Exquisite Corpse is a method of rough assemblage invented by the Surrealists, in which collaborators sequentially string words or pictures together to form a novel whole. If you’re looking for ways to celebrate April as Poetry Month, why not host an Exquisite Corpse Party?
You’ll find that the element of obfuscation is part of the joy, as players are only given partial slices of information or fixed rules as prompts when their turn comes up. Untethered by a view of where the overall composition is headed, each contributor’s imagination is freed to range and roam far beyond the norm. With each rotation, what can’t be seen grows exponentially more intriguing. It’s as if the blinders spur (rather than hinder) creativity. A restricted view serves to break habits by eliminating the distraction of expectation and norm.
Who knew? We featherless bipeds don’t usually like feeling like we’re looking at life through a peep hole. We customarily rage against the unknown, the imperceptible, the inexplicable. The grace of a great poem is that it confesses this weakness and redeems the desire that drives it. The very intangibility of poetic content humanizes both it and us.
Tenderness takes wing in a poem’s white space — in the places where we pause to breathe, oxygenating our own blood with its sounds and sacred rhythms. If you would, please try this. Let’s play our own version of Exquisite Corpse. Listen to some lines from David Sanders’ lovely new collection Compass & Clock. Let them inhabit the white space of your imagination and carry your mind somewhere it hadn’t planned to go.
“The news is brought by a ball of birds— / a molecule gaining number knowing, somehow,” from “The Lake”
“…And she asked, as from another / life, as he sat gazing out, to be taken home” from “He Was Once”
“This is no brilliant, double world / of dreams, only the semblance of one.” from “Day Trip”
Let these nibbles serve as appetizers for part two of your Poetry Month celebration. Don’t deny yourself the full feast of Sanders’ verse. Compass & Clock serves elegant and satisfying poems from the everyday ingredients of human experience. Like Phillip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, even the most mundane disappointments and details engender a melancholy that replaces the proclivity to judge with the yen to understand. We need more things in this world that do so.
Take the poem “Dick’s Island”, which contains the image from which the collection takes its name. It describes a couple on bicycles, who’ve come to an island in its high season to see the migration of Monarch butterflies. They encounter a scruffy old-timer whom the tourist board would clearly love to evict from his cluttered home. Rather than succumb quietly to displacement, the man has strewn all the seemingly worthless things he’s spent a lifetime hoarding across the lawn on a main tourist by-way. Amidst this unbidden scene, the couple look up to find the vision they did seek: “….the deliberate orange butterflies, all compass and clock”.
Compass and clock. People have plans. People set deadlines. Old men and young tourists all crave beauty. But, as each human history proves, the expected is not the actual. The poem ends with the couple “straddling for balance” and endeavoring to keep going. The road is only forward, never straight.
The best poetry gestures at corresponding truths beyond surface reality. In a very fine nod to the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the bird of Sanders “Picture Window” crashes into glass, blinded by the false reflection of a cloudless horizon. Generously, Sanders leaves it to us to resuscitate the exquisite corpse of the soaring feathered dreamer from the page, and fill it with new life.
Happy reading, exquisite you.