"Crimp with the Universal Accordion": Corinne Lee. Pyx.
Penguin Books: 2005. $18
The poems within Corinne Lee’s debut, PYX, each contain a unique and fully manifest beauty, but what really compels is her elegant crafting of the collection’s whole. Within the entire arch there is a sense of continuity akin to what might be expected from a single long-poem and a sense of tonal control that is rare in a first book. While the work is divided into four sections, TERRANEAN, MEDIAN, ASCENSION, and EMPYREAN, categories that adeptly reference the dominate emotional state of each grouping, there is also a secondary logic of order that, with lace-like complexity, interweaves this primary ordering and dually guides the book’s fundamental structure.
This secondary principle is lens-like and, as if with a steady and well-directed cameraman’s hand, the book opens to blurred images of sonic and pictorial beauty. These spectacular images keep such a pace of steady splendor that they can be culled nearly randomly. In “Manganese Variations No.1” we read that “In the barn,/ the rusted tractors begin sizzling// into laughter.” In “Lysistrata Motley” “Even the quitch loves, sashaying/ belly-blade to blade-belly.” In “Allegory of Venus and the Oligarch” “Our former nudes observe/ from an olive grove.”
Throughout the bulk of the middle sections the lens comes gradually into a focus of nearly crystalline clarity as Lee joins, in a straightforward manner, the large voice of younger female poets, such as Rachael Zucker, Catherine Wagner, Kristen Kaschock, Arielle Greenberg, and Julie Carr, who are writing frankly on the pleasures and challenges of marriage and child-raising.
In the poem “Excavation” the scene is one likely to strike a familiar cord with any reader who has spent much time with a child. The speaker here watches an “apostasy of the visual” as “children crouch among mobs at a mock dinosaur dig,/ exhuming plastic bone” while her own idle mind wonders, stopping at this thought and the next, until her “son and daughter run up,/ shellacked with muck… [and] flesh chooses to embrace and tickle,/ its tenderness a mere hint// of Paradise.” Then, in a moment of everyday revelation, a sparking parallel to the earlier excavation is drawn as the following final phrase arises: “Longing from below, buried--/ our insatiable bone.”
Lee’s tone, though, is not always this serious. When she writes about the domestic, elements that set her work apart include a finely tuned balance where there is no over-emphasis of any one emotional state, but rather an unflinching compassion that is both human and humane, and a kind humor that neither obscures earnestness “Hallelujah/ for our ragged vegetable plot” nor seeks to disguise pain “Give me/ attachment/ or give me death.”
Eventually, the focused lens of more literal poems pulls subtly away and we journey into the final section with the advice that “[a] chord cannot be held always/ or boxed.” And so, the cord struck is not boxed but allowed to gradually lift and dissolve into meanings that are wider than any crystal articulation can contain.
Although the images grow more surreal as Lee’s gaze softens, there is never a break in continuity. Rather, we continue to take in moments of domestic and interior life that are, again, presented with such balance and so unaccompanied by banality that the most common incidents and emotional states arrive with a sense of surprising disclosure. In “What We Fail to Read, is Reading Us” one who has lost love is described as “[b]lank and mute, blind/ like worms nosing loam.” In “Risorgimento” “our children// [are] fizzing in glee/ as their lungs expand, crimp/ with the universal/ accordion.”
It is a testament to how seamless PYX truly is and how elegantly Corinne Lee’s vision rests, deeply personal yet supported by a foundation of knowledge, which works for her rather than intruding into her project, that the vast scope of illusions drawn upon—at one moment Greek, then originating in quantum mechanics, then surrealism—that her encyclopediatic knowledge and undaunted vocabulary have not been mentioned. Her gift is one of tolerance. She can look into “measureless waves/ … galloping—in random directions” and not draw back, but rather construct an order that seems nothing other than natural, true, and complete.
--Review by Andrea Baker.