Catherine Chandler's Poetry Blog

REVIEW: Janet McCann on THE FRANGIBLE HOUR



The Frangible Hour, Poems, by Catherine Chandler (The University of Evansville Press, 2016)

The Frangible Hour is a delight to read, especially for those who appreciate formal poetry.  The book seems an especially appropriate choice for the Richard Wilbur Prize, as the poet, like Wilbur, is a master of forms, and the poems are infused with a metaphysics that makes of the natural world a luminous place.  Not that the poems are always upbeat, but the spiritual dimension is always present.

Catherine Marie Chandler was born in New York City and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She holds a Master of Arts from McGill University. Chandler has lectured at McGill for many years and also held the post of International Affairs Officer.  Her previous books include Lines of Flight, This Sweet Order, and Glad and Sorry Seasons; this new collection, The Frangible Hour, is the winner of the 2016 Richard Wilbur Award.

The poems offer us a full palette of forms, and it is fun to recognize them all, the sonnets, pantoums, ballads, ghazals, rimas dissolutas, triolets, and so forth.  But her use of form is flexible and not intrusive.  Form does not bully sense into compliance, but rather creates a barely heard melody behind the meditation or observation.  She uses pleasing off-rhymes and the rhythms are never metronome-like.  When forms have both loose and tight definitions, she uses the looser one—the ghazal for instance for purists has a lot of rules, but she follows only the more basic ones.  The music forms a counterpoint to the expected grammatical flow of the sentence. There is a wry humor in some of the poems and this too fits the patterns she chooses.

Science and math inform the poems, noticeable even in the titles. Footnotes at the end fill in some of the complicated bits, but happily the reader does not need them to intuitively grasp the poem. In fact, the accessibility of the poems is part of their appeal.  One poem is described as “a Fibonacci sonnet with ostensible mathematical references to the Argand Diagram and Huygens’s Principle of Diffraction,” but we do not need this information to appreciate the poem. There are words we may not know but their sense is usually telegraphed by their content. The epigraphs are well-chosen, also, from the Bible to Robert Frost to newscasts; they intrigue and direct. Sometimes they refer to the incidents that generated the poetry, as in the short poem “Exhuming Neruda,” which shows her command of metrics and her ironic wit.

“Poet’s story becomes a murder mystery: Chile exhumes Pablo Neruda’s remains.”
                                    --CNN headline, April 10, 2013
At Isla Negra, Neftalí, you sang of joy and pain,
of poverty, Matilde, birds, of artichokes and rain.

And once at Isla Negra, they searched each corner of
your hideaway, but all they found was bread and wine and love.

And now at Isla Negra, they are digging up your bones,
they’ll fly them to the capital, then rearrange the stones.

At Isla Negra, Neftalí, far from the abattoirs,
a leaf drifts to the earth amid the keen of grass and stars.

Chandler’s images create a natural world that is frightening but must be seen in the context of faith.  The imagery in “Wherein the Snow is Hid” to this reader recalls Sylvia Plath’s “Point Shirley,” as the picture and rhythms seem to echo the Plath poem. The poem begins

along potholed ruelles, plowed rough and high,
lie last December’s snows
with jagged firn from months when I,
in numb goodnight,
have curled up in the company of crows.

Nature is bleak and threatening, offering the chance of eternal winter.  The speaker concludes, though, that

                                       …I know the pond will bloom,
The wild geese will return.  They always do.
And so it is I cope
with winter. For although it’s true
one’s fear of God
At times might rule out razor, river, rope,

hope holds me here, ludicrous and odd,
valuing March above
July’s colossal verdant fraud,
because a mass
of freeze-thaw scree bears witness to a love

that once approached the melting point of glass.

Indeed the poem seems to answer Plath’s, whether intentionally or not—the passage of time and seasons does not prove the meaninglessness of the individual life, as in Plath’s poem, but in a strange way affirms it.

The book is divided into five sections,  and includes poems about nature, faith, the inhabitants of a small town, plants and herbs, glimpses of a Catholic childhood, loss of a father, and near-loss of a daughter—especially persuasive are those about her daughter’s near death from an aneurysm.

In this collection, form and meaning are so welded that the rhythms still repeat after the reader has closed the book, keeping their message in memory.  The Frangible Hour is an inspiring book, especially for those who seek the metaphysical within the physical.

Janet McCann’s work has been published in the Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou’wester, America, Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, New York Quarterly, Tendril, and others.  A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969-2016, and is now Professor Emerita. She has co-edited anthologies with David Craig, Odd Angles of Heaven (Shaw, 1994), Place of Passage (Story Line, 2000), and Poems of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Most recent poetry collection: The Crone at the Casino (Lamar University Press, 2014).

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