Threnodies (Moria Books, 2019)
Over thirty years ago, towards the dismal end of the Reagan administration (though not its legacy of austerity, greed, cruelty, scapegoating, and deception, running into our awful, embattled present), Nathaniel Tarn took note of—and aim at—recent developments in American poetry. Excoriating university-guided poetic production and its self-willed hermeticism, Tarn wrote:
When you talk only to sibling spouses you can talk in code. The massive critical vocabulary engendered by academic “new criticism” on the belly of “modernism” has led…to “wordsmithing” for its own sake, a frenzied concentration on word games without any of the impetus of modernist content or concern.i
Tarn’s response was largely directed to MFA creative writing graduates, explicitly their repudiation of a more broadly expressed public poetry and, implicitly, the denial by these poets of any notion of civic identity and engagement. With so much contemporary poetic practice confronting various kinds of identities in provocative, polemical, and often memorable transparent reckonings, the poems that comprise Joel Chace’s Threnodies might first seem ponderous, even obscure. However, a careful immersion into the work reveals formal experimentation matched with a deeply sensitive ethical core.
For many years, Chace’s commitments and conventions have always been hybrid efforts to fuse innovative configurations on the page and screen and probe real and imagined scenarios, catastrophes, and future possibilities. For over four decades, he has published numerous chapbooks, volumes, and broadsheets (Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems was published in 2008 and reviewed in Jacket 36). This work has powerful immediacy: It is not so much that his earlier visual poetry stunted or distracted from the rich, multifarious network of representations he rendered as much as the present time of pandemic, police brutality, racist violence, and various other forms of global calamity pressurize the reading experience. Reading these poems in lockdown, one is both engaged and engulfed by them. The stunted and staggered lines and language dispersed through this volume correlate to the world Chace reflects on: broken, haphazard, in need of both translation and transformation.
The volume is divided into three sections, a triptych of laments and concerns, ranging across environments, continents, timelines, and histories. The first section, timocracy, merges fairytale with a fragmented coming-of-age narrative of an unnamed subject, an anti-humanist, anti-art ogre soon to run the world, sooner still “to neglect music and begin to gather wealth.” Soulless, depthless, he is
cked in a wh-
it world wit-
h his w-
rt, a white,
Whiteness captures emptiness, a void of value. Dislocating words and lines forces the reader to read carefully, slowly, reassembling them in order to render meaning but also remember that the rendering here reflects the narrative perception of a wrecked, warped reality. In the process of moving from stanza to broken stanza, the homophonic echo of “alignment” and “what a line meant” kept ringing in my brain. Chace is a no mere trickster technician but a Utopian whose vision can be construed through the negation of the representation he builds. The arrogant, power-mad Midas here eschews “all/that is mir-/aculous” for “he b-/elieves in/just hi-/mself.” To this ostensible winner of wealth goes no spoils for
aves the room.
Note that God is bifurcated while money and property are intact. Antinomian are the present the powerful to an equitable, tenable, tender reality. The shape of lines and words confer an ethical force that often more streamlined and rhetorically direct poetic compositions dilute and dispel.
The second section’s title, umarked, sits next to the following curious epigraph or notation: “(upwards of 1,200, Tuam, Smyllum)”. No explanatory notes are included but the names refer to two Catholic children’s homes operating in the twentieth century, one in a town in the west of Ireland and the other located in Lanark, Scotland. In the past decade, over a thousand bodies were discovered, long after each facility had closed. Chace constructs a shattering memorial to the victims, a searing indictment of the assailants, and a furious take-down of the various persons, policies, and institutions. His cri-de-coeur is a jagged map of word mosaics and lines—sometimes spilling, sometimes spooling, breaking up, or breaking down—incorporating remembrance with wretched descriptions of traumatized, dead bodies that had been disappeared, stored away in fugitive burial sites such as drainage ditches, closets, under makeshift mass graves, tormented and then forgotten. The various repositories of the victims are noted and an inventory of the cast of characters in this real tragedy presented:
tanks, chambers, compartments
Broderick, Joseph Gavin, Marian
Patrick Walsh, Mary
C. Rafferty, Francis M. Heaney
Ann Marion Fahy, Joseph
Demsey, Anne Dilllon
If in death they’re
treated with disdain
their play careful,
times they were allowed to gather in
In this middle section, unlike in the first, words and phrases are not disassembled but are sutured together; proper names are detached—there is a splintering effect in this roll-call, each item and article summoned with the unwieldiness of a vexed memory, the incomplete archive duplicating the uncertainty of the number of persons lost. Scission and elision, along with incomplete phrases adding ambivalent qualifiers and debilitate any narrative thread (“their play careful,/times they were allowed to gather in) disturb the coherence of this section that is less formally broken than its predecessor and signals an encroaching erasure. The barbaric, long standing violation of (young) human rights—whose actual scale cannot be known or fathomed—is spliced and scattered in thickets of observations, recommendations, partial recapitulations, and recriminations. This patterning has the dual effect of seeming to present found, if fragmented, text with much of its matter lost; complete content and context unavailable:
They’d look for a piece of
that’d slice your skin
Church has never
had responsibility for -- that
remains a matter for statutory
and give them
proper burial, that’s what I’d just
The gaps are painful; processing the materials is an occasion to ponder the materiality of the presented language but also to consider what is not known, unclear, unavailable to assess given these monumental tragedies. Rather than enforce a sense of frustration and encourage abandonment of trying to understand what went on, what is happening—with the historical contexts, with partial meanings and interpretations grasped, with the actual experience of reading —this elegiac, polemical poem nurtures the need to get further claims on what happened and why. Any mystery or abstracted vision serves not obfuscation but a sense of interrogation, getting a heightened sense of what historical witness is or should be.
