Heidi Peppermint

The Chime

Cort Day
Alice James Books
$11.95 / 66 pages / ISBN 1-882295-29-3

In Chime, Cort Day's first book, the poet orchestrates a series of linguistic collisions that result in a surprising, sometimes startling, and almost always satisfying, harmony. Day envisions a kind of music of the spheres, except that the spheres here are atoms. The first clue to such a thematic reading is in his epigraph which quotes from Plato's Phaedo and mentions the "monad," that is, unity; in philosophy, the monad is an absolutely simple entity, conceived of as the ultimate unit of being.

Day is a visionary poet writing in the tradition of the American transcendental. His poetry suggests that if we attend to nature closely enough, we will apprehend "an interchange of everything" (a different phrase perhaps?) that gives some significance to our lives. This unity is a consequence of a terrifying randomness, a chance-driven reality dramatized in Day's stylistics.

His vision is evident in every poem; yet at first glance, the collection seems deceptively simple: A first person speaker appears across the collection. Each poem is left-justified, and almost all are ten lines long, with eight to thirteen syllables a line. Along with the unsurprising layout, an iambic rhythm sometimes falls in: "I'm taking Aesop as my nom de guerre" or "and wake its juice against her skin." The use of poetic conventions seems a strategy to create controlled conditions in which to establish the reader's comfort so that Day can exhibit his unorthodox poetics. The strategy works to turn out ambitious and life-affirming poems.

Day's syntax at first appears regular: "I'm learning," "I let," "I peel an orange." But the follow through of these beginning sentences startles the reader—"I'm learning to juggle my addictions," "I let the blood out of a dog," and "I peel an orange and wake its juice against her skin." Throughout the book a disjunctive logic generates surprise and leads to lovely unexpected phrases.

Day accomplishes what is partly an aesthetic of surprise and mostly an aesthetic of wonder by bringing together lexicons culled from the seemingly disparate sciences of physics, biology, economics, and lyric love poems, among others. He breaks down discrete discourse communities and then transforms them into a new unified cooperative within poems that are "full of hysterical plasma and rotating to our favorite pop song, an electrical polka / about an increase in malignant tissue / in the suburbs ... a 'neutral, highly ionized gas' involving the entire planet." They are "a thistle flower / ... resplendent node, thought / meant to assay you. From silence, the garment / of remembering."

The lexicon of commerce brings words together into surprising metaphors that conflate the natural world with the economic. He tells us, "Buy cormorant low. Sell cormorant high," that "rain is money," and claims to "sell you the words for nipple, for strawberry." Day emphasizes this particular thread in his collection by beginning the book "Off to market," a focus that helps the reader to imagine the physical world through structuralism: Rather than words or language, it is any person, organism, cell, or atom that operates, not as a single individual, but as part of an economy that exists perfectly only in collectivity.

Although highly informed and theoretical, these poems aren't impersonal. The first person speaker throughout the collection creates an immediate, urgent lyricism— a familiar tactic that remains surprising in Day's writing due to his descriptions of the world which his speaker inhabits: "I mime their desert in my foxhole," and "I'm taking my kaleidoscope to the zoo. / I want to look at the penguins. / I'm going disguised as a waterfall."

Day uses a rhetoric of conversation with the contraction "I'm"; he relaxes
the reader with an informal first person narrator, and then uses this comfort to lead the reader into the unexpected experience of a Cort Day phrase. Some of the most startling of these phrases occur in the sequence titled "Monad, a Deluxe Pastoral, Deepens and Unwinds." Here, the speaker evokes the monad as the mystical erotic principle motivating the lovers, elaborated through fantastical metaphor that conflates the persons with the natural world:

When monad's volatile, I'm a firefly,
and you're a lake in white organza...
... the forest is programmed to self-sow. The rain
has left its feelings in our glade. We lay the wealth
on the ground at night. It deepened.
When your body left my body, a chime.

This particular passage provides a fine example of Day's accomplishment in the realm of sonic play. The repeated sounds of "v" "f"and "w" suggest a fleeting experience, particularly the transient sensation of connection, of existing as part of a "we". The repetition of the long "i" sound functions like a pun, "chime" repeating the sound "I'm" and reinforcing the experience and realization of selfhood and identity apart from the lover.

The firefly and the white in this excerpt fit into perhaps the most prevalent and resonate metaphor of the collection besides music—light. The figure appears in the title of two poems, "White Ordinal" and "Dawn Ordinal" and becomes much more explicit in other places:

"... Elect, and get
aurora borealis piped into your family
reunion. Aunt Sophie's newfound radiance
will not fail to startle. A coherent, wave-like
syncopation will invent you, and you'll notice
a tiny application running inside everyone:
disposable, disposable, disposable, disposable.

Through his alchemy, Day makes "disposable" an acceptable, perhaps divine fact of human existence. Sometimes a book will only set out the dilemma, and a hopeful reader leaves the experience more troubled than ever. But this collection not only a states the tough proposition set out in language and living; these poems perform an embrace and celebration of mystery. Day throws himself into the Big Questions and comes back with some satisfying response. The book's stylistics and thematics prove so integrated and particular, the possibility of a second book that parrots the beauty of this one occurs as a possibility to me. Mostly, I trust the zeal of Cort Day's vision and look forward to what he will most likely write next, more poems to further "open your eyes ... and blow your moonwhistle."


Review of Utopic, by Claudia Keelan

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