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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Rachel Loden reviews

World, by Maxine Chernoff

Salt Publishing, 2001, 103 pp.; $12.95

This piece is 1,000 words or about two printed pages long

Chernoff book cover imageA dentist on the sitcom Seinfeld was said to have converted to Judaism ‘for the jokes.’ What he didn’t understand, of course, was that he was entering a wide-open oral force field of much more resonant (and droll) complexities. In their very different aesthetic sphere, Maxine Chernoff’s poems can be read and relished for their brilliant comic timing, but that timing is always indivisible from her extraordinary lyrical and metaphysical gifts. World, her first full-length book of poetry since 1990’s Leap Year Day (a new and selected), shows the writer in full command of her powers, lighting out for unmapped and radiant territory.
      In Chernoff’s poems, wit cuts in and out of the melodic surge and flow, but rather than undermining her arguments, the effect paradoxically heightens their poignance:

‘God is in the high notes,’
the plane said, lowering
its landing gear.

‘We like it when he
holds our hands,’
the children said

in the blue museum
where the Delacroix hangs
near the glass elevator.

‘Tragic, the work of memory
erased like an answer
on an exam booklet.’

‘My ears have grown
disproportionately large.’
‘Tape them back in photos,’

suggested the saint . . .


Sometimes Chernoff’s sudden asides are startlingly reminiscent of a comic player’s whispered confidences to an audience, breaking the surface of the piece in order to bring it back together at another level:

From the captain’s window
tributes to Mapplethorpe
felt like the wedding day
of speech and recitation.

He’d been sent to find
subjects, patterns of
syntax, crystalline notes
on yellowed paper,
ancient accounts
of typographical errors.

The final movement
pointed to politics,
as in, ‘I feel afraid.
Hold me, Ira.’

(‘A Relief Map Glows ‘)

Other comic twists are more like jazz riffs, emanating logically out of a string of images: ‘A very sick child / in the Victorian sense. / Nothing specific about his case. / A vague / longing to seize / his friends / and arrange them / like wooden / fruit’ (‘Nature Morte’).
      Chernoff turns her scrupulously observant eye to social tableaux  (‘Inside / the room, they staged / the definitive production / of the quest motif / in Western corporations’) and issues abrupt instructions (‘Compose a scenario / involving breath, / memory, and / a “most-wanted” / poster’). Wherever it appears, the comic is a locus of compressed energy, providing as much delight as relief.
      World is divided into four sections, and some of the biggest risks are taken in the book’s core. Section two is devoted to the title poem, a  twenty-one part evocation of the turbulent relationship between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. From ruthlessly stripped-down language gleaned in part from their letters, Chernoff spins out poems of stark and eerie loveliness:

Skeletal (blur) nor riper


a glistering gaze


a burst of verily

           (to view) glass

           raised up

     ‘a small white dot’

                   an ossuary

                in neutral air

                an intuition (finally)

to pleasure a retort

                   or slap

a pearl

(‘World’ 2)

The radical excisions in these texts, their lacunae, give them a stark and floating quality against white space: ‘Herself (through armor) // itself like maps // ledger’s sleeping // she     not knowing // moonlit    feather // stellar     smaller ‘i’ // patient limitless // nature // learned to purr // kabuki workhouse // love // to silk a sorry // landscape together // weathered droll // and wings of letters // rumored     as singing’ (‘World’ 11).
      Each of the twelve poems in the third section of the book sports an epigraph from a (separate) Emerson essay. These stalwart literary icons are cheerfully plundered, making them new and strange:

‘Grief too will make us idealists.’

Dice of the (M


at the horizon

     of art



           string of beads

summer rain


a headache

    but life


    cold geometry


                        its evidence


There’s something about the impressionistic structures of these poems, their hops and skips across a rippling surface that suggests the freedoms and pleasures of hypertext: ‘‘Language is fossil poetry.’ // To hear // conventional life // and those // who see— // star // lily // rag— // mystics // making // things whole // Niagara’s // dull march // air-lord // and universal // hours’ (‘The Poet’).
      The absurdist-playlets-cum-vaudeville-skits that dominate the fourth section of World are some of the best fun ever vouchsafed to a poetry book. Each of these routines is a valiant attempt to limn the shape of human logic, a project that turns out to be both daunting and curiously satisfying. ‘Heavenly Bodies’ takes on disaster prediction, the nature of the universe, death, and history, before arriving at these lines:

— So what should we do?

— About what?

— What should we do to prevent the meteor from destroying us?

— I guess we could intercept it.

— Who, you and me?

— The government.

— I knew it.

— Knew what?

— You’re some kind of hired assassin.

— What do you mean?

— You’re hired by the government to make me think I don’t matter, not even if I die.

— How does that make me an assassin?

— It’s conceptual. You erase me with your thoughts.

One of the speakers in ‘The Sound’ is unhappy with the ‘brutal’ noise apparently made by the other at the point of orgasm. They run up and down the scales of possibility, finally exhausting their delirium in a moment of delicious triumph:

— Maybe you should gag me.

— Then you’d make the sound but it would be even worse.

— Why would it be worse?

— It would sound all muffled and sad, like the voice of someone locked in a car trunk.

— So you’d rather I sound brutal than all muffled and sad?

— I guess so.

— You must really love me then.

It’s tempting to think that this is the sort of record (Seinfeld cohort) George Costanza might leave, if he had a mate (or a straight man) to feed him lines and take his manic testimony. But in fact these dialogues seem an inevitable progression for Chernoff. In a comment on her prose poem ‘The Fan’ in Poetics Journal (1985), she writes that rather than ‘commenting about the nature of one character’s reaction to experience,’ she is ‘suggesting that a linguistic event has been observed by a witness. This witnessing verifies that something has been made of language. . . . Thus, “character” in many of my prose poems exists so that language can occur.’

As a formal invention, then, the dialogues permit Chernoff to navigate the space of language events, moving toward its extremal points, where all extraneous elements have been cut away. Even the surrealism and fabulism of ‘The Fan’ are nowhere in evidence. What’s left is the spine of language and the rimpled furrows of the human brain. And (perhaps) Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont, at war in a sort of paradise.

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