Lines of Flight
by Catherine Chandler
Able Muse Press 2011
Reviewed by: Richard Wakefield
Whatever else our brains do – or our hearts, if you prefer a more figurative view – they seem as ineluctably dedicated to reading meaning into the world as our lungs are evolved to separate oxygen from air. It’s as natural as breathing, this process of seeing things in the fourth dimension of significance. Call it the confluence of the outer and inner worlds.
Catherine Chandler is one of the skilled and discerning few who help us navigate the resulting stream. In place of the fragments of meaning glimpsed by most of us most of the time, Chandler gives us a coherent view of the course along which we speed. The view sometimes enlarges us, makes us more at home in the world, and at others forces us to look a little more soberly at the vast and frightening void toward which we are hurled.
In “66” she contemplates a coincidence of toponymy: “Along Route 66, connected by / a six-mile stretch of road, two towns align; / one bears his family name, the other mine.” A charming bit of chance, it seems, a bit of geography that reflects an emotional connection, the kind of thing we might notice and recall as an anecdote. But Chandler traces its meaning far beyond the trivial. “The decommissioned highway’s gone to hell,” she continues, and the fading connection between the two towns becomes a metaphor for the complex ambivalence of human relationships. The road connects; the road separates. We find that we and those we love inhabit “universes spinning parallel.” That may not be the meaning we wanted, but it’s more true to experience than the facile sentimentality we might have preferred.
Someone noted once that poetry gives us tools for living. A poem like “66” does exactly that, nudging us out of complacency and into an awareness that will better serve us. The poem acknowledges the separateness that we work so hard to ignore, and yet, paradoxically, it makes us a little less alone by assuring us that we are not alone in our loneliness.
What better occasion for sentimentality than Mother’s Day? And what can be more oppressive than the narrow, mass-produced emotions that holidays can impose on us? In “Mother’s Day” Chandler opens a woman’s heart to reveal wounds that the woman herself cannot express; in fact, as she weeps, the tyranny of expectations makes others blind to the real meaning of her tears. There must be no more profound loneliness than that. We understand the woman better than those closest to her, and perhaps we understand ourselves and our own loved ones a little better for it.
“Supernova” begins by asking why we should “dull” the beauty of nature with “a lapse to metaphor / or scientific fact, or myth.” A telling word, that “lapse.” Our need to analyze, to probe beneath the surface of beauty, can feel like a fall from grace (perhaps it was that very need that drove Eve to eat the forbidden fruit which, after all, was from the tree of knowledge). At the conclusion of three stanzas that seem to celebrate the “burnished afternoon” in preference to what she will later call “logic, reason, purpose, cause,” the poet asks, “Why resort to words / when hush will do?” The answer comes in the second half of the poem, where we learn that the speaker has come to scatter a loved-one’s ashes: “…I find / it’s easier to release you, as I must, / less harrowing by far, / knowing that all human dust / was once a star.” How do we live through loss? The Book of Common Prayer, with its “dust to dust,” assures us that our senses get it wrong when we see mortal remains as mere elemental dust; science, teaching us that all elements had their origins in the fires of supernovas, assures us that there is nothing “mere” about dust. Either way, our consolation – dare we say our salvation? — comes in our ability to see more than motes.
A big part of a writer’s inner life is, of course, literature. It is no surprise to find that the meaning Chandler finds in the world is informed in part by her wide reading, just as there’s no doubt that her own poetry will become part of many readers’ inner lives. The epigraph to “Journey” comes from Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” a poem about how memory conditions our view of what we care deeply about: “We love the things we love for what they are.” What they are, inevitably, is a palimpsest, one impression written over another and over yet another – the sum of our experience of them.
“New Hampshire Interval” pays explicit homage to Frost. At the farm to which Frost returned after his desperate (and successful) quest for recognition in England, Chandler sees the tangible objects, “his Morris chair,” “the woodstove,” “the frosted trees” he tapped for maple sugar (delightful trope, that “frosted"), and she sees them all transformed by her knowledge of Frost’s life and work, hears him “speaking to God about the world’s despair.” Just as Frost himself wrote meaning into the landscape, Chandler writes another page of her own, and for us.
“Vermont Passage” also transforms a landscape, describing the profuse flowers of summer that linger in memory after summer gives way to cold: “I breathe in honeyed memories of clover, / and winter, for a while at least, is over.” We live in two worlds, or many worlds: the literal “bitter night” of winter, along with our memory of what was, which is also our expectation of what will be. Chandler gives texture to the flat world. If there’s any truth to the cliché that poetry reminds us to stop and smell the roses, Chandler’s poetry reminds us that we can also revel in the smells and sights that linger in our recollection. It is the remembered roses we smell most poignantly.
“Lines of Flight” ranges far and deeply. The poems display a craft that is all the more impressive for the way it never distracts us from the scene but, rather, adds a dimension of music and, yes, memorable texture.
Catherine Chandler, an American poet born in New York City and raised in Pennsylvania, completed her graduate studies at McGill University in Montreal, where she has lectured in the Department of Languages and Translation for many years. She is the winner of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. Her poems, interviews, essays and English translations from French and Spanish have been published in numerous journals and anthologies in the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia.