A “Mini-Review” of Corey Marks’s “The Radio Tree” and "Three
Bridges" by Contributing-Editor Zachary
Corey Marks’ “The Radio Tree,” is a gorgeously dream-like narrative poem that, if not actually
depicting a dream, is a beautifully imagined piece of surrealism. It opens with a woman who walks all night and arrives
at a forest where she finds a hollowed-out tree, split in two, with a radio inside, from which she hears emanating first
her mother’s voice, then her father’s answering it. She can hear the voices and recognize them
as her parents, but she cannot quite make out the words, and she likens this to
at times in the backseat she would hear them
speaking less in words than strings of sound
and untied and unraveled into silences
while she looked out the window at the long
stretched pole by pole into the open
distance that carried other voices she couldn’t hear
where birds settled in ones and twos to make
their own declarations lost to her in the whir
car gliding over gray rural roads.
This wonderfully controlled long sentence uses punctuation sparingly, and in this
particular section—the bulk of that sentence—makes use exclusively of syntax and line break to slow
the sentence down. The long lines help create subtle pauses along the way, and mitigate the lack of punctuation, moving
the poem forward and artfully mimicking the experience of being a child in the backseat of a car, looking out the window
mile after mile as the car rolls steadily onward.
In addition to the skillfully controlled long
lines, there is abundant rhyme and alliteration, and in a sentence this long and with so few punctuated pauses,
those sounds build and build and eventually turn back in on themselves. Consider, for instance, how the vowel
sounds of “pole,” and “open,” are returned to in the final line: “over,” and
“roads.” And in between, the near-rhyme and alliteration of “r” sounds: “carried,”
“hear,” “birds,” “her,” “whir,” “car,” and “gray
rural roads,” with “roads,” as the final word in the sentence uniting these two registers of sound.
Both the “o,” and “r,” sounds continue to reverberate through the next sentence, which seems
to be the poem’s heart: “So many / things not speaking to her across such distances.”
There is perhaps a “dream within a dream” scenario which unfolds later in the poem, where she moves from
the memory of the backseat to the present of this moment in the woods, but then thinks of
how, once, she woke in the night,
walked out of her house across one road,
then another and into the damaged fields,
until she came to a forest she’d never seen. Tidy
black rows of trees arranged there by someone’s
order. A second growth.
The final sentences of the poem give us hints of the woman’s subconscious—“arranged
by someone’s need for order,” and “A second growth,”—both of which seem to be significant implications,
but which remain vague enough to just hint at meaning, rather than beating us over the head with it. Ultimately, the
poem’s conclusion returns to the forest of the its opening: “Then an opening / in the dark like two waves lit
from within,” a gorgeous image that brings the narrative thread full circle in a beautifully described concrete image
that fits perfectly in our reality, but also challenges the poem’s reality by suggesting that, while perhaps literal,
this poem may also be a dream within a dream, or a dream that blurs the line of waking life.
“Three Bridges,” is also a poem that, though seemingly quite realist, has a quality that borders on the dream-like
in its eerie depiction of a flooding river devastating a landscape. The rain falls and the river roils as though nature
were doing it almost consciously, maliciously, as though earth finally had enough of humanity and its artificial constructions
and refused to take it anymore:
Who could’ve known
the drizzle would ratchet to torrent, or the river
unbuckle, swallow its banks,
ring the scattered trees
like so many necks trying to stay afloat, strip boats
from their moorings and
batter them out of the river’s throat
into the mouths of other rivers? Or that it would wash out
the town’s three
The mystical aspect of the poem emerges in the description of these three bridges:
…the one too narrow
two abreast, the one beyond the last houses, already ruined,
abandoned by all but reckless boys and swallows,
the one, story goes, someone made a pact
with the devil to build, the one I crossed in the morning
as it arched in the uneasy
air like a wing.
The poem goes on to describe the rain “never done with falling,” that strikes the narrator,
weighs down his clothes, creates whitecaps on a river’s surface, and causes a flood that persists long after the rain
What happens to the narrator, literally, is perhaps
a bit unclear, but it seems as though he is floating in the river, along with all the silt and debris and other animals swept
up in its fury. He falls, and the rain strikes him “clean.” Then he loses his way, finds another
river “I didn’t recognize / in its frenzy,” and finds the bridge “reversed in the river
bottom leading nowhere/ I want to go.” Then he sees his house, his daughter playing in the front yard,
who looks up at him, but:
…she doesn’t see my waving arm,
unrecognizable motion in a landscape she knows
she should know but doesn’t any more. Or she sees
in too many places to keep track; I’m the one missing
thing missing everywhere.
