Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992

Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992

by Alfred Corn


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Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992 by Alfred Corn

Alfred Corn draws with extraordinary skill on narrative, figurative, and metrical resources to frame challenging contemporary issues, autobiographical themes, and vivid observations of both the extraordinary and the everyday. Reflecting on subjects ranging from the comic to the classical, Corn's poetry is musical, meditative, passionate, and direct.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582430249
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 09/01/1999
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 9.33(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Branch or sapling honed to a point and lodged in earth
to say, Here is where we live.
Maypole at the center of a circle dance.
Tent peg driven in the wilderness of exile.
Claim entered on newly opened territory.
Grub advanced to the miner in hopes of a return.
The anchor to help conscience keep its commitments.
Defense of Jael and of the peasant who has no armory.

What is your stake in this?
If existence is a lottery or a game,
then it is played for the highest of all—
and no mistake.

    Promised Land Valley, June '73

    The lake at nightfall is less a lake,
but more, with reflection added, so
this giant inkblot lies on its side,
a bristling zone of black pine and fir
at the dark fold of the revealed world.

    Interpret this fallen symmetry,
scan this water and these water lights,
and follow a golden scribble toward
the lantern, the guessed boat, the voices
that skip across sky to where we stand.

    You are vanishing and so am I
as everything surrenders color,
falling silent to vision. Darkness
rises to drown out the sky and silence
names us to the asking boat.

    Who echoes who in the black mirror?
Riddles are answers here at the edge.
And still, we can imagine some clear call,
a spoken brilliance blazing the trail ...
ourselves moving out across the sky.

    Chinese Porcelains at the Metropolitan

    It was as though I had stumbled
    On an unrecognized need, this
Rich embarrassment.... For once, I really looked,
Pressing the glass that defended them,
My native state, my own feelings — from what
    Source — caught up in and congruent

    To the bulge and flow of those forms,
    Splendid in unimaginable
Glazes: clair-de-lune, mirror-black, tea-dust,
Celadon, ox-blood, famille noire, peach-bloom,
Imperial yellow, café-au-lair,
    Fish-roe crackle
, and blue-and-white.

    This last one was its own country —
    Silken pillars of milk dribbled
With a blue syrup that slid down those hard
White slopes, improbably assuming real
Shapes: a branch, ravaged with plum blossoms,
    A house, man, or frightened dragon.

    Then, famille noire: I was confused
    At finding myself a moment
In someone else's dream, as a drooping
Peony explodes; spring through sunglasses,
Onyx skies, the threat of a striped wing. That
    Was plenty. I retreated to

    An unfigured vase of clear green:
    Near-real pear or ideal teardrop,
It seemed to lean up against weight, solid
Impetus, recording the smooth action
Of the potter's wheel that hidden still whirred
    In the risen gyre of the form.

    Form and color, ancient, modern
    Captors, saying a shape in clay
Can trace the curve of largest concerns, brim
And not overflow with a full version
Of self.... I read the supple script of those
    Lines, poems across the trenches

    Of time: You've met the past and it is
    Present. The struggle has not ended,
Will not end. Meaning is only a moment
Contained; but form is legion. The rainbow lists
Go on as new invasions spin up from dream.
    Everything still remains to be done.


Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that
we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off and there
steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of
energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild
longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a
world that had been re-fashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure,
a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and
be changed, or have other secrets....

— Oscar Wilde

A cold night held the clandestine —
After eight o'clock all books were banned.
Under cover, transfixed, I read
And memorized fables by flashlight.
Dream-confections shone in that pale
Epergne of light — tidbit, chestnut,
Nosegay, marzipan fantaisie.
Daytime misfits, the balls (flame-stitched).
The bats (oak) that always withered
In my hands, convicted as frauds,
Left me to my bed companions
(None as sticky as the Hardy boys):
Andersen, Grimm, Lewis Carroll.

Perfect programs for tone epics
By Mahler, pure nightmare fodder —
Limbs severed in the Black Forest;
Caesarenwahnsinn of the Red Queen;
The fishwife who tried to be Ms. God;
The Match Girl, burning and freezing;
The six enchanted Swan Brothers ...

