Luxury, Blue Lace
by S. Brook Corfman
Autumn House Press, 2019
Review by Alyse Bensel
In Luxury, Blue Lace, S. Brook Corfman examines how memory pervades life and art using sequences that operate outside of conventional narrative. However, these poems are not so much being haunted by the past as they are reimagining and reconfiguring how the past continuously influences the present. This collection asks questions and seeks possibilities without ever attempting to define or capture a singular answer. Such productive speculation generates a series of ifs that keep gender and the body in flux, never definitive. With deft use of the sequence, the prose poem, and the couplet, Corfman critically examines these contentious and often limiting categories in the nonlinear narrative lyric. Selected by Richard Siken as the winner of the 2018 Autumn House Press Rising Writer Contest, Luxury, Blue Lace is a forceful debut collection that resides in between certainties.
Luxury, Blue Lace is built on the extended sequence. While individual poems certainly contain significant power, they most effectively operate when read sequentially as a cumulative milieu rather than a linear, singular story. Each of the three sections pays homage to the long multi-section poem through a narrative filled with gaps, contradictions, and possibilities. The second and central sequence, “Luxury, Blue Lace” interrogates a split self, where the fragments of the past circulate freely as they poignantly address family. The speaker admits in “(Obscure/Clear),” a title that is, in effect, not a title, and yet serves as an important guidepost for the reader, “Too much / hip for a boy less than a man.” The focus on excess/lack persists in “(The Crisis II),” which recounts the speaker’s interaction with a therapist: “[...] I used to want to be a girl // but can’t remember what that meant, or decide // what remains.” Such indecision is reflected in the sequence, where the speaker exists outside and between binaries and boundaries. “A conviction of self I cannot recover, if I had it,” the speaker intones in “(Matrilineal),” is not a lament of the past but as a way to record what has been lost.
What is most remarkable in Corfman’s poems is how time and narrative influence memory. Life is not linear, but we often must rely on a main thread to tie memories together. Instead of trying to cut a swathe of clear, singular narrative from life, Corfman equally acknowledges and relies on possibility and what is not present. This absence, which is so frequently tied to the “other,” is given just as much space in every poem as presence. “(Obscure/Clear)” opens with “Here are three signs: (1) I am (2) I hate (3) I should have been.” But rather appearing as disjointed speculation, these alternatives are just another facet of the narrative, integral to the multi-threaded story woven throughout the collection. Those strands become concrete in the haunting “(Odd House),” where memory is a house: “What of a life wrapped in thread is vaunted. // An odd house, memory, certain doors toward anachronism. A decayed wall.” Or, in “(Duet),” the speaker admits, “I like timelines. I see in them only gaps, how I’m on the other side of the river from the grandfather clock in your head.” The focus on what is not there, what is not recorded or remembered, serves as a pillar in the collection.
Corfman’s skill in the prose and long-lined poem demonstrate how the sentence, as well as the line, can heighten these gaps as well as enact the different brush strokes on a larger canvas, both light and dark. Much of the line work is impressionistic, while other are more vivid. In “(Exhortation),” the opening section of “Luxury, Blue Lace,” the speaker is both a body and an abstraction: “I am the little miss cursed to drip gems from her lips, the body whose midnight speaks locusts and dragonflies. [...] In this story I’ve already ended, in this story I’m everybody’s love.” The speaker’s body becomes otherworldly through the layering of the nonhuman and the divide between the void and the infinite.
The sequences that bookend the collection, “Processional (eight dolls)” and “Revenant” evoke religious connotations of entering and returning through the body. In sections “5&6.” of “Processional (eight dolls),” the fragmented and choral lyric suspends contradictions:
An image returned turned round
cheeks and an ugly maroon
sweater. She is too close. She is all
proximity. She is and is
not a possibility.
The final couplet framed with is/is not holds space for possibility rather than dismissing it entirely. The notion of choice remains in limbo for the child, who must navigate the body and existence, which returns in the final sequence, “Revenant.” Tackling agency in the body through the mother and father, each revenant returns from the dead to speak. The “Second Revenant” recounts, using the fairy tale preface of “once upon a time” to embody the split self through two separate selves, “[...] we were twins and there were two of us. We didn’t know the difference except that there was one.” In “Fifth Revenant,” the speaker claims, “I’m undoing the brightness, breathing through it toward shapes that become distinct.”
“What does it take // to know yourself? A narrative?” Just as much possibility exists in the shadows as the light in Corfman’s work. As the speaker observes in “(Caution),” “Often darkness saved me.” Through blurring timeline and narrative, Corfman invites the reader into an ever-shifting portraiture that asks us to challenge conventions of perception. “You said there was a sequence but no story,” the speaker in “Ninth Revenant” says. In Luxury, Blue Lace the sequence is the story. Though the speaker wishes in the final untitled poem, “If only facts would move forward—ellipses without elision, only gap,” the poems set the past in motion to enact the liminal spaces bodies that do not settle into neat categories occupy. This disorientation and refusal is not meant to shut out the reader. Empathy is essential to these poems, where the past shifts and the present is an opportunity to not just exist but thrive, in the face of contradictions and the mistakes of the past, for the future.