Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Babelogue of a Consummate Professional:
A Review of Erin Knight's Chaser

Erin Knight
(Anansi, 2012)

Erin Knight’s second collection, following the Lampert-shortlisted The Sweet Fuels (Goose Lane, 2007), marks both a logical next step and an extraordinary departure. In terms of subject matter, her debut often spanned familiar CanPo territory—the insights of nature, the lessons of family, the lure of home—and yet swerved well clear of cliché through the twin virtues of a) a voice that turned resolutely unsentimental at just the right junctures, and b) a deft, unconventional handling of metaphor. Beyond its skillful traversal of conventional material, however, The Sweet Fuels also undertook a rather singular engagement with the confusions of the body: the ways that momentarily misstepping, mishearing, and misfeeling can suddenly exile us from ourselves. This strand of inquiry produced many of the book’s most arresting tropes: “The Lesser Vowel Shift,” for example, cast “the difference between breathe / and breathing” as “the little e – a chipped tooth / in a cup of milk”; “Trinity of the Ear” figured the cochlea’s inner workings as a holy labyrinth akin to those carved in the floors of medieval churches, envisioning “the quiet, pious hairs of the ear” as they “kneel at their tiny altar”; and “Wind-over-Wave” turned on a runner’s thirsty characterization of “Water / as charity, as the body / yearning for stasis,” going on to claim that “The body approaches the ocean / through the blood: its salinity / equal to the salinity of the sea.” The frequency of such searching formulations (I could cite many more) set The Sweet Fuels apart among its similarly meditative peers as an unusually accomplished debut, and marked out Knight as a poet to likely regard in terms of career rather than just collection.

Chaser fulfills this promise immensely. In amplifying her debut’s preoccupation with the body’s small betrayals, Knight has produced a timely and enthralling meditation on disease: in this case, consumption—of both the tubercular and late-capitalist varieties. But (and this is one of the book’s great strengths) the meditation rarely emanates from the poet herself. Instead, Knight frequently channels a spectral panoply of canonical “cure chasers”—Keats, Kafka, Katharine Mansfield—building poems around fragments of their writings to chronicle the warped psychologies of those who travel not to clear their minds, but to clear their lungs. In her jacket blurb for Chaser, Susan Holbrook rightly notes that Knight’s two books are united by “a spirit of intrepid, open-eyed research,” and this is especially true as relates to the motif of travel. While many poems in The Sweet Fuels took their genesis from the poet’s own experiences in Latin America, and thus trafficked in fairly well-worn models of self-exploration, others (particularly in the book’s closing Part III) donned masks to more effacingly inhabit the places travelled to and the historical figures enmythed there. This resulted in many of the collection’s most vivid highlights: the playful English-to-Spanish-back-to-English “Milagro por el nevado in Three Translations,” the conquistador-inhabiting “The Word According to Hernán Cortés,” and its companion piece, the pithy, devastating “Teosinte”—worth quoting here in full:

Many are deliberating the ancestry of corn.
One man has chosen to hold out his thumb
so that we might all consider the centuries
that had been spent waiting for the first ear
to reach that size. Then at last all its sexual organs
turned female and it was saved from itself
by husbandry, like mothers, drawn out of caves
bearing baskets of maize. It is true
that our best stories are apocryphal.
After his years away, they asked Cortés,
What is Mexico like? He tore a page from the book
that lay open on the table, crumpled it in his fist
and dropped it to the ground: It’s like this.

Though technically spoken in the first-person plural, the poem masterfully shifts nouns and pronouns to evoke a broad socio-historical context within a very small space. Beginning in the third person with “Many” and “One man,” it shifts briefly to the poem’s central “we” before returning to the third person to offer first an objectivized account of the domestication of corn, then (after dipping quickly back into the “our”) a revealing anecdote about Cortés’s triumphant return from Mexico, finally allowing the conquistador himself to usurp the speakership for the poem’s last three, self-incriminating words. “Teosinte” stands as a brilliant 13-line object lesson in manipulating point of view to lend a short poem panoptic scope. And much else here intrigues: the way “first ear,” left hanging enjambed, hints that the poem’s “apocryphal” story may never before have been heard; the allegorical resonance between corn’s “husbandry” and Mexico’s colonization; and the subtle Borgesian suggestion—inherent in that final “this”—that the page Cortés tears out and crumples might be the very one on which the poem itself is printed.

Though more often in the “I” than the “we” of “Teosinte,” it is this elusive brand of voice that Knight both extends and fractures in Chaser: a kind of paradoxical first-person objective, spoken through personae at once disclosing and closed, self-revelatory and strangely alien from what they reveal. The book’s prologue, entitled PREDIAGNOSIS, directly establishes the hypochondriacal mood that carries throughout. Consisting of a series of brief, fractured lyrics all umbrella-titled “Lender of Last Resort,” it projects voices—or perhaps just one voice: we’re never fully sure—meditating on various stages of an illness both pulmonary (“A cattarh of the apex of the lung”) and, as the sequence builds, existential. This movement culminates in “(Lender of Last Resort: Self),” setting out the book’s central conceit with what becomes its characteristic elusive precision:

Like all spenders I am ill, I philosophize
out of my attachment to everything

Trees, flowers, thrushes, spring, summer,
verses, etc.

