The Coasts of Language: Thomas Meyer's Coromandel
Poetry is arguably the most precarious of arts because its media is the ephemera of language, in which both communion and alienation surface, often at the same time. For the poet, this leads at times to suspicion of what is dearest to her and to years of silence. All this is doubled in modernity, where we are taught to be alienated from our desire.
Thomas Meyer's five-part long-poem Coromandel approaches these issues along the Projectivist lines laid out by Charles Olsen and others. This is a poetry designed to interfere with a reader's strategies of reading so as to disrupt the stranglehold of convention, that seeks to answer the totalizing grip of culture by opening up silent spaces of possibility.
Meyer would probably be satisfied then that I jotted down notes such as, "I am being thrown out of this text," and "this is poetry that is against itself." And since this is a long poem, the minimalist effect is relentless, even though the each word or line, taken alone, has the soft touch of the lyric.
I have to admit that I take modernity from Rilke rather than Elliot and the American tradition. I prefer silences that are full rather than torn off and spare. I have always thought that Elliot was never sufficiently critical of the American tropes of individuality and freedom and that this led him to prefer a renunciatory, privative landscape.
If a title is any clue, Meyer's choice of Coromandel is perhaps an indication of the same. With echoes of "cormorant" (an American waterfowl), the term is an Anglicized form of the name of a coastal region of Southeast India, that was then used more widely to refer to Southeast Asian coastal regions and their hotels, and to a lacquer made in the region. Meyer's poem contains the bricolage of the colonial—an odd clutter of classical myth, the occult (where the tarot and astrology briefly surface), and American landscapes that surface both as vista and in the names of flowers. But Coromandel suggests that the relations among these might be subordinated to a private, isolated ambered coast in which such difference sublimes.
As an image of a possible ground of being, the twin images of amber and the coastal serve Meyer well. Reading the text one has the sense that its memories and images are caught in a smoother surface that leaves them frozen. But the echoes of the coastal remind us that even these apparently disconnected globules of image belong to a place that is in between, swept back-and-forth by tides, a landscape that is constantly being displaced, undercut, reformed.
The poem's sequence echoes these motifs, and the center of its displacement is its third section entitled "Quincunx." Here, after a long opening movement phrased in shifting couplets and a second, seventeen-page, single-stanza poem that drops, line by line, like a stone, Meyer shifts to a series of quintrains whose relation to one and other is disjunctive and unsettled.
This structure reiterates what is said in both the sheets of amber imagery that characterize the first long sections and the coastal imagery, by which Meyer suggests the further possible. "Unlock the door," Meyer tells us midway through, and, at the end, he surfaces to say,
Hemlock hard to tear limbs off. Perfumed hands.
Come live here.
My lips bark. Gray dawn moves. Changes the hills.
Walks into my heart.
Make a bird of it. Dog at the door. Who's there.
The years from now.
This is sweet enough, but the whole is more formal, a spell meant to strangify the lyric so as to better deploy a resistance to convention. And I wonder whether the poem finally spells out spaces where the perfume of crushed fir can be sensed or if it rather turns away from all that in a renunciation that prefers the engine sublime.