Among the names
[ bookreviews ]
Maxine Chernoff's 33-poem collection, Among the Names, explores the theme of the gift. Its particular concern is the practice and politics of giving, and of being given-to, the divisions and inequalities that gifts cause or expose. The collection is constructed from a kind of aftermath of gift-giving.
Among the Names takes as a shaping principle this problem of gifts - an inheritance of literary and non-literary writings, of traditions and beliefs, of others' ideas of the gift – with which the poet must engage, whether she reject, receive or bestow them. The collection's premise is that it is the first 'fatality' of its subject, an intimate confrontation with a fragmentary inheritance that is proliferating beyond anyone's capacity to absorb its richness or its anarchy.
Immediately liberating for the reader is Chernoff's ludic acceptance of fragmentation, giving the collection a magpie licence amongst the treasury of division and lateral connections that is open to the 21st century writer, post-structuralism, post-feminism, post-cold war, post-internet and, the collection suggests, post-book.
Among the Names invites a fragmented reading, all parts of it in potential interplay and none – including the contents page – exempt from the demand to be read simultaneously as a poem and as an arrangement of markers leading elsewhere. The contents page lays out the formal concerns of the collection. Entitled 'Table of Contents', it introduces the idea of tabular, cross-referential rather than linear organization. Meaning is to be arranged visually, spatially and by multiple interrelation. The reader is to enter a place of coexistent alternatives, phrases unplugged from their grammatical context, a lexicon that points elsewhere, to its associates rather than its origins.
The titles - '[flux: isolation]', '[present/poison]', '[mine/not mine]', '[and in the background the origin of aqueducts]' - are in square brackets (and often in lower case), suggesting either extraction from another text or the paraphrasis of an omission. Paired with this is the 'Notes' section at the back of the book, giving each poem a list – works of literature, literary and political theory, websites – but not specifying their relation to these texts with page numbers. Several titles contain alternatives, separated by a forward slash which with the influence of the internet, now also denotes a place located within whatever precedes the slash: '/not mine' is perhaps contained within 'mine', '/poison' within 'present'. Colons introduce a similarly internet-induced sense of place: and the first title, 'flux: isolation' might well be the overall location, the http://www., of this collection.
Chernoff's form of engagement with a multiplicity of gifts and their consequences is to negotiate in each poem a delicate balance between the exploratory submission of the poem's voice(s), ventriloquized through pieces of found text, and the writer' prerogative to control their meaning by shaping the poem.
The balance is struck most successfully where the controlling touch is leavened with humour – or with visual play. Like the '"unlettered boy"' of '[flux: isolation]', knowing 'virtue as humor' is at the centre of the poems' success. Chernoff's makes several and sometimes multiple uses of spacing: as a form of grammar, as a timing guide for reading aloud, and to create visual puns. These uses emerge in this first poem as a point of engagement for diverse lexicons: [flux: isolation]'s opening invocations, raising spirits as diverse as contemporary military/industrial speak ('permission to land') and primal prayer, with parentheses suggesting that one may be the translation or source of the other:
permission for sympathy
in the "chemistry of man"
Chernoff's visual grammar enacts minimalist shape-poems whilst good-naturedly deconstructing their content:
of undivided light
The most exciting poems are those in which Chernoff's skill with the interaction between the visual and aural is most lively. The interplay of form and content maintains an ironic, gentle sense of humour while consistently, surgically undercutting the certainty with which the poems say what they are saying, laden as they are already with their difficult inheritance. Two shape poems, '[da/ a-da]' and '[the list of fatalities includes the book]' play with the visual motif of 'the shapely urn'. While allowing her language to suffer physically the divisive, splintering effects of political and literary give and take, Chernoff demonstrates in form – visual and aural – the re-shaping power of the poem. '[the list of fatalities includes the book]' acknowledges
(the book reduced
and then creates, visually throughout its length, the half-silhouette of an 'empty vessel' that is filled and maintained with words even as its stability is threatened by the concluding couplet:
the State (self-conscious)
its nothing -
an empty vessel
slips on a verandah
"economy as mysticism"
the future "cruel"
beyond the fence
of the present
see how the edge
slips over the edge
Chernoff's formal lightness allows her to wield self-consciously 'found' fragments with extraordinary precision. It's a high-risk operation. Sometimes the fragments are simply so heavyweight – key moments from Lear for example - that they clunk rather in their new role. The insistence, in poems made up almost entirely of quoted fragments, of multiple ownership of language whilst the poet is clearly in charge of the game can sometimes risk having the poet repeatedly pull her own conclusion from the assembled fragments like a rabbit out of the hat. Where Chernoff's magician's touch remains humorously self-effacing or reticent the risk only strengthens her hand; where the balance is less graceful the tone is occasionally maudlin or trite, the concluding cadences in particular rather heavy-handed. The end of '[the return of the ring]',
lacks the deeply disconcerting force of its immediate predecessor, [inspired by the myth we summarized]
until a suitable
(who signs below)
Chernoff performs alchemy not where, 'Transmuting/Gold', she references it explicitly, but where she enacts it. The terrible outline of a banal life is made ridiculous and the old conclusion that we-are-all-as-dust becomes chilling, stunning, and frighteningly modern here because of the visual joke. The poem, laid out as a document waiting for a signature, challenges the reader to look back at it as the kind of routine form she may often have signed without first reading closely. To sign here would be, like so many documents one signs, to corroborate the terrible outline of a banal life, identifying oneself as the poor inheritor of ambiguous gifts. To not sign (as one cannot, here) but to have read and reacted, is to participate in Chernoff's manifesto for what poetry can do (or undo). Moments like this make this collection an encouragingly unsettling experiment in what poetry can attempt, finding its forces scattered but undiminished.