by Maxine Chernoff & Arda Collins, respectively
Apogee Press 2009 / Yale University Press 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
A God Playing the Fool
I know it’s cheap to use Louise Glück’s expected introductory praise to bash Arda Collins’s first collection It Is Daylight, but this is all part of the System, and I find it symptomatic; Glück is the judge of the Yale Younger Poets Series, after all. I will try to balance my initial misgivings by making this review a 2-fer with Maxine Chernoff’s The Turning, as both poets mine similar territory using different methods.
It seems commonplace that the contemporary poetic speaker is by definition marginal or isolated. Glück’s sharp reference to Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood skits on Saturday Night Live indicates what we are getting into:
Mr. Rogers’ soothing chatter mutated on late night TV into Mr. Robinson’s paranoid ramblings: Mr. Robinson was unwelcome, but Mr. Robinson, for the benefit of all us former children too hooked or wired to go to sleep, Mr. Robinson was digging his heels in and, crouched under the window, ready to talk, even if talking meant talking to a void.
Glück points out that both Collins and Murphy are inventing personae in “a master performance conducted in a deliberately isolated space, as though isolation were a form of control that promoted fluency.” Okay, the marginalized Invisible Man or Woman often speaks to us this way. Glück makes a deeper point when she compares the Skinner box of television to the Skinner box of the self, citing Collins’s sense of “metaphysical claustrophobia: the bleak fate of being always one person.”
I remember being visited by this feeling most intensely on insomniac prepubescent nights when I was tortured by all my mistakes and wondered “why am I me?” with no way to think myself out of it. Here’s Collins gamely failing to think her way out of it, nearly throughout the whole book. In order for Collins to stay in this sleepless, solipsistic mode, it requires that she maintain the same powerless paralysis that tortured me at 12. It requires that she not turn on the light, not read her favorite book, not talk to anyone (except, as Glück points out, the figure of god), not be in love or even pet her cat or dog. There are hints of an original trauma, as Collins frames the book with images of a mother screaming that her children have been kidnapped, but she doesn’t get caught up in actual narrative events. More than enough material comes through on the TV every day to create sufficient trauma out of thin air:
I was getting hungry but I felt afraid
of seeing the refrigerator light go on.
Then I would have to turn on other lights,
and then what would I do?
The Middle School answer is to get a life. One of Maxine Chernoff’s titles seems to work better for Collins’s book: “One Hundred Years of Solipsism,” but Glück is right on when she points out that what Collins really accomplishes is stopping time: “Because the self doesn’t change, because it is exposed to nothing that would change it, time seems not to pass.” The adult life and passion that the speaker is avoiding by this willful magic is partly revealed through the dark mist, but the effect is dependent on the reader’s ability to tolerate passages like:
I don’t think the sun will come up
unless it’s possible
for the day to clear a path.
I think the best thing would be
for someone to beat me,
maybe with a stick,
until I say, “Day is night! Day is night!”
If I were someone else (a typical evasion in It Is Daylight), I would call this caustic irony as opposed to plain old masochism. Franz Wright, for example, performs this kind of trick all the time, but the depths he finds there are truly frightening, mostly because of his mastery of the lonely image, the image captured by a voyeur at the end of his rope (I refer you to DJ Dolack’s recent Dickman review in Coldfront for examples of Wright’s mastery of this kind of imagery). Collins is at her best in passages like this, imagining someone
who has never seen a phone, and says blah blah blah
to the dial tone. The silence that once existed
in the dark cold universe: translated, the empty sound
is a place—the inside of a phone. Infinity,
I say, there it is.
This is where we all go to
when we touch each other;
this is what supernatural is.
This lacks Wright’s efficiency. The line breaks function largely to drag us back into dreamland, avoiding any sort of overly rhetorical epiphany that might wake the speaker up before she is ready. Glück aptly describes Collins as “hopeless on principle,” and cites her skill with camera work with keeping the reader awake. The variety of jump cuts needed to sustain these metaphysical Skinner boxes can indeed become fascinating. Here is an example of the approach:
I think I am going to stop
eating bits of paper
that don’t say anything on them—
that don’t even say anything on them
I know I should do something
as they say, for “the snows of embarrassment”
like a day in March when the blood is closer,
day singing for the loss of its whip.
Closer, I say, closer.
Or maybe I’ll arrange to have you run over by horses
Any individual passage like this is inventive, vivid, caustic, funny, claustrophobic and readable. The rhetorical fillip of repeating the line in italics could easily be a trapdoor to another plane, or at least to effective action in life. However, the note of Plathian, transformative power is undercut throughout the book by appealingly mundane double takes:
a dead person with a tan is worrisome:
gone to hell?
That’s impossible, I thought. Genocide?
Doesn’t she automatically get her ticket punched?
And that’s assuming hell is anywhere.
This is so stupid, I think,
This isn’t what?
In a 1962 BBC interview, Sylvia Plath famously stated that she couldn’t bear to put toothbrushes in her poems. Collins is under no such restriction, suggesting the exciting possibility that she can say anything. Ultimately, though, Plath plus silliness equals what? The speaker never quite gets anywhere, we don’t care about the dead woman with the tan, and the reader is in danger of becoming bored. The juxtaposition of genocide and farina is not a stirring example of the liberating contradictions championed by Whitman and Emerson. It’s pointless, but that’s part of Collins’s point.