A flock of possible illusions.
Bluffest comforter against cold,
Each story exploded in brief
Artificial fire, then vanished,
Resuming limbo — until next

        Now for the sandstar-spill:
Clumsy duckling clasps all his matches
In a fist, loneliness-, hunger-, cold-
Defying, urchin's inkling of death.
Images ignite a blue gas-ring,
Aster-halo, Paradise headgear.

Not Paradise or Limbo. Hades,
A theater of rounds and riddles.
Dreambook, opened to read the future, where
A painful few will have the courage
Of their imagination and live
By it. Reared on absurdities,
To whom the usual was ludicrous,
I naturally accept the first
Person of the Dream: Snow Queen, dragged up
From the Frozen Lake of Betrayal
Brittle specter, scattering eye-splinters
Of diamond, an icon in ermine,
Lace, and pearls.... Those glass eyes know me —
From some old hex party probably.
What should be my hand is extended
As — surprise — an aigrette. But of course,
I'm the sixth son, bird imperfectly
Sleeved in a shirt of nettles; part swan,
With an artless limb, flight-worthy, if laming
And useless for swordplay — or base hits.
In my chest I feel a lump of ice.

Grim fairy tale. "Once upons" are always
Puns, double understandings for
The double life, to be read and dreamed
Until the secret order appears.

Night turned the page: dawn would reveal
A figure like a frozen bird
Buried in drifts of wool. Burnt out,
Its battery dead, the flash lay
To one side. A mirror opposing,
All too lucid, reflected gray
Squares of light. Morning announced its
Fictions, a steeplechase laid out
Straight, as on a chessboard, instincts
Reversed in glass. Off with that wing!
Another day's prose to get through.

    An Oregon Journal


Afternoon: the waves are pure change when the tide
turns, and the defeated eye pulls back
to drop anchor in rock. Deserted by water,
the cliff base was a drying seascape of
green anemones and steel-blue mussel shoals
crackling in the painful flood of air.
Then the predators, marigold and liver-pink
stars fallen in dancers' poses in rock pools,
flattened against barnacle crusts.

                                  You are
there now, made large by time, observing;
the expansive hair stirs, relaxes.
You picked up an empty mussel shell, still twinned,
and offered me half, old tarnished spoon,
the thumb-sized hollow pearled in gray rainbows.
Something in your looks or the thinning light
says we won't always be together.
Back there, topheavy clusters of white
everlastings tap against the sea breeze.
I don't think you saw them, or me, testing
the bone-hard blade of the shell. I tried
to break it, then threw it back to the great
factory of ocean where it will be
ground up and recast as kelp, fish, bird,
star — or another instance of itself.


                           The temperatures
appeared, then a snow-blue delirium,
possibly the source of the first images:
to step out at night on to audible sands,
mind brooming aside hazes above
the tossing surfaces, to feel fever against
the silhouettes of rocks.

                         A milk moon,
no, a broken aspirin changing leaden mist
into platinum with its sour light.

                                  We saw
the reflection of a salty star in the wet,
this side the reach of the waves....
Not recollected in tranquillity;
as if we could ever rest and the waves
not echo in our inner ear, high tides
not come forward in feeling change. The best
themes are the moving ones, those closest
following the skating hand that records,
balance, the motive of figure and line.

    My eyes dilated, I tugged the threads
of daydream texts as each day passed
and our night clock, moon-dial, grew fat
with the time we spent.


Morning and a garden path: leaves looking
edible as lettuce except for their sawtoothed
margins that promised bitter green juice.
Hydrangeas, huge indigo sponges,
the fleshy petals sopping with dew.
Flushes of lavender — one deliquescent
bloom, bending drunkenly on its stem,
bopped my shoulder as I passed, a morning

           I said, during our walk
to the woods above the sea, "Only two things
make life worth the trouble —
One is love."

"The other?"


It seemed true — how else get past the dead
stretches of time without opening the album
of faded pictures, old fumbles, old dances?
Without the touch and spark of skin, sheets, the dim
fireplaces of half-closed eyes? Always less feverish
than I, you suggested, "Conversation. Art.
Food. Drink." A reasonable summary.

    We climbed an unfamiliar hill, lit
with leaf-filtered silver; practiced naturism,
love, memory. Staring as we moved into
the sun — a huge brass flower opening in my head,
daylight shocked into stillness.

