Joel Chace, Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems
BlazeVOX Books, 2007
Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems contains works published between 1984 and 2007—a span of twenty-three years, during which Chace’s work has undergone a significant transformation from a more traditional approach to language (narratives, lyrical descriptions with symbolic significance, and psychological investigations of the family romance), to radically disjunctive work that trains language’s eyes and ears onto its own phenomenon. The early works are skillful and astute, as in “Paper World,” which describes a scene of parents and children reading the Sunday morning newspaper:
The young ones fixed their eyes on the walls of print stretched above them
and on the knuckles and knees of their parents.
The young ones waited for the next moment
when from their separate, unknowing rapture
their parents, unknowing, would send them ecstasies, gifts,
when the first sheet, the first piece of the packet
would be flung above their heads,
discarded, set free and drifting; the mother, the father moving through the packet,
the paper world.
The unwitting delight and desire of the parents as they fling the “discarded . . . remnants” of printed words that flutter around the heads of the children speaks to a passing of knowledge, however conscious or unconscious, from parent to child. But the children have their own witting or unwitting designs on language as they “mov[e] on their own voices” as “each child make[s] a story.” The tension between the overarching shelter of language, of the communal “crazy city of tents” that the fallen newspapers resemble, and the private narratives that individuals concoct from that common fabric engenders a dance between the two in which the common joins the private life to express it and, once expressed, rejoins the communal linguistic pool.
It is with ” o-d-e” that Chace succeeds in allowing the language of the poem to loosen its descriptive and narrational imperative that “squeeze[es] until it hurts” and to approach the condition of music through the repetition, re-formation, and contextual recombination of word-motifs: “leavened parchment” is elsewhere “leaving / for the parched / world” and “sleeves / floating / in this floating world” is later “scarves that / dangle or / float / in the dance.” Chace’s “o-d-e” is a lament suffused with meditations on the departure of one ”whose / leaving / shattered / divine / hours.” The departed one is “leaving / for the parched / world” by a cab (Charon?) that can “bear away.” But now there is “no more / bearing / away” and “no more / suffering” from “the / stings” and the “cancelled / goals” The self in the poem is a ghostly presence whose life is fragmentary and ephemeral; it is represented metonymically by floating scarves and sleeves, shoulders, faces, one’s “long / song,” waves in the ocean, dancing, and dreaming. The rhythmical repetition of these and other words enacts the conflation of being with doing, invoking the last line from Yeats’ “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In a similar vein, Chace asks the rhetorical questions “how can we / know more / suffering” (which resonates with the ambiguity of “no / more suffering”); “how / can we know / our feet from the / flower path our / selves from / song / the line from / life / snow on parchment from / the key . . . whose / leaving / will / break / this trance.”
Thus “o-d-e” enacts the cycle of life and death. Life resides among the “high doors” and “upper rooms” where ghostly selves of scarves and sleeves float along a “flower path” suffering and desiring (“wanna / gotta”). Something transcendentally divine bears life away from these high places down to the “rainstreets” where cabs await to bear souls to the other side, like Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx to the underworld. The Yeatsian questions, then, seem to investigate the merging of self and symbol, of presence and absence, of not ceasing to dream while living and of being “reclaimed / by / rainstreets” when the “leaving / will / break / this trance.” The cycle is also a dance between the two states in which the dead are “washed up” as “al / lu / vi / al” soil and also “floating / in the parched world,” reclaimed yet remembered, “always with us.”
“o-d-e” and other earlier works in which Chace’s linguistic epiphany establishes a new approach for him, a pattern emerges in which fairly short, lyrical poems create a series in which recurring themes emerge.
For my money, it is in the last two sections of the collection, “faints gods” and “terrible thread” that Chace comes into his own as a seasoned and mature poet. The poems of these two series focus a spotlight on those subtle, momentary thoughts that must be stranger than we believe, since they are often so quickly erased from memory. The word that comes to mind for the philosophical concerns of many of these poems is “anti-doctrinal.” I like the way these poems blend the ordinary and the sublime and echo their thematic and philosophical issues.