Stephen Corey (b. 1948)
Poet, essayist, and editor Stephen Corey has lived and worked in Athens since 1983. As assistant, associate, acting, and finally editor of the Georgia Review, he has helped shape the literary landscape in this country for the past two decades. He has also gained national recognition for his own poems and essays.
Corey is one of the more influential literary figures in the state. His editorial contributions to the Georgia Review alone ought to secure that ranking, but he has also been a prolific poet, essayist, and reviewer. He has published nine volumes of poetry, beginning with The Last Magician (1981, rev. ed. 1987) and extending to There Is No Finished World (2003), as well as more than 150 poems in the country's leading periodicals and journals. He has edited three anthologies of essays, poems, and fiction: Necessary Fictions: Selected Stories from the "Georgia Review" (1986) and Keener Sounds: Selected Poems from the "Georgia Review" (1987), both coedited with Stanley Lindberg, and Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (2001).
In his poetry the paradox of the one and the many remains Corey's thematic bedrock. On the one hand, the individual knows only himself; on the other, knowledge of self is shaped, refined, and redirected by our knowledge of others and the world around us. The narrators in Corey's poetry explore this paradox, often walking the fine line between communion and isolation. He begins this exploration in his first book, The Last Magician, in a remarkable section called "Crafts." Assuming the personae of artists and craftsmen, Corey examines the paradox of creation. The artisan makes, but not for himself, because the utility of his or her work informs his connection to those around him and to the physical world. For instance, in "Smith" a blacksmith boasts of his centrality in his village's life—even as he maintains his exclusivity:
I go to church on the rims of carriage wheels,
into the chest on the scalpel.
I am hinged and latched to every village home,
hammered deep into my own hammer.
What non-living things re-create themselves?
Tools. Tools the others must have to begin.
What can I do that lovers only dream?
Fuse two things into one, forever.
The curious contradiction in the smith's boast is an excellent point of entry to Corey's work, for his narrators refuse, with varying degrees of politeness, to be assimilated into a world of paradox and disunity. Even the titles of Corey's books offer readers the fundamental contradictions of our existence: The Last Magician (if magic is magic, how can there be a last magician?); Fighting Death (death is losing the fight, not the fight itself); Synchronized Swimming (the ultimate oxymoron—a sanctioned sport that meets no requirement of any sport Americans understand); and All These Lands You Call One Country (again, the illusion of the one made of the many).
This is a difficult theme, and a measure of Corey's artistic determination is how consistently he explores it. Even when one of his poems fails, its failure underscores the urgency that fuels it. As he tells us in "Condition: Pachyderm," his aim is to "consider all possibilities, / presume no conclusions."
Arguably, these two imperatives are mirror images, not opposites, but certainly irreconcilable: to consider is to presume, and to presume limits, if only for a time, other considerations. The ongoing compulsion to do both creates an irresolvable tension in which Corey explores the situation of contemporary man.
In All These Lands You Call One Country Corey explores the complexities of time, possession, and perception through a remarkable variety of personae, including two ancient Chinese poets, Li Po and Tu Fu; Lurleen Wallace, wife of Alabama governor George Wallace; and Lazlo Toth, the vandal responsible for the 1972 desecration of Michelangelo's Pietà. What emerges is a sense of multiplicity, of contrasting, often conflicting personalities coming to terms with the diversity of America. Consider, for instance, Li Po's assessment of American excess in "Li Po Enters New York City":
I have been accepting all
These lands you call one country.
Sometimes I have had to say dream,
Softly to myself, even when sober;
Yet I have gotten along
Watching the faces and horizons,
Touching the coarse leaves and barks,
Lifting curious objects from countless shelves.
Li Po reacts to his New York experience by quoting Socrates: "I never knew there could be so many things / I did not want."
In such moments of rejection, however, Corey remains open to documenting the richness of experience in a world that beckons, outrages, and captivates his imagination. Corey's fascination with the phenomenon of consciousness remains a driving force in his poetry. And if he cannot come to terms with the reality that entices and eludes, he can at least document his experience. For this reason, Corey's Li Po can conclude "The Last Journey" with a statement of recognition rather than frustration:
I saw I could love each place I stood,
Each person I met or passed,
With baffled, baffling energy.