Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Maxine Chernoff’s The Turning

I’m fascinated by this collection of new poems by American poet Maxine Chernoff, The Turning (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2008). Built very much as a graceful whole made out of smaller pieces, her deceptively clear and straightforward style works its way in under the surfaces of the skin, even as it appears, like water, bouncing off even as it has already soaked through. In The Turning, Chernoff writes a number of poems that bounce off quotes by such as Hannah Arendt, Donald Rumsfeld, Roger Shattuck, CG Jung, Laura Riding and Hans Arp, building the first section of her collection as carved through history and the page.

Light and Clay
“Will the dust praise thee?”—PSALM 30:9

The page was a place
before morality
before Gilgamesh
before the second prophet
of revealed law

The page was a hybrid
of value and valuelessness
a hybrid of community
and selfishness
a foster child of devotion

The page was experience
in semantic terms
a folie à deux
a terminal location

Cowboys and princes
offered their lives
the cult of the dead
worshipped there too
lacking in value
it saw only faces

The page was a room,
a picnic, a heaven
the utopia of words
in a region of want

The page was a bride groom,
a bride and a lover,
the child of the union
of religion and anarchy

“I will reflect it,” the page
said on Sunday
“I will absorb it,”
the page meant to add

Between death and rebirth
the page stood waiting
words came to call
speechless at best

Chernoff, the author of over a dozen books of poetry and fiction (including a previous Apogee publication, Among the Names), works a poetry written as political both through how it talks about politics itself, as well as history, and how it works through the language. All writing is political, someone once wrote, and Chernoff’s is no different, but for the fact that it is deliberately so, but with such a light and knowing touch that its power comes through subtle means, instead of through direct force.

And Words For
“Our human logic and our language do not in
any way correspond to time.”—


The moment after the flashlight

The time we were not sorry

The woman who knew too little

Her assault upon community

The darkness of the hour

The black he never wore

Crime’s passion and passion’s crime

The quiet irony of place

His death in ‘74

Antecedent of the war’s eye-view

My failure to succumb

Candor of former confessions

Harbor beyond the harbor

The crowded field of action


Comedic lines replacing
lost histories of space

Affinity for landing
in sorrow’s heavy gift

The Stradavarian grace
of longitudinal signs

Until the celebration
replaces patient thought

When everything is art
and life may prove you wrong

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