Portrait of a Child
When I'm ready to think of something else, finally,
I think of wind that runs like a river along a river,
and trees bending into themselves with a will for breaking,
a will to break from the soil and leave the lap of the horsefield
where death has laid its head, its fire-red curls.
I think of the young painter who finds the body of a child,
drowned in the river and cast on stones that rattle
in the white hands of the water.
At first, the painter thinks all the right things.
He thinks of his own infant son.
But then he notices the child's beautiful blue lips
like the blue rim of a bowl, and the wine of its blood
spilled on a stone, and the dark loaves of its closed eyes
resting on the table of its face,
like the meal Christ rises over, sweeping his hands apart
while around the table the Apostles all lean against each other,
whispering, waiting, posing, even, for the thousands of painters
not yet born,
all but Judas, who looks away,
who has already broken the heavy bread and chews the grain,
not thinking of betrayal, of kissing sour wine from Christ's lips,
but of walking in a narrow street and hearing the song
of one bird that flew a hundred miles to rest in a tree
and pull its meal from a tent of worms.
The painter begins a portrait of the boy.
For a long time he stands beside the river, the brushes in a jar
near his hand, the sun turning lower in the sky,
and after a while he doesn't look at the child on the stones
but only at the boy lying in the soft bed of paint,
the dead boy at the end of his brush.
Then the boy by the water wakes
and climbs from the stones to the riverbank.
He walks to the painter and asks him, What are you painting?
You, the painter says, But you're dead.
No, the boy says, That boy is dead,
and he points to the painting.
Scale Model of Childhood
Who can say what calls me to work
these late hours
by lamplight and magnifying glass?
After the ladybug retracts its long,
beneath its red shell,
I use a brush of one hair
to connect the black stars
stippled on its back:
who licks its teeth,
muzzle still red with Acteon’s blood,
waiting at the feet of the Twins
for crumbs to fall from their table.
In another room,
my parents sleep lightly,
as though ready always
to call my name.
When my constellation is finished,
I pierce it with a pin,
my little dog,
and place it
in a miniature box,
size of my thumbnail,
a window for the shoe box diorama
I assemble each night
from tidbits no one will miss.
When I was a child
feral dogs ran the woods
beyond our door.
Even the hound my father shot
slipped away by morning,
a line of blood pocking the snow.
My parents instructed me,
never stray outside.
Nights, my back on the bed
and my head tilted back,
I watched stars scroll past
my narrow window’s frame.
Once I thought I’d step from childhood
as from a doorway
into a night blazing with stars
they defied constellation.
I’d stride into the revealed world
away from the house
and my parents framed by a window
as they sat at a table
with no morsels pierced
near parted lips.
Pull the lever on the side of the box
and their forks will scrape
while an unseen dog
howls for its dinner
in an almost human voice.
BIO: Corey Marks’ Renunciation, 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. He has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Natalie Ornish Prize from the Texas Institute for Letters, and the Bernard F. Conners Prize from The Paris Review. He teaches at the University of North Texas.
An Interview with Corey Marks by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Portrait of a Child,” is an unusual poem. And while it’s dangerous to say that any piece of writing is an original, I don’t think I’ve ever read a poem that proceeds in quite this way.
Can I ask where this poem came from?
Corey Marks: It’s hard for me to remember a great deal about writing “Portrait of a Child.” It’s one of the oldest poems in Renunciation and it’s one of those extremely rare poems in my writing life that came as a gift. I do remember drafting the piece with an entirely different closure in mind. The two elements that I knew would be in the poem from the outset were the situation of the painter finding the child’s body and the turn to the Last Supper. I think the poem’s ranging motion comes from an ambition I was discovering at the time to write poems that were driven by a restlessness, by a desire to begin with disparate elements that didn’t immediately or easily fit together and then find a way to yoke them. I wanted to write larger, more complicated poems than the lyric narratives I’d written up to that point. I wanted a stronger meditative strain to enter my work that could find ways of juxtaposing elements that earlier would have wound up in separate poems. “Portrait of a Child” was a breakthrough for me that really happened in the moment of writing. The opening was unexpected—it was a discovery that came as I began to write—as was the boy’s rising at the end. I remember writing the final lines arriving with a jolt of surprise. I sat back and thought, “Oh, that’s the end. Where’d it come from?”
AMK: Reading the poem over and over, I can’t help but wonder what that ending is really about. Is the boy dead? Or is he alive? Is this a poem about art and renewal? Is this a surprise ending meant more for its shock factor than for its “meaning?”
Without actually asking you these questions; what is it that you hope this ending does for a reader?
CM: Again, I come back to that surprise I felt in writing the poem—that’s central to the experience I’d like a reader to have in reading “Portrait of a Child.” But I would differentiate surprise from the rug pull of “shock factor.” Surprise, when it works in a poem, leads us to a turn that feels simultaneously unexpected and convincing; the terms we begin with change, but the change never feels completely random. That restlessness I mentioned before is key to how “Portrait of a Child” moves. The poem unfurls its changing terms, leading the reader from one set of expectations to an unexpected resolution, to something mysterious, perhaps, rather than baffling, but still very much part of the poem’s meditation and its story. At least, that’s my hope.
