Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems by Joel Chace
(BlazeVOX, Buffalo, NY, 2007)
The variegation of Joel Chace’s poetry over his career resists the effort to coordinate a formal trajectory of it: the work is polyphonic, multi-form, but not amenable to any archival-anthologizing coherence. This could be perceived as a limitation; to reputations which rely on the singularity of style, it amounts to assured failure. The poet whose venturing visions refuse to make purchase of a signature can be safely assumed to be relegated to second or third place status. Should a poet both relentless and restless generate a litany of styles and representations, the diffusion can lead to confusion: readers and critics are not amenable to a dynamism which eludes the steady pulse of sustained, recognized form. Chace might not have chance: his etch is not echt; the poems are not hybrid, they are mabe tri-brid, hydra-headed. His poetic design militates against refreshing old figurations and codifying their textures. He is hard to place because he explores many places. Therefore, he is a multi-master, and yet the perils of such admirable virtuosity are relatively slow acknowledgement of such felicitous craft and the comprehension of a poet of dizzying uniqueness.
Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems came out in 2007. The superabundance of new poetry books in the past several years might make it seem of diminished importance to rake over older coals. However, because of the problematic reception of such innovative, cell-splitting, skin-shedding work it is necessary to fire up a blaze of interpretation on it. The sub-title with its chronological insistence beckons us to effect an associative, historically coherent line of development—a normative, usually helpful guide of semantic construction. However, with Chace’s kinetic, shape-shifting modes, this kind of reading simply won’t do. The volume is divided into parts and the discrepancy of voice and form even between Part I and Part II reveals how willfully chameleonic the poems become. “Paper World” in Part I spans an inventory of perception on the materiality of writing and the metaphysical ascendency of words and language.
Part II then directs us to “The Future Adventures of Maggnnumappuss,” an almost Blakean, punning meditation on a nebulous monstrous being, the purveyor of historical nightmare and subversion of language and logic. Navigation through the prevailing landscape of menace and murky perception calls for epistemological re-configuring:
There is a world where you can
find your bearings
only by shredding maps
then placing the pieces
over your eyes
Later on, the reader is called to “Stare into memory’s/broken eye” and “Stare into history’s/broken/eye.” Those broken eyes, like the poems themselves, allow for radiant fragments of insight to pool and pervade, a deconstructed orchestration of phenomena and its expression. Flux and sensation typify the barometer by which Chace encounters the diverse atmospheres of the natural and stylized world, a place where one must be mindful, as in “Milkweed,”
can change anything even
changes even now to
think about the change changes
it no longer a
man that is but
a fish circling…
Such poetic musings amount to hermeneutic considerations; the poet is not only rendering a record of reality but articulating the process by which he does so and the need to re-calibrate the means of doing so. The following lines from which the book derives its title captures this gesture starkly:
he kept cleaning
cleaning the mirror kept
finding himself knew
if he kept cleaning he’d
find the new way to
pose just kept cleaning found
the new waves that ocean
those sheets of sound
This evocation amounts to an aesthetic imperative. Formalistically, it resembles a kind of exploded Objectivism in which referents imagistically connect, collide, and break off into polyvalent relationships with one another. I can probably do little justice in a compact review of how the lines, paginations, and compositional spaces Chace invents take on such distinctive designs. Poetic lines often resemble slats, particles, raindrops, micro-mosaics, text-barges, and glass shards, and their loaded, often counter-intuitive insights about the arrangement and disarrangement of poetically and empirically constructed worlds leave the reader with, to use a Chace-logism, “circumcussion,” a salutary knock to the head.
I would argue for Chace’s distinctiveness and complexity but helpfully ascribe for him some company, some antecedents and affinities, to better affix him into a viable canon of consideration. Closer to his generation, Michael Palmer seems a viable comparison: each carry forth lyrical, diffracted, and distracted deliberations on the enchantments and disenfranchisements of narrative and the project of poetic apprehension, that is, the achievement and futility of ascribing words to world. Also, the post-Objectivist Armand Schwerner can be name-checked, particularly the book-length sequence The Tablets, a pseudo-crypto-quasi-historical-poetic translation of ancient Sumero-Akkadian replete with gnomic transcriptions, gaps, malapropisms, a stuttering codex of puns, stunning insight, and broken constructions. Chace’s Translations from After (Part VI and Part VII in the volume) pursue a seasoned, matching medley of logos and gnosis, playful and at times paralyzing.
Rhizome-like and always vibrant, Cleaning the Mirror is a superb introduction to Joel Chace’s poetry. A perfect postscript to its contents would be his 2008 collection, matter no matter (paper kite press), offering another stunning re-direction of this poet’s path. If transformation is the counterpart or undershoot of transcendence, then Joel Chace’s oeuvre is an assured model of matter changing matter, and always masterly so.
Jon Curley's first collection, New Shadows, was released last year by Dos Madres Press. His critical study, Poets and Partitions: Confronting Communal Identities in Northern Ireland, will be published next year. He lives in New Jersey, where he teaches in the Humanities Department of New Jersey Insitute of Technology.