A study in how we define the world outside

A review of Maxine Chernoff's 'Without'

Without

Without

Maxine Chernoff

Shearsman Books 2012, 82 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1848611962

The cover photograph of Maxine Chernoff’s latest book of poems, Without, shows a scruffy western American landscape in the hallucinatory amber light of late afternoon. The black shadow of a porch cuts a geometric shape across the landscape, framing leafless trees and twisted stumps; in the distance lies a low hill covered in chaparral-like vegetation. The photograph, by Carolyn Guinzio, suggests a dry land lacking the moisture needed to sustain growth: it is a landscape without. But the photograph suggests something else: that “without” means not only “lack of” but also “exterior to.” This is a crucial addition, for Chernoff’s book is a meditation not only on loss but also on the poet’s (and, by association, every human’s) relationship to the exterior. It is a study in how we define the world outside—how our interior losses shape the exteriors that surround us.

In this series of sixty-four poems, each title is bracketed and begins with the word “without.” The opening poem, “[without resolution],” sets the tone and the place of the poems, which are dominated by ambiguity. Resolution is not only a driving force, a commandment to the self meant to better one’s behavior in social terms, but also an ending, the completion of a complicated and difficult situation. It’s as if the writer were not actually setting out to complete a discrete work of art but, rather, awakens in the midst of a chaotic and indefinite state. The poem’s first lines are true to the title’s implication:

consider our planet

 woeful cauldron

 far-fetched utopia

 oiled by power (11)

 

The poet asks us to join her in her perception of the world’s improbable mess, which is both “sunlight” and “jasmine’s / March-night scent / which slightly reeks”: we exist on a generic planet where “all the deaths / we are counting” form a “titanic excess.” Our Earth is a “woeful cauldron,” a blackened pot where witchy potions are brewed — potions that create doubtful and dangerous states of being, linked with elemental power. In this case, the brew is a mixture of sorrow, loss, and anger. Linked to the personal loss of relationship that appears throughout the book — “one ran / and one followed / one fell / one called after” — is the degradation of the planet and furious wars of the Middle East.

This intimacy between the self and the planet is most closely revealed in the poem “[without pain]” in which the ending metaphor guides the poem from the mind — “she signals rejection / he signals loss” — to the terrain of the Earth: 

who can say

 what a gesture means

 surveyors have

 their job to do

 locating where

 it used to hurt (41)

 

Although this mixture seems to swing over into the domain of pathetic fallacy, Chernoff enlivens more than the nineteenth-century concept of Nature. An animistic sense inhabits Chernoff’s understanding not only of nature but also of both the body and language:

all this hurts

 the ocean suggests

 as if waves

 could privilege

 ear’s dumb gestures

 or a ghost of a sentence learn

 to read its

 own dried ink

 ([without a listener], 14)

 

The ending metaphor intimates that language creates a material object with a separate existence. And that separation from the speaker or writer is also a type of loss.

The series is less dependent on the characteristic projections of poetic fallacy; it is, instead, a systematic stripping down of the world. Each poem suggests a view of the world as it would be without the particular emotional or mental feature stated in the poem’s title. But throughout the poems as a series, other words reappear that weave a web of association between the particular worlds: this multiverse may in fact be a universe. “White” repeats in “[without light],” occupying a funeral, and also appears as a summer night in “[without design]” and as the color of a monster, a sickness that goes by the name of radioactivity, in “[without substance].” White signifies relief as the color of the uniforms of the clean-up crew at the Fukushima reactor in the poem “[without intention].” And white variously inhabits bones, the ambiguously planetary moon, snow and ice, ash and salt, clouds and ghosts. All of which stream back to the writer’s blank page, which is endlessly capable of silence. The reappearing aspects of white tie the multiple worlds of the book together — each is somehow familiar, each a possibility of the other.

