Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy

Beautiful Soul cover

Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy
| published June 21, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The poet’s best tool, arguably, is compression. It’s not the only device, but it’s the one which enables the writer of an effective poem to pack intensity and richness into so few words and so little space on the page—from the picturesque to the ordinary, from raw emotion to exposed wounds, from inner torment to bursting joy; anger, contentment, grace. The craft of creating density out of dust is a special skill for which the poet is imbued.

So what happens when a poet decides to write a novel? Joshua Corey’s novel Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy is an example of the art of density on a grander scale, and Corey’s gifts as poet can be experienced on nearly every page of this 369 page long poem. Corey takes a galaxy the size of the Milky Way and—defying the laws of physics, as all good poets should—squeezes it with a singular force into an object of great weight and gravity.

The language of Beautiful Soul is cinematic—not in the sense that Corey paints broad, deep-focus images, but rather in his liberal and often overt use of tradecraft language: composition and framing, perspective, lighting, reactions seen over shoulders, color or the lack thereof. Many passages read pleasingly like a film treatment, and still others turn inward and become the film critic’s own eye, and still others are told as an expression of cinematic devices—our narrators and other players caught in the act of moviemaking, shot by shot, scene by scene. And though there are sprinkled of references to the American—from Wacker Drive to the Hudson River—Corey fuses film noir with French and Czech new wave to evoke this 24-frame-per-second tone, and his multitude of European locations, from Paris to Vienna to Prague give the book the feel and mood of Truffaut, Goddard or Polanski.

The effect—which could have easily become tiresome in the hands of a less gifted writer, or at least provided proof that the novel could have existed instead as a series of poems—works, and works well. Though dense reading at times, its language of the film and its framing in cinematic vignettes direct us seamlessly toward the novel’s conclusion. And like a good cinematographer, Corey is able to neatly balance the meaningfully small objects and tightly measured gestures with the enormity and beauty of a larger, complex world filled with millions of souls.

For some Thursday Review readers, this novel’s extreme density and carefully measured heart-rate may be intimidating, even at times challenging. I would compare it—absurdly perhaps—to squeezing all of Middlemarch and To The Lighthouse into a book the size of Animal Farm. But, Corey’s work is well worth the effort. Through Corey's film lens Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy becomes a hundred long-form poems compressed deftly into the singularity known as the novel.

Corey is the author of several books of poetry, including Severance Songs (Tupelo Press) and Fourier Series (Spineless Books). To learn more go to: Joshua Corey

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein; book review by Kristy Webster; Thursday Review; December 13, 2014.

Paris is Always a Good Idea; book reviews by Sarah Herrin; Thursday Review; July 7, 2013.