                                I lay back
to take in the changes, resting in
my world, who couldn't know yours. Above,
flimsy poles, topped with tepees of evergreen —
the firs swayed, lightsome, stirred again
quietly in the easy breeze. It was blue
beyond, but the clearest indigo, an essential
ink. So we lay. A hummingbird took
our clothes for flowers in the even green
and brown about us. It flew up with copter
motions; hesitated, perplexed at the cloth,
and left as it came.


At noon: a Japanese salad of brown kelp
crunched underfoot. Up toward the dry,
driftwood, abandoned sculptures, antique
metals deeply scratched according to the grain.
The sand changes right before our eyes,
wide-wale corduroy, dry drapery, cross-patterns
in dull gray moire. Everything is
moment, the colors, the lines. We invent
the world and a wide cup to catch it in:
I saw tough, beautiful sea grass rooted
in thinnest sand, and wanted to say it.
Moving discoveries, fever, sand-flow,
voices demanding form for days
that have forgotten their colors....
It began there, among the changing blues
and scored silver. I will make something,
bright lines for mine or someone's use,
light from other worlds breaking on this one


The drive to the interior — other trees.
Landscapes, green surfaces punched through by
country rooftops shingled in satin-gray.
Maples were putting out the first yellow,
and we pass a non-town the signs call

So tiring always to drive downhill!
Myrtles and spruces filed past, unhurried.
I recognized the red-skinned madrone,
a sort of myth-tree, one a child
might have drawn. It seemed out of place
there among the elegant constructions
of spruce and fir. The conifers, so old
they are out of time, stand ever new, blue,
sempiternal Xmas trees.


An inland cemetery:
at the summit of a long, hot hill,
reddish earth and brown oak leaves; a grave
formality of tilting stones dated
in sixties and eighties. "Mr. Daniel —
His Death Made Heaven More Necessary."
We disputed the interpretation of it.

    Not far, under the ragged shade
of a moss-eaten madrone, a rotting stone
choked under a tangle of vetch. Some
bleached plastic flowers starved in the sandy ground,
chartreuse and pink. I guessed the true complexion
of death, almost laughed, and then I heard
the rattle of locusts in the heated weeds. Were they
poisonous snakes? I was glad to feel fear
again — no thanks to death, who makes living
almost unnecessary.

                   We each looked
for monuments with our names. You found one.
Thoughts were locusts as I sat and watched them,
pinpoints darting among the indifferent trees.
When we left, the stones were sorry we couldn't stay.


Stopping in a hotel, arbitrary room
of closure. Everything finds margin
in shaded zones — sea, love, time past.
The journal could serve as anchor,
fixity of fact in the great blur. It was
this way, except for omissions, concessions
to tact, daydream, form; and the singling out
of persistent detail, changes, electric
blues and silvers — the way you later find
a thread in a texture that seemed nothing
but puzzles and tangles.

                        Will I ever stay
in that room again? The proofs of the past
are still washing in, manuscript crowded
with change, curly with deletions. Someone
pauses, resting a hand on the silver
knob, trying to remember precisely.
But instinct, deferring to a final
revision, waits and leaves the door ajar.
The ocean says the past is a project
To be continued.

What People are Saying About This

William Reichard

There is a coolness in Corn's work, a hint of heart and soul…

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Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great poet, in my opinion, offers what anyone might recognize as beauty and truth. In Mr. Corn¿s poems, I have found prized gemstones for everyday use. What I enjoy most about his work is that he presents his stories and still lifes with equal skill, achieving that rare balance between a keen eye and a trained ear. Many of his poems are like those small and perfect clementines which, when you take them apart, delight you with each equally perfect segment ¿ any one of his lines can stand on its own feet. Yet, Mr. Corn moves beyond his aesthetic achievements to reveal motifs in the places he has lived in and visited / people he has lived with and visited. His is such a reliable and refreshing sensibility that I am always hopeful he will shine it on new subjects, larger or smaller, and over the years, I have been grateful for his range. There is virtue in Corn¿s circumspect and gentle approach to his subjects, but never sanctimony or cant. If you want archness, bitterness, idiosyncrasy or obsession, best to leave Corn¿s collection on the shelf. But if you want wisdom acquired through patient practice, begin on page 1. You will find what good readers expect of poetry but seldom receive in such rich shares.