AMK: There’s a wonderful attention to rhythm and sound in lines like “I think of wind that runs like a river along a river,” and “whispering, waiting, posing, even, for the thousands of painters not yet born.”
Musically speaking, what element (sound, repetition, rhythm, pacing, meter, etc…) do you find yourself most attracted to.
CM: I’m very attentive to music in my poems, though I’m not sure I can say there’s any single element I find most attractive. I’m more drawn to how a poem’s music comes from the interplay of its sonic elements. I generally write free verse, but its free verse that's written for the ear, that seeks the intensifications that poetry can achieve through its sounds and rhythms, and that remembers that a great part of poetry’s power comes from its music. The sound of a poem acts on us, moves us, challenges us even before we fully apprehend what it’s saying to us. One aspect of a poem’s sound I do pay particular attention to is how the movement of the sentence is amplified and complicated by the line. The intersections of sentence and line yield a play of tension and release that is important to all poems, but proves particularly crucial to free verse.
AMK: What do you think (if you don’t mind my asking) you do best in this particular poem?
CM: What I take pleasure in reading this poem again is its ranginess and its surprise. I like how the poem threads its stories together, but I also like how it refuses to explain some things, how its omissions exert themselves. And because it came so quickly, I relish how it’s retained its strangeness for me as a reader. I don’t remember being inside it, managing its works. All its service doors are closed and sealed over.
AMK: I'm struck by the verb choices in “Scale model of Childhood:” “what calls to me….the ladybug retracts…Canis Minor, / who licks….when my constellation is finished…the shoe box diorama/ I assemble each night…a line of blood pocking the snow…”
What do you think it is about verbs that make or break a moment in a poem? Sound? Precision? The image they evoke?
CM: Certainly all of those things. Weak, flaccid, uninteresting verbs so easily derail a poem because they lead to flatness in language, in sound, in thought and imagination. Verbs can serve as precise figurative engines, they can add richness and surprise to a poem’s language, and they can create a sense of immediacy and drama.
AMK: When I look at a poem like “Scale Model of Childhood,” I eventually start wondering, “Is this really true?” I don't mean to say that I doubt its sincerity, but I start pondering what’s imagined in the poem versus what takes place in the poem.
The construction of the constellation on the back of a ladybug, for example, seems too good to be true. Or the moment when, at the end, the image of the speaker’s parents becomes the shoebox panorama…is this something the speaker imagined at the time or is this a metaphor created by the speaker looking back in time?
Rather than have you analyze your own poem or to tell us what happened versus what didn’t happen, I’d be more interested in your thoughts on truth in poetry. Is truth an element of facts and actual events…things we think we observe or feel? Or is truth something less corporal than that, a sort of representation? An act? A gesture?
CM: My students sometimes worry about the truth, or factuality, of what they read, of what they write, and often want to bring the dilemmas that surround nonfiction, the memoir in particular, to bear on poetry. But poetry, for me, approaches truth through imagination; it renders experience into something other than a mere record of facts and events. I want my poems to strive for emotional truth, and I want them to succeed as poems. I readily abandon the actual details of an experience in favor of the poem itself. What truth the poem reveals is shaped through the poetic act, and that truth is partial, imperfect, and colored as much by longing as accuracy.
I wrote “Scale Model of Childhood” while I was living in a house on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Every year, this house has swarms of ladybugs that work themselves inside to hibernate. The poem started when I happened to look closely at a beetle crawling on my desk at around the same time that I had been flipping through a book of constellation maps—because of the remoteness of that part of Michigan, the stars there are really quite remarkable. The speaker who emerged in the poem fit with the strange image of mapping a constellation on a ladybug’s back because of the narrowness of his circumstances. His imagination confronts his sense of being trapped, of being withheld from the world, by working in miniature.
AMK: How do you approach questions like this when you read contemporary poetry? Are you a suspicious reader? What makes you willing to go (or not willing to go) with what’s on the page?
CM: In his essay “A Defense of Ardor,” Adam Zagajewski writes, “from poetry we expect poetry.” To use this line here smuggles his quote out of context, but it underscores for me what I expect from poems. Zagajewski argues that we seek vision in poetry, something we don’t look for in newspapers or scholarly essays, but his line reminds me that I also read poems because they are poems. Poems aren’t transparent lenses through which we glimpse truth. I read poems because of how they enact a struggle towards truth, how they make that struggle into an aesthetic experience that both gives pleasure and allows me to understand something differently than I did before I read the poem. I’m willing to go quite far with a poem so long as it rewards my attention, and for it to convince me, it must first succeed as a poem.
AMK: How do you come to the form of your poems. “Portrait of a Child” and “Scale Model of Childhood,” are both free verse, but one is in tercets while the other is constructed more loosely.
Does the poem determine its form or does the poet determine a poem’s form?
CM: I don’t think it’s either/or but rather both. Early in my drafting process, a form begins to suggest itself. My poems often begin with a line, a trace of music, that primes my ear. A stanza pattern soon settles in—regular or not—and offers a further necessary restriction. But the poem—the actual language of the poem—changes a great deal after that initial flush, and the discovered sense of line and stanza becomes a tool, a resistance that shapes the movement and development of the poem. A poem’s form occurs in the relation between what’s received and what’s made.
AMK: Thank you.