Swallows, Martin Corless-Smith      
[Fence 2006, $13]     

One of the many excitements of Martin Corless-Smith's recent books - Nota (2003) and now Swallows - is that neither bears more than passing resemblance to our accustomed expectation of a poetry collection. A cursory glance at Swallows might suggest it is a kind of chrestomathy, its many quotations gathered from diverse sources, mostly but not exclusively concerned with the natural history of the swallow. The first 12 pages in fact consist only of quotations. Later, when the reader might feel he has safely arrived among poems which are the 'real' or 'original' content of the book he will find further quotations interjected as illustrations, asides or peremptory interruptions between lines or stanzas. He will in any case wonder to what extent he is offered poems by Martin Corless-Smith: after the initial miscellany he will have read fragments 'From Papyri' and aphorisms attributed to Pseudo-Epiphanius, and later he will find the fragmentary works of William Williamson, written on the walls of his house during World War II. And, besides, some of the poems appear to be lists, notes, diary entries or cancelled drafts. There is throughout a pervasive suggestion of poems as yet unwritten (perhaps poems impossible to write) which exist (but crucially do not exist) outside the pages of the book.     
And it is a book which asks attention to its every aspect, even to so slight an item as the biographical note: it seems that the author is himself a swallow, 'a native of Worcestershire, England, to which he returns each summer'. During his migration he 'lives and teaches in Boise, Idaho'. A swallow lives between homes, has either two homes or in consequence none; he dwells between migrations in a house not his and in Corless-Smith's book the house belongs to William Williamson. Such a migratory existence has underwritten all Corless-Smith's work and it is noteworthy that his life in America has never provided his writing's locus but has allowed a perspective through which he views or rather recreates his homeland. To a present-day inhabitant of England this homeland bears a curious relation to the place of that name, for Corless-Smith is consciously an exile in time as well as place: the lenses in his perspective-glass were made by Walton, Clare, Burton, Browne and White of Selborne. Among his achievements is the fact that such sources have not led him into fusty antiquarianism. There is in his work no easy acceptance of sentimentality and nostalgia: such feelings are often present but subtly confronted, used to unexpected ends, refused, re-used, again refused and so on in a constant quarrel. Many of his poems have been multi-voiced, distanced by personae and treated with critical procedures as if they were verses found in an undated archive, the work of an unidentified maker and of questionable value. They are marked by disjunctive and disruptive devices which appear less a late modernist impulse than an innate distrust of human schemata. In Swallows
the sections 'A Pastoral Interlude' and 'Field Notes' are printed on unnumbered pages inserted within the standard pagination, as if they possibly do not belong in the book; the opening sequence, 'Kunstkammer', evolves into a disorderly inventory of natural phenomena and manmade objects, suggesting that our will to order merely obfuscates the actual but ungraspable relations among things found and made -     
      That which I have created here     
      as opposed (in fact) to that which is natural (remains natural)     
      Occupying an intermediate position     
      it begins to acquire a soul     
      having the words to describe itself     
      at this moment, not sufficiently distanced      
      from that which makes also myself     
      absorbing and reflecting recurrently     
In such a passage we see Corless-Smith's concern with the place of 'self' in an alienated and exilic world, impressions of identity and continuity upheld by desire but in Nota
and Swallows increasingly tested by a scepticism which has one of its sources in Greek philosophy. 'Because we remember we believe we endure,' writes Pseudo-Epiphanius, and: 'Soul is that name which I give to all that beneath I am ' 'Soul' in this understanding might unfashionably fulfill the migrant's quest for lost identity. Burton is quoted: 'The Soul is alien to the body, a nightingale to the air, a swallow in an house' - and yet the section of Swallows entitled 'Soul' is subtitled 'House' and the substratum posited by William Williamson rapidly erodes -     
      Soul is the idea that man exists in a 'profound' sense     
      beneath the surface, in existence I gouge     
      depth is an illusion a metaphoralized desire     
      for individual presence perhaps understanding     
      the impersonality of language but nonetheless     
      if soul exists anywhere it is during language      
- to the point that he concludes the wall he writes on 'is my soul / This wall is W... W........n [illegible autograph]'.     
Inevitably the migrant's homeward gaze will focus on specific beloved places, and there are many place-names in Corless-Smith's poetry, mostly English, sometimes in lists. We might expect them to be markers of presence or re-identification but more often they register absence. The centrepiece of Swallows
is a sequence entitled 'The Sabine Villa', improvised around accounts of the 18th Century search for the remains of the farm which Horace received from Maecenas in 33 B.C. The improvisations include 'Imitations from Horace', some of which are channelled through Keats who is also seen (or, more pertinently, not seen) 'at present alone at Wentworth Place'. The sequence is a powerful re- or de-construction of the desire we feel to bring ourselves nearer a poet by experiencing the everyday scenes of his or her life, just as we hope to recover something of ourselves by revisiting a once-familiar place. Of course we can do neither thing. Travellers scoured Italy for the Sabine Villa but all that remains of the poet can be found in the Loeb edition and fits in anyone's pocket - 'I have my Horace with me,' remarks Corless-Smith or maybe Keats. To a poetry like this the identity of the voice is scarcely relevant. In William Williamson's poetics 'in this poetry of fragment after fragment we experience more than just the poem and its outside, we experience the simultaneity of many poems, all poems, with their own ends and their beginnings - their readings - intersecting - their lives in the space of being read - on the page just now we see self-consciously noted a fourth-dimensionality'. The final entry in Swallows is headed 'Monday' and ends     
      Then I looked out of my chair through the open window     
      I really don't have much desire to do that     
      The only thing I do desire     
      I won't do that either     
Horace's question 'What exile from his country ever escaped himself as well?' is double-edged. The 'self' the exile necessarily carries with him is quite other than the absence which neither desire nor migration will satisfy.     
       Alan Halsey 2006