Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Billie Chernicoff, Amoretti
Lunar Chandelier Collective, 2020, $12.00

I have only become aware of Billie Chernicoff’s poetry recently, through a series of her poems called “A Sail on Lake St. Clair,” which appears in the new online journal Cæsura. Upon reading these poems, which Chernicoff paired with paintings by Nathlie Provosty, and which are insightfully introduced by Michael Boughn, I immediately sought out her other work. I should say that I have only awakened to Chernicoff’s poetry recently, because she is a very rare and special thing: to use Longfellow’s phrase in his sonnet to Chaucer, she is a “poet of the dawn.” Harold Bloom is fond of reminding us that in regard to poetry, if not culture in general, we dwell in the Evening Land (Abendland), a condition of belatedness, loss, and growing psychic darkness. If this is indeed the case, it may be difficult for us to apprehend, to see and to hear a poet like Chernicoff, a poet of astonishing lyricism and elemental beauty, who instinctively understands that poetry must engage our desire for transcendence while at the same time grounding us in sensual experience. A religious poet steeped in myth, she is also an intensely erotic poet, who understands, with Blake, that what we require of each other are “the lineaments of Gratified Desire.” Above all else, she recognizes—she re-knows, and leads us in re-knowing—that, in the words of Allen Grossman’s Summa Lyrica, “The lyric is entranced in the first astonishment that it is at all, the awakening of Eve.” Hence the mystery: “We awaken in the poem. How did we come there?” It is this sense of dawning wonder that I feel again and again when reading Amoretti.

In the meshes
of our spent selves,
pensées, strewn
Heart’s Ease,
Pansies,
Love-in-idleness
we pluck
to crown ourselves
gods, or so we think,
so we suppose,
all sticky and dreamy
and proud of ourselves. (62)

“Love-in-idleness” and “Heart’s Ease” are traditional names for the wild pansy; the former is the term that Oberon uses for the enchanted flower, “Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,” that causes so much erotic havoc in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Shakespeare’s play, when mortals find themselves confounded by uncurbed desire, they are reduced to the level of irrational and violent beasts. But in Chernicoff’s post-coital lyric, the flower serves “to crown ourselves / gods, or so we think”: our natural instincts reveal our potential divinity. And in the next poem in the sequence,

I hear the erect flesh and the wet pleated flesh
at the crux of our entangled limbs could be
the apparatus of divine mind.
I hear the seed syllable
break on me like a wave into all your names. (63)

In addition to sex and transcendence, Chernicoff here braids one more crucial strand: language. Although she is primarily a Christian poet (notice “the crux of our entangled limbs”), there is something Jewish, specifically kabbalistic, about the erotic language mysticism at work in these lines. If sexual desire grants us access to the “divine mind,” then the inspired poet hears “the seed syllable,” the original speech act of creation that breaks “like a wave into all your names.” Whose names? God’s or the lover’s? As she declares in “Thales said”:

What do you care
what really happens?
Open your mouth
and god walks in.
Walks in like a husband.
Walks in, a husband,
no semblances.
There are words religious
as tears that open
the door for us
mourners and revelers. (108)

Divine inspiration walks in on, walks into Chernicoff and inspires her speech, as casually as her partner walks in and finds her in any room of the house they share.

Chernicoff’s frank, almost insouciant tone, the way in which seemingly casual conversation modulates into “words religious / as tears,” is one of the most charming aspects of her style. And I mean “charming” in quite a literal sense: Chernicoff’s poetry is a form of theurgy, of white magic. Many of her poems are charms or spells, what Northrop Frye defines in his discussion of lyric in The Anatomy of Criticism as “the hypnotic incantation that, through its pulsing dance rhythm, appeals to involuntary physical response, and hence is not far from the sense of magic, or physically compelling power.” Sometimes these poems sound as simple as a nursery rhyme, such as this one from the sequence “Paper | Dresses,” which Chernicoff notes is written in response to “Ragged Edges and Missing Threads,” a sculpture by Mary Kate McTeague:

Stone, paper, scissors.
One, a trembling.
Two lips, a lisp.
Three stars or birds,
things in the sky
numbers are the relics of. (5)

The poem moves by what Frye calls “the rhythm of association,” a process that takes place mostly “below the threshold of consciousness, a chaos of paronomasia, sound-links, and memory-links very like that of the dream. Out of this the distinctively lyrical union of sound and sense emerges.” Recalling the children’s game and simple counting rhymes instantly leads to a trembling in the act of speech which signifies inspiration. This in turn causes the speaker to look skyward at the portentous “Three stars or birds.” They are given form through “numbers,” not only in the sense of numerals, but also metrical lines, verses. The poem enacts its own creation.