Among white’s many shades and hues is the color silver: a color vibrating between white and black, illusory in its indefinite character, as illusory as the images used within the poems:

what we tried

 to understand

 receded

 from our view

 like the sheen

 you see

 on roads

 when summer

 knows you

 swelter

 just to know

 ([without a view], 72]

 

Throughout the book the ability to forget or to select wavers, and the reader must constantly decipher where the writer is placed in relation to the text. Does she pronounce the words or do they describe her? Is she subject or object? 

what to forget

 when knowing

 leeches out like

 oil buried

 in sandy ground

 

 laments unmute

 their billowing song

 their edges

 taut with recognition

 ([without erasure], 13)

 

The quality of the language is vaporous, escaping definition and giving the words the features of a vision. The writer — the poet spinning out words as if they were equivalences — assumes the countenance of a visionary. Thus loss becomes a doorway, a medial state like that time of day in Guinzio’s cover photograph: it exists in some time between day and night, a twilight zone with its otherworldly colors. Though in Chernoff’s universe the sky is white, that absence of color, milky as an overcast day, layered with strata of clouds.

The overall structure of the book is that of a list. A list, paradoxically, of absences. Within the individual poems lists make connections between things ambient and disconcerting: 

birds on a wire

 spycams winking

 the floods of 1873

 hairs of the elephant

 the lipsticked

 cup he used to kiss

 ([without number], 51)

 

The lists are delicately surrealistic in their unpredictability, often pairing opposites that cluster in startling relationship to each other:

painless torture

 painless denial

 painless poem masking

 its plan

 ([without pain], 41)

 

The poems are composed of short lines, most five to six syllables long; some, such as “[without movement]”, only two or three syllables in length. These short lines give the poems a breathless quality, which would move the reader through the poem quickly and comprehensively if it were not for the syntactical ambiguity caused by the poems’ lack of punctuation. Although it’s clear that meaning gathers as you read through the lines, it’s not always clear whether a line links to the line above or below, or is meant to be read separately, as its own image or idea. Thus, Chernoff compels two movements and two speeds in the reading. The first drives the reader forward as quickly as possible so that the lines can be gathered and interpreted. The second requires the reader to slow down, loop back, and reread the lines in different configurations. “[without shadow]” opens:

death stutters

in the voice of a judge

ostrich-headed

predilections

blatant and grave

the body asks

for frost

… (17)


It is impossible to say with sureness whether “ostrich-headed” modifies “the voice,” “a judge,” or “predilections,” and the same can be said of “blatant and grave,” which could modify either “predilections” or “the body.” This device is not unusual in contemporary writing, but it is used so unceasingly and it fits so snugly with the original and multiple worldview that Chernoff creates within the book that it’s worth noting; it is the central technique of the poems.

One of the implications of this technique is that the poems are oral in essence. Only through the poet’s speaking voice can the poems’ meanings be elucidated, crystallized (even though her performance may change with each reading). And it is here that Chernoff’s practice as a storyteller, both in novels and prose poetry, is revealed and transformed. There are stories behind these poems and a larger tale to be told, but like the more enduring of oral mythologies, they lie in a mysterious realm where existential sorrow moves the imagination to speak. Words rescue the lone human, stranded, unleashing her from the arbitrariness of loss. And the listener and the reader are drawn in by the mystery, searching within its enigma for truths and truth’s power to heal.

As the book closes the poet offers the long-delayed resolution: first apologizing to the dead that have vanished in life’s turmoil, then to the living:

i am sorry for

 

my slights of

everyone

my unturned cheek

I am only trying harder

to be what light

calls itself when

it enters a room

full of sorrows

([without sympathy], 78–79)

 

In the closing and longest poem of the book, “[without without],” Chernoff puts forward the image of art, following the mandate of her grandson — merged with the reader in an anonymous “you” — to “draw a dowel / draw a compass / draw a kind of cup / draw an old man.” She “would teach you nothing” — for the ability to imagine and to create is innate: “you know the words / you say them     you.” The resolution is that sorrow and even death are lightened by the human compulsion to speak and to create.