Monday, September 5, 2016
Review which appeared in The Centrifugal Eye, Winter/Spring 2015:
Catherine Chandler’s Glad and Sorry Seasons
by Gram Joel Davies
There is a novel I love, Rainforest (Diski, 1987), in which a scientist goes crazy in her attempt to lay a grid of numbers over the jungle — metaphorical of all that seethes unconsciously within her. Writing, particularly poetry and its inspiration, is often characterized as being quite “wild.” There is a beast, a forest, within (or, so we are sometimes told). Frequently, seemingly unrelated observations pass in the course of a day, only to resurface hours, weeks, years later, coagulated into the perfect depiction of some truth, or even as analogies of one another. How does a writer do it?
Catherine Chandler opens Glad and Sorry Seasons with a tragic miscarriage, in “Coming to Terms.” Birth and death, the biggest themes, encapsulated at the outset. With a bit of effort, I have struggled to regain my familiarity with the conventions of form poetry, so involved have I become with free verse. The grid of meter, the hard corners turned by rhyme, at which Chandler is exquisitely precise — how can this square with the agony of loss? The poem’s title may reveal more than it first suggests.
Her crafted poetics are intelligent. You can feel the poet through these words. Often funny, impressively learned. There cannot be many writers who could pen a cento also in the form of a sestina, as in “The Bard,” entirely in the Shakespearean mode. And the sonnet becomes her, like a favorite suit of clothes.
As I say, over time I have slipped out of classic verse and gone naked through the waterfalls of free verse, forgetting in so doing how there is a “song” in every sonnet.
Now, in a frail voice, tremolo,
she whispers ‘pear’ as if it were
ineffable as petrichor.
~ “Heartwood,” Glad and Sorry Seasons
This heavenly reminder from my favorite and final section of Glad and Sorry Seasons encapsulates for me, perfectly, the music in poetry, how the story it tells rides on the frequency of a wave. It is a capacity Chandler can utilize, and does so early during the book, in “Two Poems of the Sea” (Part I, “The Dawning”). Her line, “And then the crash. The Undertow. The ache” culminates the piece’s mounting pulse with a timely gut-wrench.
The human voice has, of course, its own internal rhythms and consistencies, and there must always be a tension between the natural form and the imposed shape of music, a tension that has dramatic effect when sudden concordances occur. While “free-form” poetry relies strongly on the internal consistency of language and narrative (a quality I could liken to a waterfall or rivulet for the sense in which the language seems to pour itself through unseen strata in search of a pool, a rest, an equilibrium), meter takes a story and patterns it deliberately. When she tells us tales of worlds that fall apart, entropy at work (as Chandler often depicts in her poems), there is defiance, or hope, structured into her measured words by virtue of their form.
There might seem something anachronistic about a volume so concerted. Chandler’s themes, however, feel contemporary. Think perhaps of the “cheeky CEO” who rampages on a plane in “Ira.” In spite of that, readers might become aware of another tension at work, between what I might characterize as “nobility” of the past, and a sadness of the realized present. “Down. Down in history we go;” writes Chandler, “past anthracite, the colour of all woe.” She does not flinch, but the sadness is real.
Part II of Glad and Sorry Seasons is titled, accordingly, “Driving Back Shadows,” and it contains the triolet, “A Fieldstone Fence.” This old stone wall lasts across time to become scene for both ancient settler passing by, and now, poet-and-narrator mulling it. Not, therefore, so different in its conception to the triolet itself; or the sestina, or the sonnet. Constructions whose timelessness appeals to us for their own sake.
Maybe we need some things to stay the same. To view modern life through such ancient lenses matters. The classic forms of poetry have always been able to tell us stories, but there is a new quality to be found in comparing historic lives, told in verse, and modern lives recounted the same way. The form is a kind of control, a vantage. As a means of storytelling, it exists outside the changing fashions of cultural milieu. Chandler takes power from this, as well as reassurance.
