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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Ethan Paquin reviews

World: Poems 1991-2001 by Maxine Chernoff.  Salt Publishing, $US12.95/ $AUS19.95/ £7.95.

This piece is 800 words or about two printed pages long.

Poetry, wrote Stan Brakhage, ‘rummag[es] the left hemisphere for only that language which will suffice rhythmically/texturally in orchestral support of the song schema.’ The World, according to Maxine Chernoff — a master rummager in stocking her linguistic symphony full of instruments that will convey her unique songs — is of and about nothing but music. The book’s eponymous, central poem (a long poem, it comprises one of the book’s four sections) is a rambling jazz suite of sorts, and typifies the sonic and syntactical quirkiness for which Chernoff is known and celebrated:

Numbers Precambrian
presence perchance
to shine and turn and
‘Go ask Esso’
mordant abbey
a liquid custom
to minimize Slope
as black Ford
a valid form
in folds
and contours

If ‘World’ is part be-bop, part hip-hop in its breaks and intonations and rhythms, the other three sections of the book form the remainder of her sound collage: in ‘Part One,’ minute and hushed lyrics recall quiet piano tinkling; ‘Part Three’ recalls the Beat sensibility of the title poem, and each poem is introduced with a short koan or maxim; and ‘Part Four’ consists of several prosaic, script-like ‘poems’ in which two characters discuss various subjects including sex, suicide, and parenting — here, the music of human dialogue. Indeed, World, which chronicles Chernoff’s poetry writing over the past ten years, is an eclectic setlist, most every poem masterful in creating aural interest with every turn of the line, every clever juxtaposition of dissonant words, every enjambment that looks all wrong yet sounds utterly right. Chernoff’s poetry is not about the science of prosody, it is about nothing but music; yet nowhere else is a jazz-like trill or flourish — the epitome of all that is spontaneous, unrehearsed — so precise.

Thus a master conductor, Chernoff coaxes the right performances from language. A thought such as ‘sky filled / with heroes / and cloud- / shaped tables’ would fall flat in the work of many other poets, for said poets don’t have the sense of exploration — or ear — to follow the line with ‘A horse named / Contentious. / Maps, initials’ (‘The Case for Day’). Little cymbal crashes, tympanic rushes, and scherzoid riffs such as these figure heavily in World, where both sound and images accrete surprisingly — to wit, ‘tiny stars becoming galleons / becoming moods’ (‘God’). Sounds and images themselves throughout World are surprising, and fresh, which is remarkable given the age of some of the poems. Here is a poet/musician attuned to ‘the hum / of a distant planet,’ hearing in it ‘the color / we once / named / then forgot’ (‘Next Song’), or to ‘a fickle calypso / moving in the distance / like June light / in broken / February sky’ (‘She Shows You Where to Look’); here is a poet painting ‘Where I have / never swum, / light as a parlor / losing color’ (‘The North Sea’), ‘The dust of art’ (‘Beneath the Form’), ‘In bed / in Mexico, Spain / and Peru, / she felt most / colored / by blasted design’ (‘World,’ part 21), ‘pickerel-weed’s / plain virtue’ (‘Nature’), ‘ask the traffic to / buzz with meaning’ (‘So This Is How We Live’), and other such uncommon and wonderful visions.

Chernoff’s ‘schema’ is not solely built on the ground of some otherworld, as her strange images and experimental affinities might suggest. The last section of World is comfortably commonplace, full of domesticated and congenial conversations between unknown, faceless characters who could probably live next door, people who just might be ourselves, our friends, our partners:

— [Dogs] have those sad brown eyes.

— They gaze at you with adoration.

— They remind me of old people.

— Why old people?

— Your grandma’s in a rest home and you visit for an hour. And when you try to leave, she stands by the exit and stares at you, sadly, like a dog.

— So you don’t want to own a dog because it reminds you of your grandmother?

— Only my grandmother had blue eyes.


Backlit by pathos and absurdity, these comedic scenes are remarkable for their transcendence of comedy. Not merely give-and-take, he-said/she-said, Abbott and Costello stand-up routines, Chernoff’s ‘script-poems’ start fast and end even faster, more energetically. They are exercises in pure rhythm, in how to generate and accrete energy — by writing economically, stripping a dialogue to its most essential elements, and removing all distractions so that one may focus intently on the speakers as if they were engaged in the world’s final debate. The only question is, ‘Which world?’ Over the last decade, Chernoff has succeeded in building her own — complete with sparse compositions, satisfying music, wit and cleverness, and a recognizable yet quirky population — driven by, as is hinted in the book’s first poem, an ‘ideology of rapture.’ We should all be so captivated.

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