Something Out There: Catherine Chandler’s This Sweet OrderJonathon Penny
A sonnet cycle is a rare thing, these days, and Catherine Chandler’s This Sweet Order, published in 2012 by White Violet Press, is notable enough for that. It is also a slender, delicate, quiet, amiable addition to the oeuvre—a charming macadam of sonnetry: Shakespearean in rhyme, modern in presentation of line, as plainspoken and surprised as Wordsworth.
I call it a sonnet cycle, which it is, but not strictly (fitting, this generic flex, for however many posts we are past modernism). The order is untidy, as is life, too scrappy and windblown to be a system, though not so much so as to be random. It is a cycle, then, because it pursues an idea, and each sonnet in the bunch looks into a cranny or a nook of a life in a world—dead-eyed or hopeful, joyous or resigned—for that idea.
The book opens with a “proem” (8), proclaiming Chandler’s love for the form itself: “I love the way its rhythms and its rhymes/provide us with a promise, a belief” (ln 1-2). But the proem also suggests the broader theme of the book taken as a whole, as a cycle of searching for the fulfilment of that promise, the validation of that belief: “Life’s unpredictability defies/clean denouement. I love the way it tries” (ln 13-14). Poetry, more specifically sonnetry, attempts an order—sweet and clean—against the apparent absence of order. It rummages about the felt and heard and seen for evidence of something hidden, bidden, built-in. And poetry finds it.
But there is another theme at work in these poems: that plain, familiar things—the stuff of Chandler’s sonnets—are sonnets themselves, and carry, if we’ll heft them, a weight of evidence we might easily misprize if we do not attend them as themselves. And so a road, a river, a rosary, a battered cardboard box, a tin, a jar, a bike, a doll, a weed, and a tumour are all more and less than symbol, are the stuff and structure of life, its order and its lack; are “singularities,” as Chandler calls them (34), that invite a revelation.
Of course, poems that seek out the material and forms of life and the origins of life in the normalest of things ought not to take themselves too seriously, despite the seriousness of their objective. Chandler tries a conversational, natural, and understated style that stops short of sardony and settles on a wry regard of self and a gesturing, not a moralizing, tendency. It works, in the main, except in a place or two where the running theme is overpowered by the pathos of a particular experience or image, one too serious to be treated blithely, and thus profoundly, through verse. “Missing” is one such place (14). Taken on its own, it moves, as it must; suggests a grief stripped down to normalcy and ritual, bereft of horror; contains a grief gone quiet. But popped in amongst the mundane objects and experiences that so delight the other poems, this one feels off somehow—too lilting for its object, too quaint for the power it otherwise wields.
There are compensations, sonnets that do the job of theorizing the book’s chief notion: “Setback” (21) moves a little better than “Missing” (cancer is, after all, commoner than kidnap). “Bottom of the Ninth” (15) ably pours a world of events into a newspaper read and then disregarded in preference for the simple Sabbath pleasures of a New York September. Here, the vicissitudes of politics and war are the banalities, and the simple joys of a puzzle, a comic, and a game are the central and foundational memes of a life lived over against and despite a hell-bent world. “Matroyshka” (16) pushes the idea further. Here, a Russian doll, the “pregnant outcast” of a yard sale, becomes a “tangible motif” of “women I had tried so long to trace” (ln 8-10), the genealogy of a symbol and of symbolic relations, and a symbol of that cyclic, relentless, essential turnover of the matriline.
The style of the poems is conversational (See “The Ovenbird” 24), allowing for surprises. The putting away of the crèche at Christmas, for instance, is the “family in flight” (“Spirit,” 17, ln 11), tantalizingly doubled. But the other doubling, the yoking of substantial and mundane objects, makes the sobre banal and the banal sobre: this is the real genius of the book. In some of the sonnets this genius is enlivened and let go: a doomsday domesticity pervades “Upheavals” (18), where an earthquake upends the roof and rhythm of the world, and children “guess/at Something Out There, which in time devours/the careful crust of uneventful hours” (ln 12-14). Other sonnets recognize that it is not always thus, that the something is usually veiled, and that normal objects are a “hedge against whatever else may come” (“In Nora’s Garden,” 19, ln 14). Either way, yard “a skirl of jays and crows,/someday it might show up” (“Henslow’s Sparrow,” 20, ln 13-14).
A gardener, Chandler reminds us, is a hapless, tender god of weeds and common difference, both “defiant” (“Dandelion,” 23, ln 14). So is a poet. A poet is a secondary creator at play in a Coleridgean bazaar, a little shop of wonders and “a thousand smithereens” (“Where All the Ladders Start,” 25, ln 7).
“Ladders” is brilliant. But where Chandler makes of objects metaphors for poems, as in “On a Line from Millay” (26) and “Writ” (28), she’s at her least interesting. We all shoot occasional blanks, poems that work too hard to generate conceit, but hers are pleasant blanks, better than innocuous. Speed bumps. Two of twenty-seven. “Vermont” (29) is a welcome return to form—simple pleasures, objects of concern, life: burial, blanketry, a deer dead doing its thing, turns at river bends, voltas. “And then there is The End, when all dimensions/may drop away into a hole as dark/as nought; . . . /[we] live for nothing less” (“Singularities,” 34, ln 9-11, 14).
“[M]ay drop away”; may not. “[M]ight show up”; might not. Even so, come, sparrow. This Sweet Order holds out its own uncertainty as a promise, and poetry as a covenant to believe and disbelieve, to hope and not to hope. It sounds for gardener gods in gaping canyons. It plumbs for the bottom. It strains to hear. It fails. I love the way it tries.
This Sweet OrderBy Catherine Chandler
White Violet Press (March 28, 2012)
ISBN-10: 061561342X; ISBN-13: 978-0615613420