Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Nina Corwin

There was a time before the poetry MFA explosion. Before the poetry MFA. Even before poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac "workshopped" poems at a kitchen table in a Harlem apartment. And during that time, poets seemed to be born rather than made. Nina Corwin is such a poet--by profession, she is a psychotherapist; by calling, she is what J.D. McClatchy said of Ginsberg: "a bard in the old manner--outsized, darkly prophetic--part exuberance, part prayer, part rant."

I first heard Nina read her work at "The Cafe" on North Lincoln Avenue early in 2004. The poem she read was "The Prince and the Woodcutter."

The Prince and the Woodcutter

Some days you drag the crutch,
Some days the crutch drags you.
The other folks get all the breaks:
the better bowl of cocoa puffs.

Your lover's tongue comes boxing with its gloves off
and you bruise easy as a peach.

You cast your net too wide
and the fish you were counting on for supper
are lying phosphate-wasted belly-up along the beach
And the bottom feeders linger whistling
imperfect protein melodies:
"Sometimes it seems that nothing
is good enough."

Did you ever feel like you were being dragged
through a car wash without the car
...because the repo man was here to claim it
just last week?

And you needed it to drive your son
to pom-pom practice because he
volunteered for the pep squad of the girls'
homecoming powerpuff football team.

Did you ever find yourself in need of a personal tune-up?
So you go to check out the electric chi-machine
at the ti-tech new age health center down the road
but then you find you haven't got a chi to speak of, and besides the line is way too long.

So you hitch a ride to Door County
for a getaway weekend, thinking there's more color
in every particle of autumn
than one can grab with two eyes groping.

But your friends are in the front seat
hunting down knick-knacks and souvenir shops,
Out-of-Towner written all over their T-shirts
jostling their catalogs and shoulder bags
complaining they can't understand
why happiness eludes them.

And you wonder why a pitcher of beer
won't transport you
al all those carefree magical places it used to.
Seems like nothing is good enough.

But then you remember the fable about that wimp of a prince
who is suckled on so much convenience
and over-sauced cuisine that finally his appetite goes flat
and no one in the kingdom can find a remedy
until one day this woodcutter comes along
and takes him out for a day in the woods
to whack on some logs and work up
a drop of sweat and a proletarian hunger
for a piece of dark rye and a tin cup of apple cider.

So when you start to think that nothing's
ever good enough, you remind yourself that life
is not a sitcom promising a happy ending in a half an hour.
"Just Do It" only works in Nike ads.
You cast too wide a net
and there's always one that gets away.

But when the bottomfeeders linger
singing "what did you learn in school today,
dear, what did you learn in school?"
You can say:
"Some days you drag the crutch
Some days the crutch drags you."

Lest it be thought that without her MFA degree Nina's poems onstage might outshine her poems on the page, take a look at a partial list of where she's been published: ACM, Forklift OH, Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, Southern Poetry Review and Verse. She has two books: Conversations with Demons and Tainted Saints, and The Uncertainty of Maps. In addition, her work has been recognized with a nomination for a Pushcart Prize, by the Illinois Arts Council and Illinois State Poetry Society. Here is "What Morning Looks Like," a smart lyrical-narrative poem whose typography, ideography, tropes and music work in concert to enact the interaction between its characters.

What Morning Looks Like

Another dawn poem. A virgin Thursday
morning that sparkles and blushes before
falling to the spatterings of day.

I'm starting a journey, dragging my suitcase
and carry-on bags to the taxi stand
at the corner. It's an hour before the earliest

alarm I know. Before the street lights shut down
at the tired end of their shift; when the air bites
crisp and clean. Before the turbulent machine of day

accelerates into full throttle. An orange cab
pulls up, driver devout as desert sand
serenity riding int he passenger seat.

I slide into the back, give my destination.
He glances at my face in the rear view mirror.
I can see only his eyes, the dark oasis

of them. It seems as if we're sharing
a secret, though we are not. Red streaks
begin to reach along the horizon.

Obviously he and dawn are old acquaintances
having peered into each other's blinking,
bloodshot eyes a time or two. Can't remember

the last time I was out at this hour, I say
reaching for conversation. I ask him what time
his day starts and he tells me 4 a.m.

So then I ask what 4 a.m. looks like and he says:
It looks like anything else. It looks like God.
He accelerates easily. An occasional car rolls toward us.

Headlights nod as they pass.

If these two poems have whetted your appetite, check out my review elsewhere on this blog of Nina's latest book, The Uncertainty of Maps--or better yet pick up a copy. If you prefer, check out her work on voices.e-poets.net or fishousepoems.org, or just google her--she's all over the net. In fact, she's all over Chicago--she's one of those hubs for what's going on artistically and poetically in the greater Chicago area and beyond--another reason she's one of my top ten Chicago poets.

This concludes the series "My Top Ten Chicago Poets," but it certainly does not exhaust Chicago poets I admire. So, at some point I will revisit the topic and include more poets from my favorite city in North America.

In the mean time, get ready for my next series: My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets!

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