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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Guest Review: Smith On Chase

Barbara Smith reviews
Not Many Love Poems
by Linda Chase

Sometimes it can be refreshing to read a poetry collection without prejudice. By that, meaning that one knows nothing previously about the poet: there is just the poetry to go on. Perhaps that is the way one should read poetry, but sometimes it can be difficult to disengage expectations – Paul Muldoon’s work springs to mind, with his unusual, surprising word choices.

In the case of Not Many Love Poems, by Linda Chase, reading blind pays off handsomely. Here is a collection of strong work, well crafted that reels us in and shows us songs of experience and innocence and every poem encountered is a layer within the whole, making the collection a bittersweet delight: more on the bittersweet later.

This collection is split three ways: I Many Love Poems, II Kisses and Harps and III Our Lives. The first section’s poems look back to an earlier time: songs of innocence layered with the benefit of experience: or is it? Somehow, Chase manages to capture the emotions of the times. For example, on the cusp of attaining adolescence, of obtaining the experiences that build forward into adulthood, she subtly explores these gradual changes in form, as the end of ‘One Summer Night’ shows:

Our holding hands
was not the start of more elaborate plans.
It was the only thing we wanted then,
connecting worlds of women and men.

Chase is really good at getting inside the emotion of the past and expressing it in the present, without preloading the present’s cynicism or jaundice. She almost fulfils that idea of recollecting emotion in tranquillity – thinking back to how strongly one begins to feel emotions when entering adolescent-hood, wanting to be ‘cool,’ but wanting to be one’s own person.

Her subtlety comes across again, in the ‘The Word for It’ where in the heat of rising desire the climax cleaves away from expression:
she has no idea about anything
which could be said in any words she knows
or in any words she used to know.

This idea that language has a cut-off point at which it cannot convey emotional and sensual overload or intensity is an interesting one, explored by many poets. But rather than leave the reader with an ellipsis or use some clich├ęd received expression for climax, or the aftermath of sex, Chase pushes language forward until she obtains this nugget:

all she wants to do is hide her shotgun face
in the crook of his arm forever.

That image of a fired shotgun, smoke from the barrel caught in a millisecond, overlaid as metaphor works better than any/all descriptions of facial grimaces the human face is capable of making, or indeed, ever could.

These poems of past link to each other nicely, each speaking forwards and backwards to each other, with hints of history brought from one to another: ‘Airstream Bubble Trailer’ speaks to ‘The Tao tells me to go on loving you’ (not as cloying as the title might suggest). This gives us a real sense of depth, which makes the next section, ‘Kisses and Harps’ very effective, almost heart-breaking when we begin to realise what is happening to Chase.

‘Kisses and Harps’ changes tone completely, moving into an exploration of diagnosis and a future sentence. This part of the collection really calls to mind Marin Sorescu’s farewell to life, ‘The Bridge’. Sub-divided, the ‘Kisses’ section documents the process of cancer as a series of medical procedures, and reactions to them. These are never self-pitying, rather they seem pragmatic as in ‘Primary Colours’:

so she resigned herself to let her body
stain its every process in the hope
of outwitting it, getting there first.

Like Sorescu, Chase can be wry and yet wrangle humour from the situation as an imagined market survey in ‘Ticks and Kisses’ shows:

‘Amputation’ is not a good subject
for poetry. That’s what most people think
who were surveyed at a seaside resort last week.

But Chase then moves the mood on to sombre and reflects loss without resorting to haranguing: she goes on to let the objects, or lack of in the poem, do the talking:

The place on the chest where a breast
once was is not a topic which attracted
any ticks at all. Nor kisses, nor caresses.

From her medical experiences, Chase gets some of her most choice expressions, and she is aware of the irony. In ‘Non-Poetics’ she again explores the notion of anti-poetry:

Moist desquamation
is not sexy as it sounds
The skin has thinned
and begun to weep.
I admire its honesty,
restraint from simile.

‘Harps’ one could take to mean the time after treatment and before dying, when you are getting on with things in as much as you can: how you can still relate to life, even though life is leaving you. Having seen a recent documentary on the life and death of Irish writer, Nuala O’Faolain (who died very rapidly in 2008 from cancer), I am struck by how Chase really wants to enjoy and not number her final days, as ‘Candour’ shows:

Time makes all the days too real
and no one wants to count them
numberless, glorious, blessed.

When O’Faolain found out in early 2008 just how little time she had left she commented that she felt as though all the good had been taken out of life – a brave statement to make public – but a controversial one. She undertook a radio interview that explored how she felt about dying; one that proved to open many doors into this most private of experiences. O’Faolain decided to make the most of her final weeks and rather than fight a battle that could not be won, she wanted to enjoy what she could. Chase makes the same commitment through her work but refers back in other poems to previous experiences of another’s death, which seems to have helped prepared her for what is to come. ‘Dying’, or death is someone known, if not a friend, in this haunting first line from the same titled poem: “Dying wakes you up quietly, wafting / into your nostrils...”

Still Chase’s wryness doesn’t leave her. In ‘Harp in the Sick Room’, for which this section is named, she tells us how

‘the Harpist just gets on with it –
letting the music come to her
out of thin air into her fingers
as the rest of us wonder about

chickens and eggs and cause
and effect and rushing in
like fools to grab paradise
by the balls for our beloved.

The last section ‘Our Lives’ can seem almost colourless after the mid-section, precisely because of its harrowing trajectory. However there are many more gems in here, such as the evocation of a former teacher in ‘Winter on Long Island’, with the repetition of ‘when’ opening each spare stanza until the final ‘then’ of the last stanza:

When my brother died, you lifted the night sky
with rumblings of verse, blue-knuckled and shattering.

Then the headlong moon bundled me down the street
till all I could hear was the ringing of bells inside me.

The closing short poem ‘Better’ evokes a dawn where the ‘sun /cracks the whole day/ onto a plate, / yoke stunning itself / in a rich clear mass / of promises. This is as rich a dish of plenty to end the book on as any.

So it was that I discovered while reading this collection that Linda Chase had endured the same type of death as O’Faolain, from cancer. It is a hard thing for the living to write about the largest elephant in any room, death, because we normally never see it coming from the close range that Sorescu, O’Faolain and Chase have. I am honoured to have known Linda Chase through her work. I only wish I had known her in life.

Barbara Smith was a recent reader at the Oxfam Spring into Poetry series last year in London. A first collection, Kairos, was published in 2007. Her work has been shortlisted and awarded prizes, such as at Scotland’s Wigtown Poetry Competition 2009 and the Basil Bunting Award 2009. She is busy proofing a second collection, The Angel's Share, due in May.
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