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Corey Marks

The Radio Tree


All night she walked until she came to a forest
and in the forest a hollow tree split like two waves. 
A radio yammered from inside: her mother's 
voice-not as it is now, but as it was once-
and then her father's, answering, though what 
and for what reason she couldn't catch, the way 
at times in the backseat she would hear them 
speaking less in words than strings of sound 
that tied and untied and unraveled into silences 
while she looked out the window at the long 
black wires stretched pole by pole into the open 
distance that carried other voices she couldn't hear
and where birds settled in ones and twos to make 
their own declarations lost to her in the whir 
of the car gliding over gray rural roads. So many 
things not speaking to her across such distances.
She would look through the near world 
pouring past to the far points that remained 
almost steady. They'd pleased her, those moments, 
with a loneliness she knew was her own, 
but she would listen differently now, 
wouldn't she, knowing what she knows. 
The radio's round face glowed inside the tree. 
She turned a dial. Static rushed sentences 
stripped of words and still strange to her, 
estranged, as though she remained a child. 
But these voices weren't her childhood, 
they were that other world of her parents' lives. 
A bare wire sparking elsewhere in the rain. 
A thrush scuttling into a clear cut's far bracket.
She thought of how, once, she woke in the night,

walked out of her house across one road, 
then another and into the damaged fields, walked 
until she came to a forest she'd never seen. Tidy 
black rows of trees arranged there by someone's 
need for order. A second growth. Then an opening 
in the dark like two waves lit from within.


Three Bridges

When the rains came I was, for my own purposes,
on the far side of the river. 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 bridges: the one too narrow to walk 
two abreast, the one beyond the last houses, already ruined, 
abandoned by all but reckless boys and swallows,


even 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.


And by the time I had to leave what I'd come to do 
half-done, the rain made it hard to see, coming down 
and never done with falling. Everything bleared,


went pale and indistinct. My clothes weighed 
as much as a child. I fell, and the rain struck me
clean. I lost my way and found a river I didn't recognize


in its frenzy, whitecaps shearing its surface like teeth. 
Even when the rains died, the flood kept on, worrying 
the absent bridges, the water thick with silt, its current


full of animals coiled in the rush. I couldn't dare it.

Where's the devil when his deal falls through 
its own reflection? Now the bridge is half of what it was, 
reversed in the river bottom leading nowhere


I want to go. At least from here I can see my house,
my daughter when she walks into the yard with a pail. 
She looks up by chance, and though she must wonder


what's become of me, she doesn't see my waving arm, 
an unrecognizable motion in a landscape she knows 
she should know but doesn't anymore. Or she sees me 
in too many places to keep track; I'm the one missing


thing missing everywhere. But then her eyes catch
on the swallows sweeping the bloated river-no way 
back to their roosts now, they lift away to take an eyeful
of everything that isn't what it was. And move on . . .


This must be what death is like: those left behind 
look up sometimes where they think you should be, 
but if 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. And then-who can 
blame them, there's so much to do to reclaim the house, 
to live in it again-they look away, and you're left


waiting for the river to settle back between the banks 
that held it in place all your life and become itself again.


-from The Radio Tree


BIO: Corey Marks holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston, an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a BA in English from Kalamazoo College. He teaches at the University of North Texas and serves, with Bruce Bond, as Poetry Editor of American Literary ReviewRenunciation, a National Poetry Series selection, was published by University of Illinois Press. Poems from his recently completed second collection, The Radio Tree, appear in a number of journals, including New England Review, Poetry Northwest, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as in the anthology Legitimate Dangers.


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."

AMK: 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?

CM: 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 them here?

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 of syntax.

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?

CM: 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?

CM: 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.

A “Mini-Review” of Corey Marks’s “The Radio Tree” and "Three Bridges" by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz

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


…the way

at times in the backseat she would hear them

speaking less in words than strings of sound

that tied and untied and unraveled into silences

while she looked out the window at the long

black wires stretched pole by pole into the open

distance that carried other voices she couldn’t hear

and where birds settled in ones and twos to make

their own declarations lost to her in the whir

of the 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, walked

until she came to a forest she’d never seen. Tidy

black rows of trees arranged there by someone’s

need for 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 bridges: … 

The mystical aspect of the poem emerges in the description of these three bridges:


…the one too narrow to walk

two abreast, the one beyond the last houses, already ruined,

abandoned by all but reckless boys and swallows,


even 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 stops falling.

            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,

an unrecognizable motion in a landscape she knows

she should know but doesn’t any more.  Or she sees me

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:


This must be what death is like: those left behind

look up sometimes where they think you should be,

but if 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] on…” 

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

          save the face risen to the window now?
          She worried about smoke roiling under
          the door, over the bed, the heat, dust and ash,
          the coughing fit that wouldn’t unclench,

          doubling 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 son:


        … The photos
          are missing, the ones he would point to
          if he could. Replaced with trinkets, lovely
          and small and nothing to do with him.
          How completely he’s gone from this place—
          nothing will look at him, nothing

          will 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:


          Through one window the dim light of a crook-necked lamp
          presides over a pencil sharpened to a fresh point
          and a sheaf of paper scrawled with dust

          but not one word that the poet ever wrote. It is as if
          someone has stepped away, into another room,
          beyond view, 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).

The 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 behind.


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).



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