kind of person I was…”). Now, mortally stricken, contemplating his own imminent end, he gropes toward “Faith.” He acknowledges that beneath the external, social personality, the defensive, self-protective face he turned to the world, he had long sensed “the emptiness / gnawing at my spirit” (“In The End Was The Word”). The form of belief Corso embraces is unorthodox and eclectic: “I hold the highest respect for the best of all religions / Impossible for me to embrace the entirety of one religion / I love like a box of wondrous toys the Greek gods of yore / And the men of religion I honor are Jesus, Buddha…” (“My leadership ability…”). “Spirit,” he affirms, is “Eternal and Absolute” (“Soul sickness devils the brain…”).
Read as fragments of an autobiography, Corso’s poems follow a pattern: self-discovery, self-betrayal, self-recovery. Poetry was an epiphany of vocation; his life of drink and drugs figures as a violation of that vocation and a denial of what he truly loved. Several of the poems record his endeavors to recover what he feels has been forfeited and to redeem from a life of hubris new faith and humility. Humor also tempers Corso’s confrontation with mortality. “I’m too old to die,” he jests, and imagines making scary faces at infants in prams in resentment of their likely longevity or chopping down trees out of pique because they will outlive him. He envisions the moment of his demise: “i seep out airy & silent / singing celestial monotone,” discovering solace in his posthumous condition as a de-materialized spirit, pleased that now he will be “more difficult to throw stones at” (“the need is there…”).
Intermittently, bursts of cryptic lyricism erupt into poems concerning his memories and reflections—enigmatic passages unrelated to the immediate topic of the poem. These would seem to testify to the persistence of his earliest poetic impulse, the unconscious imaginative process that breaks forth in vowels and verbs, finding expression in lines that bear comparison with Corso’s mysterious early image-rich poems, evoking worlds with words:
On a tripod in the Gobi(“Space is in motion…”)
in a suitcase on the first street corner
Who sold me?
Who bought me?
He with two hands on one arm;
buy, sell, buy, sell, back and forth
from hand to hand
… endlessly buying and selling me to himself—
To be rid myself of this insufferable redundancy
I chopped off his buying hand
at the moment before I acknowledge it(“the muse”)
i arrive in between
and entirely inside
cemetery-like and stoned
epitaphs sprouting from my eyes
nickels on my tongue
mystic with steel in sabbath dark
cock crow in the courtyard blood
robed in high- sentence
In the end, there may be no definitive resolution to Corso’s psychological and spiritual issues. In a poem titled “My ancestral home was a cave…,” the poet recounts a recurrent dream in which he belongs to a species of primitive man living during the ice-age:
I would be frost bitten
with puffed belly starved
trudging the wind snows
looking homeward in circles
encircled by mountains
no stepward path to climb
but ever upward
and deep within wishing to fall where I hardly stand
and sleep my life away—
Natural history, human history, and the ultimate fate of the world are very much in Corso’s thoughts. The extinction of prehistoric species would seem, he believes, to portend the eventual doom of humankind, despite the confident affirmations of optimists: “Five layers beneath the mesa chunks of sea-shell / Hear the yea-sayers marking spots where dinosaurs fell” (“There were two times…”). Other poems catalogue past catastrophes and the forces arrayed against our fragile race. In “Forces of nature that destroy man…,” Corso inventories the multiple menaces that threaten humankind, including “Avalanches, tornadoes, hurricane, earthquakes; / frenzied fire, squalls, el niño, cyclones—” and foresees “earth ill, moribund, dead / … / Gone the whale … / Gone humankind, the lemur too.” In “I wish I had a bear for friend…,” “The illness of the winds…,” and “The 3 of Ice…,” he advances further evidence for the inevitability of some final annihilating cataclysm: contagion, an asteroid striking the earth, glaciations flattening the seas.
Corso is keenly aware of murderers past and present, tyrants and torturers, the Caligulas, the Hitlers, the evil deeds—great and small—of sick souls from ancient Rome to the streets of New York City. And yet, amid natural disasters and human lunacy, despite violence and greed, there have been, Corso asserts, great civilizations: Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Israel, the Orient, the Celts, Dorians, Eturians. And there have been great minds: Pythagoras, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Jesus, Buddha, Hadrian, Phidias, Dante, da Vinci, della Francesca, Shakespeare and a host of other poets, Hugo and Flaubert—paragons and heroic souls all. How to comprehend such radical inconsistencies within homo sapiens? Perhaps, the poet implies, they cannot be understood, only acknowledged, however sadly, as here in these poems. As Corso recognizes himself as a union of contradictory opposites, a “duad,” so too is humanity perpetually burdened with a dual nature, one that is riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies. As within, so without, as a Hermetic aphorism states, the macrocosm mirrors the microcosm. And, assorted perfectionist and utopian visions notwithstanding, no final resolution to the human predicament is likely to be discovered.
Beyond the riddle of human destiny are the mysteries of cosmology and metaphysics, still exerting a fascination upon Corso’s imagination. Ever distrustful of doctrines and systems, he creates his own cosmic myth—“the Golden Dot”—expressed bit by bit through several poems in the volume. In Corso’s mythopoetic cosmology, the vast universe—of which we inhabit only a miniscule portion—was generated from a primary singularity which the poet names “the Golden Dot.” This mysterious, infinitely dense energy exploded into the vacant space surrounding it, multiplying itself, combining into matter, generating forces and physical laws, ever expanding outward in all directions, assuming the forms of suns and worlds and all that exists. The poet foresees that ultimately the process will reverse itself, and the galaxies, the stars and planets and everything that has being will be drawn back into unity, merging, contracting, returning to the primal form of the Golden Dot: “The ever-expanding shall join the deflation of black matter / Black holes shall excrete Quasars / from the wide part to cone to the pin point of its end—“ (“I know where all the beauties lie…”). When this contraction is accomplished, the process will then begin anew: the Golden Dot will again explode and expand, and “the beginning will begin again.”
“Time passes in its arrival,” Corso writes, “Space expands in its departure” (“Ask me not of moons…”). The vision of such cyclic infinitude can induce in the mind a kind of vertigo, while at the same time offering solace, for while all is transient, yet nothing is lost. All that is impermanent and ephemeral returns to the imperishable, everything returns to the bright womb of being, there to be born anew. As in one of Corso’s favorite Greek myths, the story of Demeter and Pluto, retold by the poet in “If I had strolled down the Via Sacra,” in the universe at large there is a perennial alternation between life and death, between numberless muchness and next-to-nothingness, between infinitesimal finitude and vastest infinitude. The ultimate nature of the Golden Dot is an enigma and Corso seems inclined to respect it as such, to accept it according to his newly won faith. The universe, the poems here seem to suggest, is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be revered.
The editors of The Golden Dot, Raymond Foye and George Scrivani, have done fine work in assembling Corso’s jumbled manuscript poems into this worthy valedictory volume (Foye’s introduction relating the harrowing history of the manuscript makes fascinating reading). Like “time’s wondrous play on ruinous marble” (“Closing a file drawer…”), the abrasions of the years brought to Corso a rougher, huskier poetic voice, but one that spoke still with resonance and clarity, force, and grace. The Golden Dot is a substantial, consequential collection.
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