Being able to see her, but
with her unable to see him, could be read as literal, or perhaps, given that the narrator is “missing everywhere,”
ought to be read as figurative. What makes it read as literal is the way it leads to the poem’s central simile:
must be what death is like: those left behind
look up sometimes where they think you should be,
they see you at all it’s from too far to make sense
of what you’ve
become—a color bled briefly
into sight through a whirl of silt.
Whether the narrator is caught in the
crest of a flooding river, floating along and waiting for the waters to recede, or whether the narrator is, in fact, dead
already from the flood, or perhaps even dreaming the flood, is difficult to tell—much like the narrator says of the
swallows in the poem, this poem “lift[s] away to take an eyeful / of everything that isn’t what it was. And move[s]
Much like “Radio Tree,” this poem challenges our notions of a singular
reality, and instead blurs the lines between real and surreal, waking and dreaming, life and death, reality and imagination.
Both of these poems pleasingly toe the line between concrete realism and surreal mysticism in a way that complicates our
notion of what is real and what is imagined, and does so subtly in a way that suggests reality and imagination may
already be closer to one another than we think.
A Review of The
Radio Tree by Corey Marks by Megan
Turner, originally published by iO
So much of Corey
Mark’s poetry centers on loss. But the loss Marks writes of in The Radio Tree is a peculiar
kind. It is not the loss of life but instead the loss of self, identity, and childhood.
At times, Marks’s sense of loss is explicit. He writes of shipwrecks,
fires, of lost bets, and even sometimes death and destruction. For example, in “Hotel Fire,” he writes:
And how could anyone
the face risen to the window now?
She worried about smoke
the door, over the bed, the heat, dust and
the coughing fit that wouldn’t unclench,
the body like laughter … (p. 44)
More often, however,
the loss in these lines is an imagined one. “Heirlooms,” for example, tells the story of a forgotten
are missing, the ones he would point
if he could. Replaced with trinkets, lovely
and small and nothing to do with him.
completely he’s gone from this place—
will look at him, nothing
meet his eye … (p. 13)
Here, there is an eerie sense of desertion
as the writer returns to where the child is forgotten. He imagines a space that is empty only because it is vacant
of what it once held. Similarly, in “The Poet’s House,”
Marks takes the reader to
a home where poetry was once written:
one window the dim light of a crook-necked lamp
over a pencil sharpened to a fresh point
and a sheaf of paper
scrawled with dust
not one word that the poet ever wrote. It is as if
has stepped away, into another room,
beyond what remains—always now—
unimagined … (p. 47)
There is an anxiety over mortality in these lines but a subtle one. In many
of his poems, Marks enters a completely imagined place. Often, the objects and location are real, but those who
occupy the space seem not to belong. In “House with a Bed of Tulips,” for example, a child enters her parents’
house before she is born, standing outside the picture of a “… house she could see / inside of when
she closed her eyes—” (p. 51). Or, in “Lullaby” the reader enters a fairytale. There are
brief moments when the poem dwells on the mundane, but mostly the poem examines the world of Grimm’s “fairytale’s
logic” (p. 29-32).
poems in The Radio Tree read like carefully constructed narratives. Recurrent images include fires,
flowers, and birds—a conflation of the childish with the adult. “Fire and Tulips,” (p. 59) the
final poem of the book, perhaps encapsulates what all these poems most suggest.
It is the story of a wife entering a house “where, as a child she dreamed a whole / other
life than the one she’s bound to now” (p. 60). It is clear this house no longer belongs to the wife,
and yet it contains her memories. The poem depicts photos “outlasting any memory anyone would want to claim”
(p. 61). “Will someone want us,” Marks asks, “rifling the cast-offs / in the bin, photos of the
long dead, the anonymous” (p. 63). The meditation questions how much of oneself one is capable of leaving
Corey Marks’s The Radio Tree offers
a beautiful fusion between reality and fairytale. Life and poetry converge until poetry seems essential to one’s
being. And shouldn’t good poetry should be like this—bringing one to a space that blends and coalesces
with one’s own life? In Marks’s work, poetry is seeping out from the dream and into reality. These poems
take the reader to a place where “A tree was burning in my dream” (p. 23), where “They crowded
boughs tilting / back toward flames open as palms” (p. 24).
from Baltimore, Maryland, Megan Turner grew up in Harrogate, England and Columbia, Maryland. She has a B.A. from
Elon University and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work has been published in the Rio Grande Review and Witness.