Of unusual note is “The Lost Villages: Inundation Day.” Catherine Chandler may have stretched herself with this piece, which feels characteristically different from the rest. Principally a pantoum, the poem is memorial to homes destroyed by a planned industrial flood. I have always loved pantoums — not for their repetition, but for the surprise they create. Shifts in meaning seem to suggest the generative iterations of evolution. Chandler pushes these mutations faster, writing some quite radical deviations into the form. I am made to wonder whether the matter the poem itself deals with innately allows for what feels like a daring experiment for Chandler. Has contemplating a culture obliterated prompted her to sanction some erasure of tradition herself? Nevertheless, the piece's concluding cry of “Rising, rising . . . oh, how the water's rising” strays from naturalistic speech to a more archaic tone, as if to anchor the poem.
Her classicism is visible in other areas of her poems as well. A number of biblical quotes lace her work, and poems composed or launched from lines borrowed from others, such as a billowing illumination of one of Yeats’ quatrains in the glosa, “Críonnacht ,” all contribute to the learned feel Glad and Sorry Seasons has (the book’s title, of course, is Shakespearean). “The Oldest Sins” features seven witty sonnets exploring those ancient vices, which include Sloth and Gluttony, with a soft touch. These are far from scathing admonishments of human folly. In “Acedia,” (interestingly, classically the sin associated not with laziness but melancholy) the fate of the “puffed-up puppy/Twitter-texting yuppie” is sad: behind the scenes, beyond the pirouetting volta, we are privileged to experience his loneliness close-to; while the poem “Gula” makes a villain not of a Häagen-Dazs®-guzzling addict but the one behind her at the checkout, who will judge her shallowly. Beneath these hip expositions of up-to-the-minute living are archetypes which suggest, in human terms, an arcadian template still underlies nature, now as always.
In Part V — “A Smack of All Neighbouring Languages” — ten translations are made of French Canadian and Spanish American poets from approximately the turn of the last century. It might not be immediately apparent to readers these are translations, because the language, as in all Chandler’s verse, is so naturally housed in its meter and comfortable with its rhyme schemes. There is nothing rough or compromised in these pieces, which are perhaps uniquely “in between” — not quite in Chandler’s own voice nor neither quite that of their original author. The convention for taking much license with regard to the musicality of the final translation is deeply traditional. While it piques my curiosity as to what is subtracted, what is additional, the end result is diamond.
There are some pitfalls for the modern reader of Glad and Sorry Seasons . . . for me, at least. Chandler phrases her work in an abundantly ready style, easy on the ear and often conversational, so make no mistake there, it would be wrong to create any impression that reading her poetry feels stuffy. She is a delight — for her ability to take on the persona and voice of so many characters — a real storyteller not locked into an idiosyncratic perspective. Nor will every reader experience a jolt from the ever-present substrate of Form; and, though it must be said that in much of her writing, the author is conspicuous by her very erudite art, it is not this which poses risk. Only, it is that there is very little that is truly postmodern here. Unlike the novel I mentioned in the first paragraph, whose pretext is that madness lies in craving uniform structures that can underpin or overlay life’s teeming, Chandler suggests the platonic belief in perfect forms; a universal metronome; the pulse of God. The difference between them is an act of repression and one of expression.
Chandler’s is an assertion of human hope which does harken back to a philosophy of a bygone year. It needs faith. “Coming to Terms” could almost be seen as a manifesto at the book’s outset, a grappling with life and death that, no matter how estranged from God its protagonist feels, still solves its own anguish via its artistry. Chandler admires Charles Baudelaire in “Ragbag,” for “straining to hold what tidy lives discard,” that this might “permit a vision that transcends the pool / of vomit.” This is what a sonnet does, she tells us. Perhaps this accretion of sense out of fragments underlies all our needs for stories.
The “wild” inspiration of the poet is a misnomer; the unconscious adores a coming-together of things and a writer plumbs its capacity for finding pattern where nature fails to provide. All art puts angles around the unframed, says, “look at it this way.” What appears chaotic, the forest, is itself a triumph of life over nothingness. As Chandler puts it, “All roads lead to Rome / from shared beginnings in the tidal pools.” It is done by effort, by sheer trying. Not the discovery of mythic order, but its making and remaking, as people, with their stories, have always strived to do.
Editor’s Note: And you can learn more about Catherine Chandler by revisiting TCE’s August 2009 Featured Poet Interview in our Unbidden issue: http://issuu.com/centrifugaleye/docs/tceaug09-unbidden/8