Lines of Flight
By Catherine Chandler
One of the things that poetry—when it’s very good—does better than anything else is to suggest conflicting things at the same time and confront the reader with the possibility that both may be true. This book, which is extraordinarily good, does that to perfection.
Poem after poem, in dark, intelligent observations of human experience, demonstrates the “inexorable slaughter” that underlies life, while simultaneously noting that the slaughter is also “rational,” and that, as in a poem titled “Lost and Found,” some things do balance out, if only haphazardly:
A key, a button, a leather glove.
A friend to cancer, a voice to grief.
An old belief.
An arrowhead, a perfect shell.
The first bluebell.
The river’s source, a taste for ink.
Hope, I think.
Catherine Chandler achieves the double vision conveyed by this list not by being duplicitous, but by acknowledging—and trying hard to accept—the duplicitousness of experience itself, the inevitable damage that reality works on our lives, and our hopeless and hopeful attachment to the world in which that damage takes place.
And what a great deal of damage these poems record: personal losses, political, inevitable and accidental “disappearances,” the scars left by history under the green fields of home, the carnage to which the Vietnam Memorial, among so many, bears witness. Even our dreams, the poet suggests, flash us warnings as to the untrustworthiness of apparent safety. Even our joys—the pleasures of rearing children, for instance—are laced with risks, risks made real in such poems as “Cinquefoil,” in which delicate flower imagery is blended with family history to describe how a daughter, after “her lilac love had passed away,”
came home, crossed out her summer wedding day,
chopped off her hair. Faded to grey.
How can a mother’s store of moss and cress
soften the hell
of marigold and asphodel?
There are comforts too, of course, if only the temporary joy of a family gathering, the unquestioning love of an old dog, or the speaker—the poet in the role of shopper, in “Fatuity”—refusing to apologize for the unwise purchases she knowingly makes at the supermarket of her daily life. In fact, Catherine Chandler implies that the most reliable and sustaining comfort available may be the poet’s gift for that kind of “shopping,” and for making what she can out of the contents of that disorderly junkshop “where all the ladders start.”
That graceful bow to Yeats is not her only acknowledgment of poets who matter to her: there are hints of Emily Dickinson in her sharp observations and crisp imagery, especially in the natural scenes depicted in the book’s second division, “Lion’s Tooth.” There are also insightful references to the lives of women authors, an epigraph from Lorca, and poems addressed to Robert Frost and Deborah Warren.
The double thread that runs through the work of the poets she clearly loves, and through her own, is clear-eyed understanding and acceptance of this world, whatever its shortcomings. Her shapely, gorgeous, musical use of formal patterns—terza rima, the ovillejo, rondeau, pantoum, sonnet and villanelle, to name a few—suggests a loving pursuit of created order, and maybe even a belief—or a desire to believe—in its existence outside of art. In “To the Lightning Bug,” the poem from which the book’s title is drawn, the poet celebrates that which escapes the common daily destruction that is ordinary life, and finds pleasure in the way we seem to hope for that escape, as if our very hope for it somehow made us, also, provisionally free.
“Her Massive Sandal,” whose title is drawn from Millay’s sonnet xlv, seems to applaud the mathematical approach to reality, the wholly objective basis for aesthetics that led Millay to claim that “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.” The sandal belongs to the Muse, who apparently brooks no nonsense. In her own poem, Chandler assures the reader that neither does she:
I’d rather write that one plus one is two.
My stance on faith? Euclidean foursquare—
an abstract God is (n)either here (n)or there,
and as for love, it can be false or true.
And yet in “Henslow’s Sparrow,” she softens her stance to this:
The Henslow’s sparrow lives among the sedge…
Or so they say; for I have yet to spy
the shy, elusive bird, or hear its song
except in Audubon recordings. I
admit to shaky faith, but play along.
And though my yard’s a skirl of jays and crows,
someday it might show up. One never knows.
We’re not told whether the speaker’s “playing along” is rewarded by the bird’s appearance, or by anything at all. Nevertheless, the poet closes her book with a yearning reference to “One who loves,” and adds, “I live for nothing less.” There is a possibility implied by those words that almost heals the ache they create, and makes the reader wish to be persuaded. But persuaded or not, I love this book, and know that I will return to it again and again—for both the possibility and the ache.