Only So Far (Review Series #5)

My reviews for Image Journal appear each month in ImageUpdate.

Questions of Unfulfilled Longing
Only So Far by Robert Cording

When we’re turned away at the thousandth mile, having traveled 999 before it—when our labors of love never reach consummation—when we can’t get no satisfaction—well, what do we get instead? Robert Cording’s collection Only So Far poses this question from its very first poem, “Kafka’s Fence”: “Haven’t we / always known we’d reach an end we couldn’t complete, /  the promised land a step away, still unreachable?” From there, Cording mines the thoughts of a motley (and century-spanning) crew of human beings. The poet’s father, who “gave up dreams early on,” has a two-word answer: “Want less.” In “Essence,” Lucinda Williams yearns for a lover in “half sob, half sigh” while Teilhard de Chardin insists our yearnings are “aimed / at an Omega Point that drew us / not just onwards, but upwards….” In “The Field,” a pondering Augustine harrows for a harvest of “happiness he knew was surely real”; in “The Beginning,” a crowd of men hollers lustily at the screen in a dirty movie theater, never satisfied with what the actress reveals. All of these poems are pellucid and easy to enter, even as the question they ask—what we do when we’re allowed “only so far”—contains enough difficulty for a lifetime. Eventually, Cording turns his eye to those who have mastered the art of claiming the consolation prize: sunset-gazers who take pleasure in “a saucer of light / we lap like cats”; the painting-restorer who finds peace in his anonymous niche. Even at the penultimate mile marker, Cording seems to say, we may find gleanings of satisfaction. The final poem, “No-Name Pond,” finds the poet in the role of “restorer” himself—“putting back / a few stones tumbled by time” in a pond full of little cairns—and content to be so: “it was good to be here, / to watch flycatchers and kingbirds, / a heron that kept flying off / and circling back to the place it left.” No human is exempt from the pain of unfulfilled longing, and readers who feel its pangs will find comfort in these pages.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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