Two Novels: Howl Revisited and Green Detectives by Mike Corrao, reviewed by Ryan Bollenbach

Mike Corraro’s Two Novels offers a surreal diary-like meditation on the embodied power of art that turns the hunt for inspiration into a corporeal and visceral concern. Howl Revisited, the first of the two sequences, is a fugue-like journey in prose poem snippets depicting the speaker’s relationship with Allen Ginsberg, undead and risen from the grave, who mostly smokes cigarettes rolled with coffee grounds and laments his previous writing.

In the first sentence of Howl Revisited, Corraro lays the unstable foundation for what the speaker struggles with and what we can expect going forward:

i had a dream last night, that i came back to howl and all that was left were the dying animal sounds …. it wanted help. death or medicine. its leg had a gash, the pads of its feet sanded down to nothing. each step was delicate and painful.

This passage is a clear example of poetry taking on corporeal form. Poetry is given a decaying body, “pads sanded down,” and a throat with which to scream. The phrase “dying animal sounds” accretes meaning throughout as it becomes a mantra the speaker returns to finding it inadequate yet compelled to repeat it in different contexts.

Like “dying animal sounds,” the poetic utterance transforms constantly in Howl Revisited to many corporeal, occult, and rotting forms—from a many-headed hydra that terrifies the speaker to a multi-part retelling of the tale of Adam and Eve to constantly morphing onomatopoeias that pervade the sequence. Ginsberg and the speaker always seem to be vying for control over their poetry but are unable (or unwilling) to exact it. Ginsberg laments  “i’ve killed my art … there’s nothing left … except memories and associations … they’re only poems now.” The speaker whispers to himself in his sleep, unsure of his own accounting, “i don’t’ know whether to be large or intimate.” Many times, the speaker leaves us with the repeated word holyholyholy. This refrain becomes searching as things get more and more out of control; the meaning becomes muddled.

Rather than a reach for redemption, however, Howl Revisited’s transformation comes in the last third, where the “climax” of a typical novel might start ramping up, where the muses (in the form of the hydra mentioned above) overwhelm us with 90 possibilities to 90 uncompleted stories. Then, a discussion between Ginsberg and the speaker gives way to repetitions of the word poem, and anagrams of poem with different spellings (“POEM” “PEOM” “POME”). I couldn’t help but read the teasing “MOPE” into this last part as this whole strange and engaging world is boiled down into variations on the single word, the speaker repeatedly worried about getting his descriptions right throughout the sequence.

Green Detectives, the second of the pair, is comprised three sections of roughly 20 poem-long sequences narrating, in the first two parts, two detectives’ hunt for titans and Saturn, and, in the final section, a speaker giving a speech that really loses the plot. The tone is set quickly when the titular detectives—occult biologists working for an unnamed university—reveal they are hunting a titan for its bones in order to sacrifice it “… to Saturn / & Eurydice // so that these deities may come back … and spare us from / the oncoming warmth.” In this sequence, titans and poets “coalesce in the same pool.” In the close of the section, the hunt for titan becomes frustrating and they abandon the hunt to search for a new question. The second section has the biologists work a new job: profiling and mining “the unconscious performances” of seven suspects of different crimes, ostensibly to understand how they were led to commit them. As with Howl Revisited, the investigation becomes one of narrative and expectation as each profile gives sparse, but engaging, details that provide little in the way of motive.

In the final section, the ideas that both sequences draw on come to a satisfyingly wild conclusion in a speech the speaker gives at a dinner party. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, whose practice of anti-poetry (poetry of colloquial and stripped down, irreverent language) is referenced throughout, takes the form of Saturn from Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (the speaker playing the role of the son). The speaker invents a word and obsesses over its architecture (“… AMANCAL / which means nothing at all”). A Somali woman who was almost murdered is flown to Chile to lie low while ghosts talk to the speaker about novels and plays and rappers. The speaker even admits to losing control of the speech but keeps going until “Icarus has consumed the sun” and Nicanor Parra as Saturn has finally had his fill.

It’s how that idea of corporeal consumption becomes wrapped up with inspiration, memory, love, creation, and the subsequent parting with (and abandonment) of these creations that makes this diptych feel so engaging and fresh. Rather than speaking to these struggles with expertly crafted variations on narrative tropes or etymological sophistication (as we might find in “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges), these questions are spoken to by the discrete beings and characters that populate the two stories. Just like the speaker in Howl Revisited, the green detectives and the speaker in the final section seem to search for new characters and questions, and are constantly abandoning their own notions of how they should be telling their tales.

It is the visceral details and stunning beauty of Corrao’s gory and occult figures that brings these qualities together into one experience. These characteristics give the figures a mystery that goes beyond metafictive rumination and makes the experience of reading this diptych more than just the sum of its parts. Corrao’s poems give us an innate and non-verbal sense of what inspiration in poetry feels like, more sensory than intellectual, driving us forward with guttural sounds and devoured bodies, transforming these ruinous bodies into art.

Two Novels: Howl Revisited and Green Detectives, by Mike Corrao. Orson’s Publishing, November 2019. 179 pages. $18.00, paper.

Ryan Bollenbach is a writer with an MFA from University of Alabama’s creative writing program where he formerly served as the Poetry Editor for Black Warrior Review. He reads for SweetLit: A Literary Confection and Heavy Feather Review. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Snail Trail Press, Saw Palm: florida literature & art, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. Find his tweets @SilentAsIAm.

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