On Generation & Corruption
By Terrence Chiusano
Fordham University Press, 90 pp., $24
One of the more striking poetry books out of Pittsburgh last year was On Generation & Corruption, the debut collection from Terrence Chiusano. With their unusual, often multi-parted forms, sprawling lengths and dense word-play, these are poems that push language to an edge.
That Chiusano isn’t dallying is announced by one of the collection’s epigraphs, from Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption: “The question might be raised whether substance (i.e. the ‘this’) comes-to-be at all. Is it not rather the ‘such,’ the ‘so great’ or the ‘somewhere,’ which comes to be?” In the poem “finishing work on the face, left arm and foot,” Chiusano coyly suggests that his own mission is as much existential as aesthetic:
Here’s my contribution, here
they are — the if nots, the why withs, the why
nots, the ifs, the whos —
furry little ferrets
of verse rooting through
In “stunts and forfeits,” he repeats his concern with the nature of language itself: “Imagine / that if I write I repeat: / that if there are limits / they’re screened; that if “it” follows / “that if,” “follows” follows …”
The poem’s forms, meanwhile, range from journal entry (“daybook”) to the page-flipping challenge of “rondo”: nine long sentences, grouped in sets of three, all begun jointly, on a single page, and then spooled out together over the next eight.
Yet while Chiusano’s poems are far from conventional, overall they’re at least as grounded in real objects as anyone else’s. Many of them alternate surreal wordflows with long catalogues of the physical, as in “daybook”: “Cobwebs. Bat droppings. Mothballs. A stack of overturned washtubs. A mound of rolled rubs. Two silver Christmas trees. A butter churn.”
In “stunts and forfeits,” he compellingly combines the abstract with the tactile: “I repeat: the gesture (still / and again) is a hog nosing / its slop-trough, a wet knot worked free, an ointured / thumb pressed into / an open sore, a crescent of discord spread as wide / as the web a giant spider / weaves over its treasured island.”
As always, the music of Chiusano’s lines is gorgeous. (It must be great to hear him read.) But in many poems, he also pulls readers through by playing with narrative. For instance, “sally ho! a vexing journey, landfall at last” consists of three vignettes whose stories are at once crystal-clear and mysterious: We know exactly what’s happening, but not why. One thread connecting diverse poems is a crypto- (or is it pseudo-?) narrative built around the notion of a “town,” as set in opposition to a town’s outskirts. And many of his catalogues of objects suggest crime scenes, full of bloodied cloth and broken furniture.
On Generation & Corruption is a book to which lovers of pure language can return again and again.