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.
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
It was the only thing we wanted then,
connecting worlds of women
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
Her subtlety comes across again, in the ‘The Word for It’ where
in the heat of rising desire the climax cleaves away from expression:
no idea about anything
which could be said in any words she knows
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 clichéd received expression for climax, or the aftermath
of sex, Chase pushes language forward until she obtains this nugget:
wants to do is hide her shotgun face
in the crook of his arm forever.
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.
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’:
resigned herself to let her body
stain its every process in the hope
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
‘Amputation’ is not a good subject
for poetry. That’s what
most people think
who were surveyed at a seaside resort last week.
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
The place on the chest where a breast
once was is not a topic
any ticks at all. Nor kisses, nor caresses.
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
is not sexy as it sounds
The skin has
and begun to weep.
I admire its honesty,
‘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
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
Still Chase’s wryness doesn’t leave her. In ‘Harp in the
Sick Room’, for which this section is named, she tells us how
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
and effect and rushing in
like fools to grab paradise
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
Then the headlong moon bundled me down the street
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
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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