C.E. Chaffin’s Unexpected Light:
C.E. Chaffin is not the first physician/poet (although he may be the only one to have been a Fellow of the American Academy of Physicians), and while the poems in his recent collection, Unexpected Light, are often visually similar to William Carlos Williams' compressed lines, these poems are notably more introspective. Observations turn inward in these poems, while images becoming opportunities for self-examination; the release of doubt, fear, and pain; and the potential, ultimately, for love’s redemption. While people read poetry for different reasons (curiosity, illumination, solidarity, schadenfreude, etc.), what many people seem to want is a sense of closure at the end of each poem, and these poems do, for the most part, contain that element, arguable aiming for Robert Frost's desire that "a poem should begin[s] with delight and end[s] with wisdom."
In “Aleph”—appropriately the first poem in this collection—C.E. Chaffin writes, “I want to tell the truth, / I want to tell it straight.” The gesture toward revelation, a qualified series of truths, sets up a dynamic throughout this collection that challenges the reader to question not only the poems, but also the notion of truth itself. Can “truth” be represented within an artificially generated, straightforward rhyme scheme?
More important, and perhaps less answerable, is another question the collection generates: what is truth? When a poem accepts its form and seems comfortable in it, as in “Pantoum after Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire,’” the question seems to answer itself. The necessary repetition of “it kills” reads as more of an organic utterance than it does an awareness of poetic convention or mere gesture toward convention. If we accept, therefore, that artifice (a category that includes rhyme in this instance) does not necessarily interfere with speaking truthfully to the reader, I am reminded of Olena Kalytiak Davis’ brilliant poem “Dear Reader, Flanneled and Tulled,” in which the reader is both the subject and the audience for the speaker’s verbal acrobatics as part of a rhyme scheme that—while it remains consistently inconsistent—becomes part of the monologue itself.
A number of the strongest and most striking poems in Unexpected Light (for instance “Drug Trial,” “Split,” “Easier,” and “Serenade”)come together to create a portrait of a speaker who has reached a series of recursive understandings built around a central sense of despair and inadequacy. The book also offers surprising moments of dark humor that often occur in unexpected moments, as when one is used to dismantle a cliché: “When told, ‘Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,’ / I knew it wasn’t my eyes” (from “The Persistence of Vision”).
The sense of accretion that comes with any poetry collection is particularly successful in this book; each poem has the chance to build upon previous poems, hindsight in a sense becoming foresight. For example, later in the first section we encounter what has become an inadvertent series1 of poems with clear locations: “At the Korean War Memorial,” “At the Lincoln Memorial,” and “At the Vietnam Memorial.” While the first two poems focus primarily on the events commemorated by the aforementioned monuments, the third becomes more of a meditation on what it means to write this sort of poem, which is not an elegy, exactly, but rather inexactly. Clearly indebted to Yusef Komunyaaka’s “Facing It,” the poem opens with a speaker anthropomorphizing the surface of the memorial. But rather than losing himself inside the granite, the speaker realizes that truth must, at least for this moment, triumph over artifice, creating an ars poetica: “Let this then be a bad poem, bad as the war, / dividing author from reader and reader from page.”
These are poems that are, once again, grappling not only with the speakers’ idiosyncratic concerns, but also with an awareness of the inherited traditions and expectations linked to the medium. A number of poems include nods to immediately recognizable sound bites from the most canonical of sources. “At the Vietnam Memorial” pays brief homage to Wordsworth, as does “Inevitable Losses,” although the latter also reminds the reader that Chaffin is not the first poet to do so. Gerard Manley Hopkins also questioned Wordworth’s assertion that “The child is father to the man,” and Chaffin’s willingness to insert himself into that discussion contextualizes his own interest and commitment to awareness of the past and interest in the future.
Through Chaffin’s acknowledgments, we are also privy to the workings of his mind and the writers who have shaped him and matter to him most, including Charles Bukowski, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Frost. Sometimes these allusions are clearly articulated, as in the case of “Guilt 101,” in which the anguished speaker takes us through varying degrees of loss and culpability, summoning the anything-but-casual speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” with references to lost car keys, but working its way up to the classic existentialist dilemma of whether or not it is worth continuing on in the face of such overwhelming sorrow. The embedded allusion creates another layer within this poem; it becomes not simply a lesson in guilt, but also in understanding its place in our existence through its impact on those who have come before us, leaving their poetic records for us to study.
Since the poems in this book are “selected” rather than “collected,” one wonders what has been excluded and which poems might have been included instead. It might have been interesting to have seen these poems arranged in chronological order rather than alphabetical. The poems conclude with a section entitled “Love Poems,” suggesting the foregrounding of love above all else. In his own review of this collection, poet Seth Abramson (whose work appeared in keepgoing.org #29) refers to the “necessary revelations” contained in the poems in Unexpected Light. It is that sense of necessity that both lends coherence to these poems and compels the reader into a sort of linguistic journey through the mind of a poet who has been wrestling with these revelations for quite some time.
To purchase Unexpected Light, please visit: www.amazon.com/Unexpected-Light-C-E-Chaffin/dp/0982135270.
1- I say “inadvertent” because the poems are arranged alphabetically, as opposed to chronologically, which many might consider a more conventional way of organizing a large group of selected poems.
Copyright 2009, Erica Bernheim
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