Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nina Corwin's The Uncertainty of Maps

If there were no other reason to read Nina Corwin’s second full-length collection of poems, The Uncertainty of Maps, it would be to engage with genuinely original ideas and images. Like problem children sent to the principal’s office for not fitting-in, disrupting classes, labeled early on as having a learning disability, these poems never fail to act out. And, like what were once called “juvenile delinquents,” many can been seen as mimicking some leader of the pack. But each walks with its own unique swagger, so as to create its own nonce form each time it opens its mouth. Hear this refreshingly rebellious, at once identifiable, voice in “Conduct Unbecoming:”

Because her images are a problem
and her poems won’t sit still, are unruly
as a hoodlum in need of a lesson
in etiquette, overgrown lawn before mowing
because they roll out of control like a car
with a brake job long overdue or rumble
like a muffler with a hole because her words howl
like Janis Joplin with a jones and her metaphors
won’t stay in one place: sit in each other’s laps,
legs splayed and scramble
over fences through backyards, leaping here
to there on several streets at the same time…

As in the poem, this theme of inescapable irregularity begins at the beginning and permeates the entire work. Poems like “Identity Issues,” “Against Straight Lines,” and “Leftovers” give us conceits born from the poet’s experiences as a psychotherapist, a woman, a citizen of the world AND an outsider to the common assumptions of the neighborhood—all laced with the pain and pleasure that each moment of life brings. The book opens with the appropriate and clever “Irregulars.” Hear its first two stanzas:

It starts with Inspector 29, her nervous tics
and squinting eyes gone bad in the strip-search
for the wayward thread or almost invisible discoloration.
Or, should I say, it starts with the apparel
on its hopeful parade from production line
to seller’s rack. But there’s always somebody judging:
saying yay or nay, fast track or going nowhere fast,
fine department store or strip mall cheap boutique.
As for me, you’ll know me by the labels
on the clothes I wear.

Gathering up the also-rans, the factory seconds
that stumbled under scrutiny, I who was always the last
to be chosen for blacktop kickball teams, I celebrate
irregulars! Those mail-order pantyhose marked down
for their slightly wavering seams, the snags that only
Inspector 29 can see, the skirt unevenly pieced together
By the anonymous sweat shop sewing machine operator
who must’ve had a really rough night. I welcome
their cut-rate selves into my home sisters in imperfection,
standard-bearers and tainted saints of human error.

The emotions of these poems erupt from the core of the paradoxical human condition honestly and surprisingly, and yet they reflect life experience with a language many times as eloquent and wise as any “schooled” poet of our time. Observe the gorgeous blend of music and meaning in the following lines from “Not Knit”:

Beyond the social weave of tit for tat,
what’s left but undressed need?

The plundered yield
of cultures severed at the roots,

a suckling calf that cries out for an udder,

while a raft devoid of oar
or rudder, dithers on a vagrant tide.

The occasional lyrical/meditative poem, like this one, breaking the narrative arc of the book, serves to bind it together, rather than tear it apart, creating one long narrative, lyrical poem that subverts our expectations in the same way that the territory often deviates from the map. This unreliability of the brain to accurately map reality is, in itself, a reality that must be accounted for. Corwin’s omnivorous appetite for paradox annexes this landscape, as well, in lines like these from “Inhabitants of the Cusp”:

I am forever awaiting the moment
when gravity switches off and all those things we like
to count on being anchored: frying pans, mailboxes,
the coffee out of cups and then the cups
themselves, float silently into the air.

A fly ball arcs into the summer sky.
Loses itself in a post-industrial sun.
Neither here nor there.

Corwin’s description of reality is a description of her work as well, bringing to mind the following quote from Valery:

Poets enter the enchanted forest of Language with the express purpose
of getting lost, getting high on being lost, looking for crossroads of significance, unforeseen echoes, stranger encounters; they fear neither detours, nor surprises, nor the dark. But the [one] who comes here excitedly running after ‘truth,’ following one single and continuous road…not wanting to lose either [her] way or the road already covered, risks capturing only [her] shadow. Gigantic sometimes, but still just a shadow.

The Uncertainty of Maps takes us into poetry’s deep, rich forest of language and gets us high on losing our way. In the process, we just might find our own voices, our own selves.