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Crackling on His Tongue: a Review of Corpus by Michael Symmons Roberts

October 25, 2010

OK, I didn’t make it back to the computer Saturday afternoon to post this, so here’s a last word to wrap up a week of Michael Symmons Roberts here at the Feed.  It’s part of a longer essay/review I wrote at at the University of St. Andrews in 2006, when I was first infatuated with MSR’s poems.


Last week, the AP reported that researchers have developed a device for ‘routing signals from helmet-mounted cameras, sonar and other equipment through the tongue to the brain’.  As blind people bit down on the paddle and flattened their tongues against its transmitters, they ‘found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls’.  Others, whose inner ears had been damaged by antibiotics, found their balance restored.

Roberts writes like he has one of these crackling on his tongue all the time, expanding his range of vision, multiplying his senses, perfecting his balance. He seems fully aware that there is a semitransparent haze over the world that keeps us from seeing the reaches—prehistory, history, ourselves, the future, eternity—yet he sees them with a physical clarity more precise than most of us exercise at our own dinner tables.

Roberts sees the what-if’s and how-to’s of deep history, deep science, eternity.  He understands that this world has changed once, from paradise to history and science, and will change again.  He writes with the confidence that through the changes of creation, decay, and re-creation, there is continuity, that the world is a physical place, and its objects and people are physical.

Strike that.  The description is far too abstract for these poems.  He sees things and parts and figures, simple, bright objects with mass and presence: Children of a vanished father who ‘wove his hair / with theirs and told him as a story’ (‘The Razor’). Twisted hazel that ‘hisses / at the ring-mesh fence behind it’ (‘Tongue’).  ‘Perfect livers, pale as sand at ebb tide’ stripped by a pathologist out of a body  and the ‘seawashed pebbles’ with which he replaces them (‘Pathologist’).

A feeling of symbolic heft grows until it’s not just satisfyingly curious but downright significant that of the two series of poems woven through the book, the one titled “Food for Risen Bodies” lasts one poem longer than the series titled “Carnivorous”.  Resurrection extends beyond death, outlasts the tearing and eating of flesh.

In fact, the five ‘Carnivorous’ poems are celebratory, rewarding food-scenes, feast-scenes.  In each, a dish is brought out, placed before the resurrected dead, and offered to some of them, to the starved, the martyrs, the exiles, those who wept, and finally the one who never suffered.  (There was only one of the last, and he was only a rumor.)  Each dish was a gruesome, mystical matrushka doll of meat.  A sow with lamb inside, its head in place of her heart.  The lamb with a goose inside, its beak in the lamb’s mouth like a tongue, and so on.

Resurrection is tangible in Roberts’s poems because bodies are always visceral and death is always corporeal.  In the sixth ‘Food for Risen Bodies’, the risen smoke, sip, wander outside to feel the sun, name old things with the words they begin to remember, and consider new creations that need naming.  They are quiet or astonished that their new bodies are mapped with marks echoing the gentle touches and the violent scars of their old life.  In the last lines of the poem, Roberts comes as close as he ever does to naming Christ:

the man / who went ahead to find a route / for them came back with wounds / intact and palpable. No pain, / but a record nonetheless, a history / of love and war in blank tattoos. ‘Food for Risen Bodies – VI’

Real bodies require real work to raise from the dead, and the most perpetually startling poem in the collection, ‘Post-Mortem’, details it for us.  The scene ought to be familiar to anyone who has watched forensic crime shows on television:  a body lies open on the autopsy table, its cold viscera in plain view, a masked woman working over the cavity in its chest.  But Roberts confounds what we expect.  The poem opens with some of the most frequently re-presented words from the Bible:  ‘This is my body’, and affirms the sacramental allusion in the rest of the stanza:

This is my body, me on the slab, / lying in the sun which burns / as if to melt the etched frost / from the man-tall windows.

This is no basement, concrete-bunker morgue; it’s church-like.

As we watch, step by step, the woman ‘heaves huge jars down from a shelf / unscrews one, lifts my gut coil / from its marinade of formalin’ and reassembles the insides of the corpse, sewing him up, washing him, scissoring free his eyes and mouth.  Kissing him.  The poem ends:

‘It has been longer than you think’, / she says, ‘In the next room you will find / some simple clothes and food.  You will / be hungry.  Leave us now’.

In her straightforward realism and concern for the body’s needs, the pathologist typifies Roberts’s attitude throughout the collection:  the body, soul, death, resurrection, are ordinary and phenomenal at once, natural and miraculous, physical and spiritual.

Roberts writes at the edges of what we know, but at the center of what we are sure of. He knows the Bible is an incomplete record—no great shock; so did the apostle John.  It doesn’t name the meal that Jairus’ daughter ate, the realities of DNA, the menu of heaven’s feast, or any happy confidence that those around the table there will smoke guiltlessly, filters or no, though Roberts convincingly details all of these.  Yet Roberts seems sure that it is also sufficient to overwhelm us with mystery—creation, incarnation, resurrection, all in actual bodies and real time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 10:27 am

    And so I smile and shake my head from side to side not in disagreement, but because of all this soaking-in, this final paragraph and your description of “writing at the edges of what we know, but at the center of what we are sure of.” and all the words that led up to it! Your infatuation has paid off and now I’m being carried along! Thank you for writing. Thanks for sharing! Blessings!

  2. Jana Bouma permalink
    November 12, 2010 1:11 am

    His poems are amazing stuff!

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