I will be as patient in illness as I am able

But the lungs are entirely destroyed,
the cells quite gone

And the rush for liquidity is on

Lender, increase my bewilderment

Confess what these instruments have concealed

Formally, “(Lender of Last Resort: Self)” is typical of the entire collection. It’s as though Knight has taken the more traditional lyric modes of her debut and redacted, splayed, and spectralized them, leaving them sounding as though spoken down a slightly distorting tunnel from another time: not the past exactly—though the consumption motif and frequent twinges of antiquated diction (“the cells quite gone”) do cast a vaguely Victorian air over the proceedings—but rather an alternate present, where a blood-stained handkerchief just as likely belongs to a sudoku-addled business traveller as a classicly doomed bohemian. Except for the “gone”/”on” end rhyme (rhymes of any sort are rare in Chaser), the poem isn’t musical in any overt, formalist sense; but it’s extremely well orchestrated. Notice, for instance, the weird ambiguity of “I philosophize / out of my attachment,” with “out” meaning both because of and away from. Or the deftly repeating stress pattern of “Trees, flowers, thrushes, spring, summer, / verses”; the clever punning on “patient” and “able”; the arresting shift from lung fluid to financial “liquidity”; and the commanding apostrophic turn to the mysterious entity (god or bank manager?) addressed solely as “Lender”: here as throughout Chaser, Knight displays an extraordinary attunement to linguistic slippage, and to the compellingly estranging effects that can be produced through an admixture of verbal precision and judicious randomness.

You’ll notice the words “precision” and “judicious” feature prominently in the preceding line. Recourse to such Latinate descriptors is virtually unavoidable in discussing Chaser. I’ve touched on how deeply the collection is informed by research, and indeed a list of reference works important to its composition appears in the back matter: the above-mentioned Keats-Kafka-Mansfield material, as well as scholarly volumes on tuberculosis, pandemics, and financial crises. Although Knight takes successful pains to imbed and bury this research—rather than, for example, explicitly alluding to or (as Anne Carson often does) citing her sources within the poems’ bodies—a cerebral tone permeates Chaser, serving notice that this is a book written by an intellectual, or more properly, a professional. Now I realize this could sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not. What I mean is that the book so seamlessly weaves secondary research into its more strictly poetic elements—its fragmentary voices, its elaborate figurative scaffolding, and its uneasy, halting sonic patterning—that it quickly and irrevocably earns our readerly trust. After three close readings through, not one line in Chaser strikes me as ill-considered. Even when I’m mystified (as I must admit I am by at least a solid handful of pieces), it’s not a frustrating bafflement, but rather the kind of mystification that leaves one questing after the meaning one knows must lie just beyond the mind’s grasp. In addition to winning us over with its verbal precision (there’s that word again), its unexpectedness, and what Holbrook calls (in one of the most considered and accurate jacket blurbs I’ve ever read) its “willingness to be waylaid by the unforeseen,” Chaser manages to be such an uncommonly affecting book because the metaphorical connections it makes feel not just aesthetically seductive, but somehow objectively apt. In carrying the bodily affliction of consumption across to the psychosocial one, in carrying the phenomenon of tubercular “cure chasing” across to the tribulations of 21st-century tourism, and in setting into orbit around these central conceits obliquely related motifs of vaccine development, outbreak management, tulipomania, the postmodern need for speed, etc.—Knight frequently seems not to forge new associations, but to illuminate ones that already persisted unseen.

Nowhere is this metaphorical aptness more exhilaratingly embodied than in “Travelogue of an Amorous Consumptive,” which opens with what might just be a genius metaphor for contracting TB (“In Paris I too come to love / the red geranium”), and phases gradually from this bal musette-tinged imagery (“The corkscrew is lost, / the concierge philosophical”) to an enigmatic meditation on the germ-dangers of modern air travel (“A man deplanes in Beijing / with a temperature spike // pandemic alerts rise to level five”). I will not quote any further from this poem because its short lines, relative length, and above all its sheer persuasiveness—metaphorically, rhetorically, sonically—demand it be read in full. As a fellow poet I envy it more with each revisiting. So to anyone who has reached this point in the review and is considering checking Chaser out, I request that you head to your chosen bookseller, pull it off the shelf, and read the first 17 pages, which cover the PREDIAGNOSIS section and “Travelogue.” I suspect you’ll then want to read the rest.

But wait, you might interject, is this book egregiously front-loaded, and if not, why have you only discussed its opening poems? To be honest, this is a difficult issue, and touches upon one potential resistance I can see readers having to Chaser. It’s not front-loaded at all, its high quality persists throughout, and yet because of a certain tonal uniformity, the collection can seem as though it flags in the middle. On my first two readings I stopped at the exact same poem, “Zone of Inhibition,” on page 49 of 86. When I took the book up again several days later, however, page 50 felt as fresh as the beginning initially had. The collection’s relative sameness of tone, I realized, is in the service of a pretty dazzling multidimensional coherence: its three main sections (my descriptions are inevitably reductive)—I HOPE THE SEA AIR WILL ACT AS PHYSICIAN, on illness and travel; LACUNA IN PRODUCTIVITY, on the science of cure-seeking; and MUST SEE BANKRUPTCY FRIDAY BETTER STAY REPLY, on financial panic as illness—together constitute an unusually coherent book. Not just a collection, with the sense of miscellany that often entails, but something that comes, if not full circle, at least, well, mostly oval. Given the diversity and dramatic potential of its subject matter, any more marked tonal shifts would have inflected Chaser with a sense of the carnivalesque, whereas Knight clearly aims at something more intense and sustained. Above all, this book earns being called a work of art: an engaged and relevant vision fleshed out with research and executed with consummate professionalism by a poet willing to be led, often at the aptest of moments, by her own more erratic side. Because it was released in an Anansi spring season that also featured books by Dennis Lee, A.F. Moritz, and Erin Moure, perhaps it’s little surprise that while its launchmates have all been reviewed in national publications, Chaser (until now) has gone virtually uncommented upon. But I’m here to tell you the silence is unwarranted. I’ve read all four books, and Knight’s readily stands alongside those of her illustrious peers. Need I explicitly urge you to read it?