David Berg-Seiter


Joel Chace
The Runaway Spoon Press, 2000
$3.00, ISBN 1-57141-055-4.

Chace constructs o-d-e around the idea contained in the epigraph taken from Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, i.e. that "The best things...are put together of a night and vanish in the morning." The reader is brought in after the point of vanishment, when mourning seems natural and obvious. Taking the word "ode" and splitting it into its constituent parts, re-pairing it, running it backward and forward, Chace begins by sloughing off its meaning to reveal its music and the person to whom the ode is directed: "ed o ed o ed / o you." What he does here and throughout the sequence on the micro level, Chace will parallel on the macro level with the form itself, delivering a bi-level attack on our beliefs about diuturnity. The fleeting pleasure of a night is the metaphor for a divine season with a lover. Instead of (or in addition to) grieving over his loss ("your / leaving would / be madness"), the poet insists on having and holding the chimera of that experience. By the time Chace is finished, he'll have shown that mourning is, or should be, a type of celebration.

In addition to directly referencing the floating world (sometimes as "upper rooms") that he champions, Chace illustrates it with spatial layout—disruptive line breaks, excessive white space, wild arrangement of words on the page—not simply for rhythm or (as is too often the case) to create a decorative illusion of poeticness, but to effectively visualize his theater, open up possibilities, and lead the eye toward meaning as the words form alliances in all directions. Distance, proximity, and the confusion of the two form a crucial axis in this sequence, one that Chace employs an abundance of subtleties to explore.

Dreams and visions, for example, are "each a / little / downcurling wave / not / breaking," the words themselves cascading forward, held in interminable suspension, until the final "breaking." In suggesting that those pleasures which Western culture views as merely meaningless diversions actually help make life not only beautiful but substantive, the sequence requires a certain suspension of disbelief. But even when the reader begins to loose faith in Chace, when we stumble upon the jarring notion of 'goals' among the fleeting ("sum / of cancelled / goals / would explode the poor") it takes little effort to see that the abstraction of desire contained in that word is the thing that floats; the effort toward persistence that becomes accomplishment, typically failed, is ironically thwarting.

Chace has a wide array of these technical arrows in his quiver. "whose sleeves"—the shell of a person-quickly echoes itself into "who's leaving." Later, these sleeves and the ghosts they come to represent have accumulated to such a degree that there are "canopies" of them to provide safety and comfort. These kinds of subtle transitions and morphings contain the bulk of the poem's meaning as Chace continues to blur and then merge seeming dichotomies, disrupting the oppositions we hold dear: "real snow / imaginary / parchment / ...wetted by snow."

Chace will butt "snow" up against "white" in such an unassuming way that it is surprising when, several pages later, we encounter "mirror / mirror" and hear the refrain from the old Grimm tale. If that soundbite is unavoidably Disneyed for the reader, it is that much more about apparent loss and the lingering efficacy of the transitory.

As in the opening wail, pieces of the puzzle recur, recombine ("rainstreets," "roomsmoke", "farwhite") and recur again with escalating urgency until their complexities are abandoned for baseline needs spelled phonetically for their common pronunciation ("gotta", "wanna"). Finally, refuge is taken in pure utterance: "shuh," "eeee," "ki," "chi," "ku." Here is the language of infancy-the state of simultaneous dependence and isolation.

Invoking biblical relationships, Chace layers reversals of opposition. "something divine / allays / the volcano to a rose" recalls the prophecy concerning Christ's second coming when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and this moves into the setting apart of the unleavened in "who's / leaving this more / than leavening." The familiar binaries by which we order the world fail to hold as Chace weds the temporal to the eternal. Are vanished pleasures gone forever or merely less tangible and requiring of faith?

Chace's gift as a poet, and the thing he endeavors to give in the writing of
, is his ability to make the most of the least. The lines "no more know / more / no / no / no" are tightly ironic. In that configuration of very few phonemic units with a relatively wide range of meanings (including the biblical connotation of "know"), the mourning celebrant will no more know the lover and thereby know more. This is the grieving "know"—the cold snow-that comes from the floating clouds to wet the parchment and the parched world.

The question of epistemology is a phoenix in o-d-e, one that rekindles on internal rhymes: "can we know the / dancer / from the / glance." Later, "trance" replaces "glance" to expand the question, and later still, a crescendo of epistemology: "how can we / know 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 / or skill / from the backwards / glance / song / dance." The poet either wonders how we can avail ourselves of additional suffering or how we could possibly bear it. And the tropes of the question shapeshift and multiply as snow on parchment becomes "spirit poured / on flesh."

Finally, Chace gets us to the proof, and it lies in residue or "reclaimed / al / lu / vi / al" (also broken apart like 'ode'). Alluvium is detritus, left by flowing water or waves, that builds into a rich sustaining sediment. 'Alluvial' also often describes gold-bearing soil. So, what is worthless and discarded becomes productive and valuable, even coveted. In this sense, the lover can return: "those / washed up in / the parched world / always / with us / to be / reclaimed."

A trusted arrow in Chace's quiver is association. Its efficacy is obscured in the first several pages but as the associative effects pile they become cumulative and alluvial, building the richness in which the poem reveals its truths. In this way, individual words, carefully placed and repeated, work as dots in a pointillist painting (Chace does equate the "young / ones / mad with words" to the "old man / mad / with painting").

o-d-e slyly mirrors its subject. If, like so many relationships, it seems breezy and effortless, perhaps meaningless, it may be because we haven't given it enough time, haven't allowed ourselves to see its sharp edges. If, like a night of revelry, it seems frivolous, unworthy, or careless, it may in fact be appropriate, even vital. Chace is patient, orbiting about the nucleus of the inspiration he refers to in the epigram to tease and coax it out. And once out, readers should feel not that they have spent time indulging an ephemeral poetic passion, but that they have experienced something important, as cerebral as it is sensorial, as effective as it is affective—time spent with Chace is not time whose loss should be mourned.



© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review