“Parts of An Argument,” one of my favorite pieces in the book, begins to herald the subtle change in the speaker that Glück helpfully alerts us to at the beginning. It starts: “I didn’t know I had god until god was gradually not there over time. I don’t feel abandoned. It is part of taking things as they come.” The speaker explains her (non) sense of god, as if he “gave me a microwave oven, but I never took it out of the box because I was grateful and never touched it.” OK, the speaker is just not going to touch this oven: “It sounds simple and fun but it is still not a big deal to use pots on the stove.” She wonders if this gift means “god thinks that I should bear many children.” The ensuing complications, elaborations, and evasions are ironic and funny. The unlined prose poem finally releases a pseudo-reasonable facsimile of a believable voice, making the speaker’s evasions seem more natural, and highlighting Collins’s warped humor. It Is Daylight is not a clinical exploration of shame, history, or original sin, but something more consistently ironic and personal about our ridiculous metaphysical position: “Since there is no god, you have to be both you and god.” So there you are, assembling the miserable “components of your dinner” from the freezer while god and his guys are off somewhere having “pear clafoutis behind a velvet curtain and driv[ing] their skulls into the center of a diamond.”
In her most recent work, The Turning, Maxine Chernoff is also concerned with the moment when “the god image / enters the man image,” but she explicitly invokes Emerson in order to Americanize the idea. Where Collins tends to fold any sense of history, politics, or literature into the solipsistic chaos of seemingly random, pointless emotions, Chernoff uses words as rocks, bricks—solid objects with the power to build or destroy. Where Collins uses rambling line breaks to evade responsibility, Chernoff cuts her lines with a razor, emphasizing the potential and actual moral “turning” of each phrase. Here are four non-consecutive stanzas from “Sensorium”:
Obsessed by prepubescent girls
the luminosity of angels
the Bible bound in shiny fish skin
Obsessed by pleasing objects
a sexual trauma
the Virgin on the altar
Obsessed by the danger of drowning
the perfection of philosophical dogma
the meaning of cool
Obsessed by all variety of bird
universal male suffrage
the contingent world.
Several poems ring changes like these on repeated parallel phrases. Throughout The Turning, Chernoff allows a kaleidoscopic array of historical and literary references to have a disorderly but pointed conversation, both professorial and personal. Her use of contemporary references and current events lends urgency. In a poem written for the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, she asks:
how to make a poem
out of so many terrible facts
how to re-embed sympathy and truth.
This won’t happen if we retreat into political buzzwords or high-toned aesthetic theories. Chernoff cites Emerson acknowledging that reading can easily become a substitute for living. She warns that “read as parable/ history vanishes,” and, later in the poem, “silence will out.” For the last decade of his life, Emerson slowly lost his memory, and Chernoff associates this fact with a kind of American cultural dementia. Though Emerson forgot his own words, he knew that what he said remains said: “Nothing will remain / without being spoken.” Yet, by a kind of “double logic of narrative,” Chernoff also says of Virginia Woolf, “for all she remembered more was forgotten // until the narration // closed its eyes.” In Chernoff’s universe, as well as Emerson’s, paradoxes exist as energy sources to tap into rather than walls to bang your head against.
Both Chernoff and Collins explore the slippery terrain between dementia and remembering, and they navigate the counterclaims of history and art, using puppets, pie, god, and religious imagery as props. Chernoff’s sense of history and art has an adult solidity to it, even as she removes it from its godlike chronological and narrative throne. In a standout piece, “Scenes From Ordinary Life,” Chernoff imagines a oddly touching puppet show starring two intellectual giants of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. By contrast, Collins’s efforts to stop time are more those of a child playing alone in her sandbox. Since Chernoff is not limited to depicting a consistent persona, she doesn’t gesture as wildly as Collins, but relentlessly re-imagines and deconstructs the master narratives of history and literature without neglecting the private transformations of art. She searches for the paradoxical hope that the blank page can serve as the stage for an adequate and effective response to “the contingent world.”
Though I greatly prefer the adult solidity of Chernoff’s historical and literary references, I’m willing to admit that Collins takes more risks and mines deeper territory. But talk is cheap. Let’s set up a poetic smackdown to decide! I’ll make up a Maxine Chernoff poem by taking food-related snippets from unrelated poems, and Arda Collins will get a chance to respond:
She spoke of taking pains to
be a good host. But what do cyborgs eat?
she asked the panel on Non-food Cuisine.
the surrogate ate the frozen peas
frozen. Heat makes us human
the history of dementia
recorded by Solon
(they die of starvation)
what is pie for?”
She was able to pry it out:
it was a frozen slug.
She held a big box of pastries in her hands.
“Put this on,” she said.
She brought preference to history.
From one little room an everywhere
And now for Arda Collins. To make it a fair fight, I won’t even bring in the untouched microwave. Since I’m getting ready to hightail it out of Dodge, I’ll call it a draw and leave the scoring up to you:
The components of your dinner are waiting for you downstairs.
There is something in the freezer
marked “vanilla.” I tasted it.
It was like ice cream, or like whipped cream.
But I became suddenly afraid
that it wasn’t food, but poison
for the garden.
I’m coming up the street
in the middle of the day,
with a can of food
and a kitchen in my heart
can love anything,
cannot love anything.
You have a heat source in your chest,
and an electric space heater for office use only.
You ask god if god
is hungry, and god is. You ask god
what you should do
for dinner and god reminds you
that you have turkey burgers
in the freezer, and some broccoli. You’ll
go take the burgers out
and separate them with a knife.
They’ll be slippery and frozen, and
you’ll think of driving on
an icy road; and then
you’ll put them in foil under
the broiler and start the water
for the broccoli, and take out
a plate for yourself, and get
the salt and pepper, and by
that time god will have left.