Poems - Bio - Review - Interview
An Interview with Corey Marks by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
AMK: This is a wonderfully fantastical poem. It reads
as though from an alternate universe or a dream. Obviously the radio in the tree gives one this impression, but
there are other moments where it becomes clear that this girl is in a foreign environment, such as the way the speaker
describes the phone wires as "the long / black wires stretched pole by pole" and "She would look
through the near world / pouring past to the far points that remained / almost steady." How did you come up
with this poem?
CM: At the time I
wrote the piece, I was reading The Juniper Tree, the collection of Grimm's fairytales assembled and translated by
Randall Jarrell and Lore Segal. The title tale in particular set off the first inklings of my poem, though my piece
didn't wind up anywhere near as bloody and disturbing as the original. In "The Radio Tree," I wanted to
draw together the language and logic of fairytale with a contemporary, American, semi-rural experience, and create
a poem where modern technologies-cars, telephone lines, radios-intermingle with a partially-domesticated wild.
I've always been interested in fantastical, imaginative elements in poetry, how they afford another way of working with
story than the more commonplace realism found in so many contemporary poems interested in narrative, how they yield
strangeness and surprise. I'm also taken with how the rhythms of fairytale offer a way of capturing a sense of childhood
perspective and imagination-one of the recurring concerns in my collection. Jarrell himself, a poet who acutely
explored childhood, turns to this music and vision in his work. While he often writes about childhood, his "The
House in the Woods," another poem informed by Grimm's, stands in the background of my poem in part because
of how it presents that border between the modern, adult world and the wilderness of childhood and fairytale that
exists "[a]t the back of the houses."
I'm interested in this point-of-view. The poem is "about" the girl but is not in her voice. Why did you
go with the third person here?
I think of most of my poems as being about or spoken through characters, no matter the point-of-view I use, and
I'm acutely aware of the need for the poem itself to develop character line by line. This is especially crucial
in first-person poems because of the assumptions some readers still draw between the speaker and the poet. So while I'm frequently
attracted to the first-person, I also often want to escape it. In this poem, though, the point-of-view offers something
else as well. Here, I feel that the distance of third-person helps to amplify the sense of estrangement that is
central to the poem. The character's life, her past, return to her as simultaneously recognizable and strange, and
the distance of third person helps to enact this experience of disorientation and defamiliarization.
AMK: I love how you start using those short, declarative
sentences in the last ten lines or so, ie "A bare wire sparking elsewhere in the rain. / A thrush scuttling
into a clear cut's far bracket." What is it that short sentences do in a poem versus long lines? Why utilize
CM: I tend to think about
how the sentences in a poem work together, how they create patterns and then complicate those patterns. I'm a big
fan of the long sentence, the way it can embody a ranging, complicating movement of thought, how it can interact
in varied ways with the line. But something needs to stand in contrast to that movement and music. The short sentences
inject a terseness, an immediacy, especially set against the longer sentences that dominate the earlier part of
the poem. The shift in syntax also reinforces the character's realization that she's encountering something outside
of herself-it ruptures not only the spell of memory but also of self. Both sentences are also lines unto themselves
and serve to slow the poem after the cascading enjambments above.
I frequently teach my students the Richard Hugo essay, "Nuts and Bolts," from The Triggering Town. One
of his bits of advice is that each sentence in a poem should be at least four words longer or shorter than the one
that precedes it. Arbitrary, yes, but it's a rule that calls attention to a poem's need to be dynamic at the level
AMK: There are some great
word choices in both these poems (scuttle, static, spark, bracken, ratchet, unbuckle, etc...). They often act as
metaphors. Sometimes they give a freshness to the events occurring that otherwise would be a little flat. And, if
nothing else, they are simply a joy to encounter. Is this something that comes naturally to you, or do you use a
thesaurus as you revise? Do you have words you "try" to use in your poems?
