Review | Separate
Escapes, by Corrinne Clegg Hales
We want our poets to have obsessions. We want them
to have a central subject matter they probe and plumb over and again,
always tracking new truths. Sometimes it's a single volume of poetry that
works variations on a theme, such as Nick Flynn's Some Ether, and
other times we watch a poet return to his or her well over the course
of a career. Philip Levine's working class world provides the prime vehicle
for his mediations. Richard Hugo and his melancholy inhabit a particular
landscape. Other poets may permanently investigate a war or argue a central
With her new collection, Corrinne Clegg Hales has become a poet to add to this list. Separate Escapes is a stunning exploration of the relationships between the inner world of the self, memory, and imagination and the outer world, represented by traumas, abuse, Sputnik, and the atomic bomb.
A collision of worlds is sometimes expressed in poems where the outer worldthe physical appearanceis altered, and changes the inner person. This is the subject of "Out of This Place," where the female narrator is a test dummy for makeovers at a modeling school. The physical change allows her to spend the day being someone else, and she realizes it may go so far as to change her life. "They offer me five extra dollars to get a new face," the poem begins, but the makeover transcends the physical, the beautician becomes a minister "laying his fat hands / On my head commanding my body to make itself / Whole." The new facade alters the speaker's life, giving her "a ticket / Out of this place."
In "Consummation," one of the clearest expressions of the intersection of inner and outer spheres, the narrator discovers, weeks after the fact, that a high school boyfriend was killed in the air-show tragedy she's been watching on television news. The outer worldfire, airplanes, explosionscollides with the inner world of memory, adolescence, friendship, and peace.
The book constantly questions those two worlds, the world we can see and the one that is ineffable and intangible.
Hales often plays out this central conflict through the metaphor of photography, as in the first poem, "Girl at a Barbed Wire Fence." The first stanza describes a Dorothea Lange photo, one of those Depression-era portraits of an empty West that could be the landscape of much of the book. Hales wonders why the girl at the fence has "stopped at such a flimsy restraint" as barbed wire, and she lets the menace in quietly: "Her cotton blouse / Is open at the throat." The next stanza imagines that this landscape lies in the wake of the atomic bomb tests, that white ash will rain down on the inhabitants as they hold their hands out to it in wonder. With exquisite subtlety, Hales draws in the frailty of the people who are being worn down and held back by things not in their control, and in turn, of the poet/photographer, who is powerless to help, but who can show us these lives with utter clarity.
Hales returns to the bomb tests in a later poem, "Covenant: Atomic Energy Commission, 1950's," which examines in lyrical detail the physical effects of the tests as they ravage bodies, cows, and the food we buy and take "as if it were holy, into our flesh." In Separate Escapes it could be the bomb that violates our inner worlds, or the drive shaft of a Ford, as in "Approaching Intimacy: A War Story." Here, the narrator sees a news photograph of her brother's fatal car wreck, a photograph that conceals the body. She requests an open-casket service, but his condition "was left to the imagination." Still, the poet imagines the wreck in its minutiae and conjures the brother's life and the violence of the car part "ripping through / Metal and fabric and skin and bone," a validation that the inner and outer worlds are necessary to each other.
In "Exposure," the narrator recounts a story of childhood, walking to school every day past a house where an apparently disturbed boy stands naked at the door and points to his crotch. The meditation goes on to include anatomical drawings of bodies in encyclopedias and a dead body hanging from a gallows, luminous in the police photographer's flash. Always in Separate Escapes, memories warp into further strands of memory, images, and events woven carefully by a poet following threads towards some truth.
Hales' compelling obsessions culminate in the book's penultimate poem, "Sight." Here we are given a wandering eye that is sewn straight by doctors "for appearances only," an eye that "turned inward" might see something new "from such an inappropriate angle." The poem addresses the narrator's x-ray, a moment when she can see into herself to discover "that flesh has no real substance / The body no real depth."
"Sight" ends with two lovers staring wide-eyed at their bodies working the "magical dance in the small space between" them, hoping to see their way "clear to the source / Of the ambivalent connecting and separating / That defines our lives." The lines could be used as a description for Hales' remarkable poetic vision. Her poems are often long and ambitious, they have a large scope and a determination to bring all the threads together beautifully, to make some sense of the pain wrought on her characters and to achieve, in the end, a kind of justice and victory.