I apologize to those readers who may think my presentation is too ponderous for a brief six-line poem, but if, as Pound claims, that “dichten = condensare,” then we have a good example of the quiet power of Chernicoff’s lyricism. Here is another spell-like poem, also from “Paper | Dresses”:

Where did the wives and maidens go?
To themselves, to that meadow
of sun in mist,
beholden only to music.
Holy ghosts, subjects
of no aubade, overturned
origins, uterine.
Aubades themselves,
those gone girls and women
whose light rains over the Roses of Sharon. (8)

Again, the poem enacts its own creation, as these ghostly women, who need no male troubadours to sing their beauty at dawn after a night of love, give birth to themselves, and hence to the poem. Chernicoff’s feminism, her devotion to women’s “uterine” power, is lovingly balanced with her devotion to the craft of poetry itself. Her vision of “that meadow / of sun in mist, / beholden only to music” is an answer to Robert Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” with its worship of the mother goddess / muse, the “First Beloved,” “Queen Under The Hill.” Likewise, “those gone girls and women / whose light rains over the Roses of Sharon” is a response to Duncan’s “made place, created by light / wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.” In this woman’s poem, feminine beauty is self-perpetuating. Similarly, a number of poems in the series called “Elevens” (all of which have eleven lines) invoke a female figure who “has made herself pregnant / like the moon, and she is pleased” (22). She engages in “her ritual, form-giving / embrace, pharaonic / pregnant, / but not with child” (23)—for she is pregnant with herself.

Ritual, religion, and myth are fundamental to Chernicoff’s poetry, but as one may infer from the work I’ve discussed, when it comes to these matters, she is a born revisionist. In a sequence called Mermaiden, the speaker tells us that she is “drowned / in green gold... / though I am born / and born and born of this / green womb, I write / as one who died, who vanished, / a mere girl, into the sea” (“The Origin of Mermaids,” 81). Sea and land, death and rebirth, the temptress and the worshipful devotee: Chernicoff plays with these binaries, and out of their contradictory tensions, her expansive vision of submerged spirituality gradually surfaces. To become a mermaid, in Chernicoff’s revisionary myth, is to be reeducated, and to reeducate others in turn, especially in the ways of poetry:

Every book sometimes falls into the sea,
and the contents of every cup.
I’ve warned and enchanted
more than one sailor
with the tercets of Dante
and the English of Marlowe.
Poor Faustus, who ached
to resolve ambiguity,
worse a sin than all the deadlies,
Faust, who wanted more books, like me.
But down here we don’t think of choosing,
we have no words for one or the other,
down here no one says no. (“Curriculum of the Sea, 84)

Since “down here no one says no,” Chernicoff’s mermaid is quite ecumenical: “We have a Mer-Christ, a powerful swimmer, / who comes among us and blesses the serpents” (“The Mermaid’s Passion,” 86), but she also acknowledges “The Hasids of the Catskills... / who swim in their one book” and “may even be merfolk themselves” (“Who Knows,” 87). To dwell beneath the sea is to “write as one lifted back through the green, / ...like the ocean / were language, were father and mother” (“Like the Ocean Were Language,” 94), for it is only in writing that spiritual truths are revealed.

Chernicoff knows her calling to be that of revelator, and though there is an easygoing quality to much of her work, there are moments of intense prophetic utterance as well. In his introduction to Chernicoff’s poems in Cæsura, Michael Boughn observes that “Her music resonates with a distant but immediate echo of Emily Dickinson’s fearless spiritual ordeal recorded in her broken, stuttering hymns.” This is nowhere more apparent than in the poem “I” (the quotation marks around the pronoun are part of the title), in which, as in some of Dickinson’s most harrowing religious lyrics, Chernicoff interrogates her own poetic identity, challenging any conventional understanding of the “self,” including that of gender. (I am thinking, for instance, of Dickinson’s “I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs” or “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.”) This challenge arises because divinity both exalts and humbles the poet. “I must be Ariel,” she announces, but it is not Prospero whom she serves. Here are the last stanzas of this extraordinary poem:

I am my lord’s finger
plucking the string
that makes the air roar
a lion of god.

I come with a thought
like the cool fire of justice,
the instructive wrath
of a merciful fish,
the brightest thing in the sky.

I can’t refuse him, am I myself?

For him I devised a catastrophe
on the altar of my own heart,
and it has made me strange
and close with feeling,
the tender prisoner of an air.

My alibi is a lullaby,
a lull, a spell,
I am only an alloy
like laughter,
a prayer
or rumor,
invisible ink
oracular as a girl,
brief as a girl,
as free as a thought
coming true,
to the syllable. (98-99)

Shakespeare’s airy sprite takes his name from a number of obscure references in the Hebrew Scriptures, along with later mystic texts and angelologies. In Chernicoff’s myth (for she is, again, inventing a new myth), the poet is transformed into a rhapsodic “lion of god” through having devised a “catastrophe / on the altar of my own heart,” keeping in mind that a catastrophe is literally an overturning, a sudden, overpowering end. She becomes “the tender prisoner of an air,” compelled to sing the song of the Lord. In the bravura play of rhyme and alliteration that marks the last stanza, she ironically presents herself as a mere girl, but also as an “alloy,” part human, part divine, “free as a thought / coming true, / to the syllable.” She is free to express the truth, faithful “to the syllable,” the same phrase that Ariel in The Tempest uses in acknowledging obedience—and the promise of freedom—to Prospero. In these lines, Chernicoff embraces her poetic freedom, and in doing so, embraces her readers as well. Hopefully, more and more will be drawn to her wonderous poems.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 1/30/2021 at 12:00 PM