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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Matter No Matter  (Paper Kite Press) by Joel Chace

  reviewed by Jefferson Hansen

This book contains an astonishing number of formal experiments with verse. Most poems are single or multiple stanzas with about 4-5 short words per line. Some step across the page in a manner similar to Williams' variable foot. Still others are radical word play where words and syllables are arranged like islands on the page — many words are broken in the middle. Another, less radical experiment, is to break words into parts by placing spaces in the middle of words, but leaving the lines in standard poetic form.

The most conservative poems that Chace writes are often delightful narratives. "On the Menu," for instance, begins

  It said candid yams so we

spoke with circumspection kept

our eyes moving you said you

knew no one should trust those fat

sloppy peckers and that we should just

order franks and beings (66)


The wordplay ('beings" for "beans") and light tone give the poem a lilting, engaging quality. It ends

the sun that evening streamed across the gray

formica across our faces we both

said the flattened light was breaking

our hearts there are certain

things no one can order up

While retaining its playfulness, the poem ends by asserting the anti-consumerist stance that we can't "order" all that we would like. The poem succeeds at defamiliarizing the act of ordering food, first by playing with the language associated with such an action, then, while retaining the playfulness, adding a note of the bittersweet. "Ordering" anything is fun and absorbing and often playful, but we inevitably are left with a desire only partly fulfilled. This has been stated many times, but Chace's originality is to work this commonplace into the very texture of the poetic form, so that the feel of the language itself is musical in a fashion similar to the action it describes.

The 'variable foot' poems are, to my mind, not quite as interesting as the others. It seems that Chace's strength lies in three areas: formal density, such as in the poem above, where he plays with traditional poetic lines laid out on the page from the left to the right. He is also good at breaking the poem apart at extreme places, even syllables, and spreading them around the page. Finally, he is very successful at using space even within words.

"dett tried us" on page 48 is by far the most radical and most interesting of the poems that break up words. He separates each 'stanza' if we can call it that, with the following:






At the top of the first stanza are the syllables "destitu". The rest of the stanza teases us with ways that the word can be finished — "te" for instance — by using rhymes and near rhymes and other sound devices. The rest of the stanza reads

rites                                        red


            utters                        rude                        (48-49)

We are left with word combinations such as "destiturites," "destitured", "destituutters", and finally "destiturude." But that's not all. We also have buried in the stanza the sentence "red utters rude." How do these fit together? Obviously, the stanza teases us by giving part of the word "destitute" without following through. At the same time, "red" and "rude" are associated, red perhaps suggesting anger, danger, embarrassment, pain, all feelings connected with our feelings toward the destitute, and perhaps even frequent feelings of the destitute themselves.

A visual poem, such as this, engages us on a couple levels. We both have to "see" the words and to read them. The stanza itself is an exploration of destitution, to work through it is to come to some sort of terms with the complex issue, but Chace wisely prevents any sort of closing attitude by never finishing the word.

A poem that makes uses of spaces within words is "s  old" (43). This poem has tremendous forward momentum, and the spaces seem to be used to slow us down, to break up that momentum before it begins to drive the poem.

this bum sits in the parlor he

ruined no shoes rode

no rails to find a place in the sun

too-late-words wet April snow

treacherous macadam sky

meta  sta  sized

bodi  less voices drifting in upper

layers of walled in air

Thematically, the poem invokes death, rain, and this bum. The effect of the acceleration / deceleration caused by the spaces within words, is to create an instability and insecurity: we never know when the verse will start tumbling down the page again, taking us with it; and when we slow, we take our breath in stutters and false starts, never relaxing, never saved by mellifluousness. This is a scary poem that explores extreme insecurity, through, once again, the texture of the language. A discussion of insecurity could never make us feel like this.

This book is a funny, brutal, wildly various ride. I appreciate Chace's determination to make us readers work at poetry by forcing us to reacclimatize ourselves to a different form so often. He is restless, playful, and bountiful in his formal inventions, and he uses this variety to explore the whole range of human emotions. Pick this book up if you're looking for variety. 

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