Friday, July 4, 2008

El ALMA de las PALABRAS: John Chávez

When done well, catalogue poems, or poems that deploy some sort of repetition as an aesthetic strategy, are fun to read. I once heard Charles Bernstein perform a longish poem that repeated the comparative construction:

"A [a] is like a [b]
A [b] is like a [c]
A [c] is like a [d]

The fun resided in the idiosyncratic ways the objects were being compared. My interest as an audience member was engaged and maintained throughout. After Bernstein concluded his performance, someone in the audience--an English professor--made a comment, explicating the various elements of the poem and what they may have "stood for." It was quite an impressive and plausible speech.

Afterwards, in private, when I commented to Bernstein how much I enjoyed his poem, he seemed to suggest that the driving force behind it, as it unfolded, were not what the words were saying, but rather how they were saying it---in other words, the sounds the poem made. He pointed out the pleasure he got from cobbling together certain internal and slant-rhymes throughout the piece.

This is what I think about when reading "The Soul of Things" by John Chávez, a poet-critic from Colorado Springs, currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. I got to spend quite a bit of time with him in Omaha last Saturday. His chapbook, Heterotopia (Noemi Press, 2004), will be reviewed in Latino Poetry Review in the Fall. Here it is, I hope, for your reading pleasure:

(Or beginning with a line by Enrique Gonzales Martínez)

There are hours I imagine that I am a sleepless bird
an ambulance ululating at dawn
that I am flailing in the great American escape
in the second of three minor ambitions
of the uninterrpted mind
that I am a shadow descending a mountain
a marble remnant of daylight
that I am a subject not belonging to the world
but to the limits of the world
that I am the first of two curtain calls
critically praised & garnering applause
that I am a whirlwind of vicissitude
& incantatory anaphor
that I am humorless & devoid of wit
a garden a jungle a terrific constellation
of unjaundiced stars
that I am a soundless & blue winter moon
paler than lamplight under a blouse
that I am a coterie of rooftops in a midnight mist
a set of somber & nude chimneys
that I am moving through my own limitations of language
vowel-conscious & tasting every sound
that I am a broken line of sparrows
banging inside the atmosphere of a man's body
that I am a garden of sunflowers
emptying a red southwestern sky
that I am perpending the brave machinery of birds
speeding through the high trees
that I am a translucent pond
cradling, on its water, the sky's golden coin of fire
that I am a book of questions
a meadow in late autumn's last trapping of warmth
its drumbeats cloying & yellow explosion

--John Chávez

"The Soul of Things" originally appeared in Heterotopia, a title published by Noemi Press, a literary press run by Carmen Giménez Smith in Las Cruces, NM, and whose current poetry editor is Rosa Alcalá. It later appeared in Xantippe in 2007, edited by Kristen Hanlon. The poem is posted here at Letras Latinas Blog with the permission of the author.

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