Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

The confessional as poetry’s play within a play: on Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana

Matthew Stewart

Deeply personal collections, packed with poems that narrate break-ups and emotional turmoil, tend to encourage the reader to narrow the distance between the poet and the lyrical ‘I’ to nothing, especially in light of the recent trend for viewing poetry as self-expression and self-discovery. And at first glance, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana’s first collection, Sing Me Down From the Dark (Salt Publishing, 2022), with its stories of international marriage and divorce, might seem a candidate for such pigeonholing.

However, in Corrin-Tachibana’s case, a closer reading lends extra nuance, as in the curiously titled ‘This is a Confessional Poem’, which begins as follows:

I am guilty, as I watch you on the screen, of homing
in on your higgledy-piggledy teeth, with gaps
you could park a lorry between. And as you talk
of your Go-Bra-Less, radical feminist daughters,
I think that won’t do their boobs any good…

The poem’s title is significant. To start with, Corrin-Tachibana seems to be recognising the confessional nature of her poetry. Or is she? The listing of awkward details suggests that these are characteristic of a so-called confession, but they’re also self-consciously self-conscious (sic), as if playing a game or a role, as if undermining that very title.

And then there is a second, implicit question. If the poem in question is to be labelled “confessional”, what about all the other poems in the collection that aren’t titled as such? Does this mean they are somehow less confessional, more unreliable, more fictional in nature? There is a strong argument that while Corrin-Tachibana has reduced the distance between poet and narrative voice throughout Sing Me Down From the Dark, she’s also aware that this near-merging of the two is false. ‘I’ is a lie, and she knows it, as is shown once again with another terrifically-titled poem, ‘The day I tell you I had no knickers on when the Sainsbury’s man called’. Here are the opening lines:

we laugh, and I want more of this.
I want more of kicking up
my peep-toe heels, holding hands
in fields, as elderly scouts
go by with rambling staffs
and appreciative looks. I want more
of your bookishness. Your love
of Almodóvar scripts:
you can’t smell or taste success!

The key component of that title is the verb ‘tell’. It’s casting implicit doubt on the so-called veracity of the whole poem, asking us to wonder whether it’s fact or fiction. And then, by extension, it’s probing the concept of truth. To start with, there’s the inherent possibility that what happened might well not be as true as what a poem tells us. And then there’s the question of what did actually happen anyway, which can never be clear cut, as stories and histories inevitably become subjective as soon as they’re recounted.

In these poems, Corrin-Tachibana is reminding us that truth isn’t absolute, while underlining once more that poetic truth (as in the creation of an authentic world within the poem) isn’t the same thing as the facts. In doing so, she’s yoking all these accumulated details and supposed anecdotes (which might or might not have taken place) to her poetry’s emotional core.

One key point is Corrin-Tachibana’s acute awareness of the poem as artistic artefact rather than as an object that exists purely at the service of the poet’s own self-expression and sense of self-worth. This quality lifts Sing Me Down From the Dark out from the melee of contemporary poetry. It’s written with a reader in mind – something which might be assumed, but which is often relegated by numerous contemporary poets to an afterthought.

What’s more, Corrin-Tachibana’s direct addressing of the issue of confessional poetry feels timely. As mentioned above, her collection highlights again that I is a lie, while also differentiating between truth and poetic truth. But its theatrical overtones of dramatic monologue lead us on to further questions that resonate outwards from her book. Is the term ‘confessional’ the poetic equivalent of a play within a play? Can we renew our approach to deeply personal work (both as readers and as poets) if we reassess the relationship between the poet and the poem…?