The final part of this Book of Hours and Laments, is a mash-up, mix-up, or mess up, of three interwoven quasi-narratives in thirty-two sections. Threnody in Three Voices brings together commingling, competing narratives, discrete yet convergent, undertaking no logical, at least nominally, connections—which, of course, compels the reader to find them. One progressing story is extracted from Suetonious’s The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, another about a 1950s polio diagnosis and its wider family effects, and another concerning the quotidian existence of a husband and his family, These separate tales slowly mesh together until becoming a bewildering, enchanting fusion, the arrangement of which rejects previous lineation for a blocky format:
…the merciless biddings of a tyrant, incessant Something told
him that he should inquire Leap year entry filled in by
about which classes - - or at least which major prosecution,
faithless friendships, the ruin mistake -- no February 29th
works – he would be teaching. “We this year (1957).
haven’t determined any of that, I’m afraid,” of innocence,
the same causes issuing in Looked over papers mainly the
young woman replied. “Literature?” he asked. Upon which,
the meeting and did large ironing. was adjourned. The
same results,,,the wearisome monotony…
This vibrant, brutal bricolage invites no mastery, no closure, no resolution. “Same results?” “Wearisome monotony?” Here? Anywhere in Joel Chace’s work? Never! One consumes these swerving, smashing, broken parts to elicit unfolding, layered meanings, assumptions, and questions. Earlier, the poem asserts: “Never surely did more terrible calamities.” And the catastrophic plane we ply is the grounding of Joel Chace’s oeuvre, and in Threnodies he proves an expert elegist and experimenter. The effort is ambitious and arduous: Chace foregoes the easy show, the easy line, the easy or absolute conclusion on any subject he forensically investigates and spotlights.
In a 2011 interview with fellow poet Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Chace recounts his discovery of George Oppen’s Primitive in 1978:
I remember the great pleasure of holding that book in hand, of being instantly taken by the haunting simplicity of the cover design, of the actual feel of its letter press texture; it continues to be a joy to handle this literal object that contains within it miraculous Objectivist Poems. Then, yes, the poems themselves. “Only” thirteen poems that accumulate to an immeasurable collective density; each piece possesses an astounding depth. I understood right away that the richness, the profundity of that text has everything to do with its brevity. Its length matters and produces matter that truly matters. So achieving what Oppen does in PRIMITIVE became a (probably impossible) goal for me, early on. And in recent years I’ve tendedto think and organize by means of poetic sequences, which lend themselves to chapbook length, for me, at least, because my own attention and scrutiny―and those of most readers, I believe―have a limit, and outer parameter of forty pages, tops.ii
I quote here at length to highlight the Chace’s poetics, his strategies and methods, his reliance on the chapbook format, and his kinship to Oppen and the Objectivists, for whom sincerity was a presiding principle—“of the obvious and the marvel/of the hidden is there.”iii In its striking configurations and affecting, often disturbing, and saddening storylines, Threnodies is another fascinating example of Chace’s relentless, career-long search for forms that might connect the experimental and the ethical. To a skeptic, these formal mutations might seem like gimmicks but they are no gimcracks, and this life work of recombinant creation resisting stasis is rare and admirable. So too is Chace’s publisher, Moria Books, edited by poet Bill Allegrezza, showing once again that the small press and the chapbook (many of which are available, like Threnodies, for free downloads) are reliable vehicles for invention and independence.
i Nathaniel Tarn. Essay in response to the question: “Is there, currently, an American Poetry?” American Poetry 4.2 (winter 1987)
ii “The ADHD & PTSD: Joel Chace and Jane Joritiz-Nakagaw,” Moria Poetry (moriapoetry.com), 2011.
iii “Disasters” from Primitive as published in George Oppen New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions, 2008.