The Cortland Review


Robert Fink

Twenty Years Teaching Creative Writing - A sustaining meditation on teaching the craft.

Gibbons Ruark

Thirteen Ways of Listening to the Songbirds - A new series of poems to celebrate Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, & Robert Frost.

William J. Neumire

William Neumire reviews the dichotomy of attachment and detachment in Robert Cording's Against Consolation.

William J. Neumire

William J. Neumire's poetry has appeared in several journals including California Quarterly, Adirondack Review, Redactions, Pierian Springs, Stirring, Poetry Midwest, Three Candles, 2River View, and Sometimes City. His book reviews have appeared in The Cortland Review and his chapbook, Resonance of Kin was recently published by Pudding House.
Robert Cording's "Against Consolation"



Against Consolation
by Robert Cording
96 pages
CavanKerry Press 2002

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Robert Cording's fourth book of poetry Against Consolation, (CavanKerry Press, 2002) is a refreshing deviation from a growing trend of dazzling diction and waning substance. These poems are infused with some of the thickest modern philosophy, yet often wield a diction which reflects Pound's advice that a poem should be something you could say to someone in conversation. This strongly narrative collection demonstrates a great deal of reliance on parable and tale. The voice underlying these works transcends them from an interesting story to writing that is most unmistakably poetry.

Cording gleans the seeds of his poems from the side notes of life: an article on a man who traveled into the wilderness and died of starvation; the story of 150 Cambodian women who all claimed blindness; a tale about Kafka conversing with the Rabbi of Belz. Cording also extols wisdom from the words and works of Simone Weil (the title of the book is from Weil's essay 'Detachment'), Immanuel Kant (from whom Cording takes his epigraph, "What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?"), Franz Kafka and various New York Times articles. Irregardless of where the poems emanate from, the common thread is the tale, the campfire narrative style each of these poems demonstrates, and the simple clarity with which these poems beg the reader to view the world.

Cording's form is subtle and full of clarity. Whereas many contemporary poets have used bizarre spacing, gratuitous stanza breaks and other gimmicky devices, Cording confesses a need to tell the stories, and in so doing, does not need to rely on accoutrements:  

"We try, too, but find ourselves
Looking at these nests as if they
Were old letters or diaries
That conceal as much as they
Confide about a world
Scattered with bits of narrative,
A story we cannot quite tell
And cannot keep from telling."
('Nests,' p. 20)

While the narrative free-verse tendency is followed throughout, the book is flecked with some tight end-rhyme, and even a sonnet. The stricter side of Cording appears in the poem 'Dust:'

"or posit a star's dark collapse amidst dark matter.
Where nothing exists because there is no observer.
Now, at odd moments, we feel the terror of dust's
New meaning: there is, of course, nothing more than us."
('Dust,' p.45)

The poems, free-verse or rhymed, brim with sound that occurs naturally and shadows any effort by the poet.  If there is a pivotal poem in the book, it is the title poem 'Against Consolation.' The poem is positioned in the center of the book's pagination (p.40 of 76) as well as in the center of the philosophy carried by the entire book, which is not to ignore your suffering in search of comfort, but to savor it for the way it wrests you from your illusionary world. It is in this poem that the reader is told, "stay with your suffering" the culmination of Weil's philosophy. The poem professes:

"You told me, the more
You think, the less you understand.
You Can't explain
The roof caved in all around you,
Your two friends buried
Under metal, and you, who sat alongside
Them, untouched."
('Against Consolation,' p.41)

While Kafka is summoned in this collection, the voice that resonates in these poems is hopeful, if not optimistic. Kafka was antithetical to optimism. It takes pride in the tragic events of life to tap them for their realness. Following the words of Weil, the characters in this collection clutch to pain in an effort to claim them and to avoid consolation. The poems are anecdotes excavated from daily life, and Cording tells them like a master storyteller. The poems are certainly on the opposite end of the spectrum from a sententious haiku, but all the words are still important, nothing is superfluous. The imagery resonates with nature in its most primary form, stripped of anything one might bring to it.

"It reminds me
That not everything is about the tropes
We make of it."
('Water-Ouzel,' p. 61 )

The book struggles against meaning as something to be extracted from nature. The poems urge the reader to re-evaluate traditional meanings applied to nature in an effort to let things exist without labels:

"It should be
Adequate to walk here
In this hour's
Casual articulations
Of color and shadow
Without fret of words
To catch the substance
Of the short-lived
Yellow of daylilies
After rain or splashes
Of light pearled
On the refreshed grass."
('Narcissus,' p.21)

These poems demand a simpler, non-conventional approach to the entirety of life, as is championed by Chris McChandless in the poem so titled 'Elegy for Chris McChandless:'

"He could not live
In the world in the usual way.
What others wanted was too little-"
He chose
Another name, gave away his money,
Wrote across a W-4 form:
Exempt, Exempt, Exempt."
('Elegy for Chris McChandless,' p.6)

The book is divided into three very symmetrical sections, each consisting of eleven poems. The opening poem, 'Mappings,' introduces the illusionary world of attachments, but at the same time recognizes how difficult it is to let go of them:

"he cannot help but marvel at how the sea,
Without a will, simply creates what is
Entirely missing, a world he finds impossible
To let go of"
('Mappings,' p.4)

This poem introduces the structure of abolished illusions and cherished suffering carried in the poems that follow. The rest of the poems evince a struggle between an acceptance of this philosophy and an urge to put meaning into things, as is epitomized by the poem 'Kafka and the Rabbi of Belz':

"The Rabbi
Invokes Ezekiel, God's breath entering the bones
Of the dead so that they stand up, alive again.

Kafka tells his friend the leaves are just leaves,
And this is quite enough for him."
(Kafka and the Rabbi of Belz, p. 53 )

It is a collection willing to make statements, but certain arenas are left sacred. It takes what things are for nothing more than what they are, as in 'In My Study:'

"And a catfish's skull bone-
Shaped like a crucifix
For those who can believe
Each thing is more than what it is."
('In My Study, p. 12 )

This book gives the reader not only a heartening read of poetry uncluttered by distracting accoutrements and gimmicks, it gives the reader a sense of their own attachments, and a sense of detachment lived vicariously through the characters in these poems. It returns all power and say-so back to raw nature, all spirituality back to the individual, and leaves meaning less abundant but more precious:

"We sit without speaking, as if language
Had returned to wind in the trees,
To spider webs of fern and leaf,
To the sibylline rush of rain."
('Natural History,' p. 62)




© 2004 The Cortland Review