What Remains Once You've Forgotten
What It Was You Thought You Knew

Backward Turning Sea, Kelvin Corcoran (116pp, £8.95 Shearsman)

Backward Turning Sea continues Kelvin Corcoran's explorations of Greek landscapes and myths, overlaid upon a world of dubious international politics and foreign policies, mixed with tender personal relationships. Paintings also figure strongly: ekphrastic poems about Roger Hilton's paintings, alongside poems about the artist's life, St. Ives and more. Two of the sequences 'Helen Mania' and 'Roger Hilton's Sugar' have both appeared as chapbooks since 2004, but it's great to see them gathered together here with a substantial amount of other new work, demonstrating why Kelvin Corcoran is still one of our very best poets: this beautifully written, carefully constructed book of lyric sequences repays reading after reading and comes very highly recommended.

'Helen Mania' retells the story of the theft of Helen and the subsequent Trojan war, moving from narrative, to lyric description, to verses that draw contemporary parallels, with 'regime change', 'smart bomb snapshots of Trojan bunkers', and a sideswipe at Baudrillard, who wrote that the Gulf War was not real - Corcoran writes, 'reconstructed it's just as real'. This long poem ends with lines that show Corcoran's great confidence with the phrasal line and his tightly controlled music:

     Helen you have undone the world
     I taste your looks, touch your colour
     you were always there, my radiant lexicon.

     See how our boat dips and rises
     to our shared step aboard
     noses out of Pephnos over the endless sea.

     We lie together in the seabed
     just rippling the light with our breath.

This confident musicality is encountered throughout the book, in verb choices such as 'horses nickering for fresh water'; the alliteration and consonance of thought-provoking phrases such as 'leaping over the language we speak', and in the lyricism of ideas such as:

     I listen to the secret conversation of things,
     the village chorus and sea-polished stone
     in the light of the pomegranate and fig.
          (from 'Over the calm, clear shining water')

 That attention to the detail of 'things' is, ultimately, the proper work of any poet worth their salt, and is very much worth his. In the prose poem 'Alstonefield' - really a letter from Corcoran addressed to Peter Riley - we read that 'The warm rain is falling straight down like curtains of light over the sea', in a time in which 'A sort of exile is over and everything matters, every detail is transformed'. That sense of poetry's potential for
change is elicited here through observed specificities, as much as it is through the human relationships Corcoran writes about (in this case, one poet writing a letter to another).

'The Harbour at Night' also pays 'things' their dues: 'making a pathway of living things'. Here is another superb lyric poem, again about Greece and Helen, and specific details of owls and fishing boats and (how's this for an interesting adjective) 'the anti-clockwise sea'. Throughout this book, the sea and the Greek islands are the historic backdrop to endless cycles of invasions, economics, blessings, baptisms, loves, wars, and 'the geology of great wealth, starry sex and the life of ease'. But they are also a timeless backdrop, for both myth and the personal, the political and the intimate, mix with great ease throughout. In one poem the sea 'broadcasts white rage', transformed into a radio that 'plays dumb, drowned in the pelting air, / and I launch the box on the bobbing waves / - inside my wife, my children, my home'. This radio/sea gives voice to Corcoran's characteristically strange, shifting sensibility; one that moves between these different ways of thinking / speaking / representing: 'It's the ancient world calling, are you receiving me?' and that reminds me that, with poetry as strong as this,
Poetry is what remains once you've forgotten what it was you thought you knew. You must surrender to its music.

The book contains other sequences, 'Alexiares' continuing the Greek themes I have already described. Part narrative, part imagined biography, part interview, part mixing of ancient and modern, these are the wonderfully consistent and powerful imagined writings of an exiled poet during the Peloponnesian wars. Similar techniques are used in another of the sequences, 'Roger Hilton's Sugar', which explores Hilton's works, life, back-catalogues, unpainted pictures, imagined biography, and plays with an artist's interview and more. It reveals Corcoran's great passion for Hilton, his witty playfulness, and his ability to move from real things to powerful imaginative phrasings: 'You see I am surrounded by these things / a medium like breathing under water'. I particularly like the very personal love poem in this sequence:

     Melanie I want to say in plain words
     how at night when you're sleeping
     and I come to bed and you fold into me,
     my hands resting on your breasts
     drift into the lovely south of your belly.
     How on earth did I find you?

     Out on the circuits of stupid chance,
     along the burnt-out motorways of nowhere,
     in public buildings dressed in a suit;
     there you're saying - What did you dream about?
     My mouth hanging open in a new world.
          (from 'Melanie I want to say...')

Backward Turning Sea ends with the sequence 'Ulysses in the Car', again mixing the very personal and contemporary with the historic, mythic and geographical. The effect is again strange and defamiliarising in the very best of ways, as in the poem 'When the Spartans came over the mountain':

     Your picture of the world can be undone,
     stations off the air, iron ore shipped out;
     the sky as blue, the terraces of the sea rise and fall
     enough to break your heart each morning;
     we no longer walked the ground,
     the earth a shadow for another's empire

or the wonderfully provocative poem 'The investigation remains live', which takes the
Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7 July 2006 as its starting point, and ends with the beautifully chilling line: 'the investigation is the singing of the dead'. As in Corcoran's previous works, the living and the dead are one and the same in Backward Turning Sea (as he wrote previously, the dead are 'invisible everywhere inside the picture'): poetry is the strange logic of that contract. You really should read it.

      © Andy Brown 2008