I think you're exactly right about the figurative power that verbs can inject into a poem, and I love those moments
where a word does so much work, creating surprise, vitality, depth, sonic texture-all that condensed energy. I don't
generally use a thesaurus as I write, nor do I keep a list of words I'm waiting to use in a poem; it's all more
intuitive than that, at least at first. Sometimes words first come to me because of their sound, sometimes as a
way of capturing an image. Then I worry at them to see what other work they do for the line, the sentence, the poem.
There are moments when I wait for the right word to arrive, when I realize something in a line is a placeholder for
another word that I haven't discovered yet. It's often an active waiting. I ratchet up the pressure, wedging in
a series of alternatives. And when I'm reading, I'm often half-consciously looking for a word that might work in
a line I've been fumbling with for a while.
AMK: The form of "Three Bridges" is a bit odd. It opens with a quatrain
then seems to settle into a sequence of tercets and then bounces back and forth between the two before ending with
a couplet. Why this form? Why not a single, long stanza asin "The Radio Tree" or a more consistent use
of couplet, tercets, quatrains, etc...?
CM: An earlier version did use a single, long stanza, but I found that the poem's density
needed something to leaven it. Like "The Radio Tree," "Three Bridges" often relies on sentences
that span multiple lines, but the latter is longer, and relies on a more sustained narrative before its major turn;
"The Radio Tree" ranges more quickly and repeatedly. Many of my poems turn to brief, regular stanza patterns-the
tercet, quatrain and couplet most commonly. I find there's something generative about such patterns of resistance
that's useful in writing free verse, and I'm interested in how stanza breaks add further ways of creating rhythm when they
intersect with the sentence. In this poem, though, I wanted to play with a more flexible pattern and so gave myself
a range-each stanza could be no longer than four lines and no shorter than two.
AMK: I just love that simile "My clothes weighed / as much as a child." It's imaginative,
for one, but is also a pretty creepy way to describe the weight of one's clothing. Was this the effect you were
going for? How did you come up with this?
CM: I'm not sure how I came up with the figure-it
arrived early in the drafting-but I was pretty happy when it came. I wasn't really aiming for creepy, though. Unsettling,
perhaps. It's a detail that I hope is vivid and startling in the moment but that also prefigures the daughter who
enters later in the poem. It also suggests drowning, and feeds a sense of anxiety about separation and loss. All
of this helps trigger the meditative turn at the poem's end.
AMK: "Three Bridges" ends with some pretty lofty, philosophical
statements/questions. I tend to like poems that end with images, but this one ends more thoughtfully than imagistically.
I think a lot of poets would say you should end it with "And move on...", which would be a little more
symbolic and open to interpretation. It would make the poem feel less "complete." I'm not sure this would
be a good thing tho. It would make for a much less accessible poem. What are your thoughts on statement and accessibility
in poetry? Is it important that we be clear? How much should we ask of our reader? How much do we "say"
in a poem rather than imply?
Does statement necessarily make a poem more accessible? I think less in terms of being accessible than about being
precise and developing a poem's thought. Clarity and simplicity too often get confused with each other-clarity can
in fact be an essential tool in creating complexity. When I'm drafting, I tend to resist what strike me as the easiest
solutions for a poem; I want the poem to think harder, move farther. To my mind, the lines that follow "And
move on" provide a crucial turn; they make the poem. The turn feels like a moment that comes out of what precedes
it, but it also opened new possibilities for me as I wrote, and ultimately led to the emotional crux of the poem.
Without the more direct, openly speculative language that enters in the final passage, the piece would seem unfinished
to me, less ambitious.
I frequently encourage students
to end their poems with images because they too often end with direct statements that explain something already
embodied in their poems; their poems arrive at paraphrase. But a poetry that relies on statement isn't always a
poetry that explains itself. Statement can crystalize thought, but it can also stand in tension with other elements
of the poem, turning from what's come before, opening and forwarding the poem rather than allowing it to become static.
Clearly, incompleteness can also open and broaden
a poem, make it resonant. But certain kinds of incompleteness feel easy, abandonments rather than acts of generosity,
ways of ducking that harder work of precision and the development of thought. Making a poem more "complete"
doesn't mean it needs to become obvious, simple, pedantic, narrow or singular in interpretative possibilities. What
I'm really thinking about here is the role meditation can play in poetry. In its best instances, meditation develops
through an interplay of statement, image, narrative, memory, deepening and complicating the poem so that it is dynamic,
alive with change and mystery.