Gleefully upending the prescribed balance between sound and sense, Mitch Corber smashes a cardinal rule of poetry. But does he get away with it? In his unshrugging preference for music over meaning, Corber does possess the ringing advantage of one of the most luxuriant ears in the business, an aural receptivity so rich it can give you the gout.
In Quinine, his first published book, Corber, producer of Thin Air Video, the definitive filmed record of alternative New York poetry, takes an improv-heavy neo-Beat route that plumbs the scarcely tapped, almost decadently redolent melodic veins of the American language. Any decent poet knows to play to his or her audience’s sense of hearing, but Corber pours on his symphonic grooves like a Rimsky-Korsakov or a Stravinsky on a vodka binge. His sonic resplendence recalls the likes of Swinburne, Hopkins, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and ‘50s coffeehouse poets like Gregory Corso, Ebbe Borregaard and Gil Orlovitz. In his major concession to signification, Corber indulges a gifted weakness for punning that stands up well to Joyce and John (In His Own Write) Lennon.
Up to a point, Corber’s poems do seem to be “about” something. They have titles like “Aphids,” “Summer,” “Gluttony” and “Malaria,” right next to others with tags like “Gizmo Swirl,” “She Blooms of Numerals” and “Midget Squint of Surface Worth.” He gives us a half-dozen elegies and a poem based on a perhaps apocryphal incident in the life of Vladimir Horowitz. There are opening lines that appear to set a theme: “They come in cold from The Sojourn,” ”She can’t erase a painting,” “A scorched porch prefers repair.”
In a typical case, Corber leads off with “Midnight spikes pry a reticular cunning,/spun gold with lipstick moorings.” Okay, a bit of a puzzler, but we can hazard an approximate purport of a man alone in the wee hours sharpening his pained romantic longing into a cool-minded strategy to woo his love object who is totally worth it. If that’s where the poem is going, surely the lines to follow will give us a better clue. But then we get “I zip-lock a tick-tock wristwatch only to/glad-wrap my half baked sandwich.”
Standing alone this is a wonderful line, combining elements of classic nonsense verse, a bop-prosodic merry collision of nominatives that Allen Ginsberg identified as “telescoping” and, above all, Corber’s signature hyper-tunefulness. (Dig the sweetly textured pickup rhymes of “zip-lock,” “tick-tock wristwatch,” “glad-wrap,” “half-baked sandwich.”) But what does it all “mean,” man?
The poem, in its 12 lines smaller than a sonnet but as oozily phonic as any of Keats’ longer odes, continues with phrases like “this wretch curdles a light diet,” “bird droppings swept clean/by a brittle windy whoosh” and “all is shadrack and shady maidens/living in a cave.” The measures bear the stamp of Corber’s happy clusterfucking of improbable soft on soft, hard on hard, hard on soft consonants and mouth-stretching vowels, in a poet’s playroom where there can never be too much alliteration. The imagery keeps the poem on more or less the yearning-heart track, but don’t look too long and hard for the finer details. But, really, should you?
Corber might be classed with the more auditorily fixated language poets, except he’s too unboring, a truth maybe better appreciated in his calculatingly hammy spoken performances than on the printed page. More seriously, even a bit despite himself, the cumulative effect of his reeling Spike Jones-y word volleys take us perhaps to a place a little deeper, a little more primordial than an inner child’s logophilic romp. Beneath the farcical and voluptuous delight the poet takes in formations like “venge in varnished gaps your globular/habit,” “dogs augur well their coveted oven,” “a hurry in the hex of a crevice,” “pardon me I’ve bred a tension/spanked with barking knives” may pulse an exultation in the primal fact of life itself, as manifested in the profuse, raw chords riding the self-subverting denotations of shaped human breath—in the words of Walt Whitman, cosmic party poet and one clear antecedent of Corber, “the sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind.”
A poet, journalist and critic, Lehman Weichselbaum is associate editor of Home Planet News.