Lines of Flight by Catherine Chandler. Able Muse Press. 98 pp., $15.95.
Henslow’s sparrow is a small bird of inconspicuous aspect. Its colors are browns streaked with white, and it easily disappears in the grass. Native to eastern and Midwestern fields and pastures, the bird is spied only by those who look for it. As the sparrow’s habitat shrinks, the bird has grown scarce and endangered. Poet Catherine Chandler’s sonnet “Henslow’s Sparrow” may be read as an oblique self-portrait:
The Henslow’s sparrow lives among the sedge
in meadows where the tall grass sighs and bends.
It has been known to skip along the ledge
of surface mines where the escarpments ends.
This delegate of an endangered breed,
Whose song is just a whispering refrain,
Will perch atop a rosy trumpet weed
Unruffled by the darkness and the rain.
Or so they say; for I have yet to spy
The shy, elusive bird, or hear its song,
except in Audubon recordings. I
admit to shaky faith, but play along.
And though my yard’s a skirl of jays and crows,
Someday it might show up. One never knows.
This reviewer has seen and heard Henslow’s sparrow, in a fittingly embattled venue, the Saratoga National Historical Park, where the American colonists turned the tide against the British in 1777. It remains to be seen whether bird and poet (both elegantly unprepossessing) likewise triumph, though Chandler lends her poem an optimistic tag from Emily Dickinson’s #254: “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
Chandler’s poetic gift is modest, pleasing, and a little old-fashioned. She employs rhyme and traditional metrics, reliably delivering what all poetry was once expected to deliver: memorable language, music, and a shared sense of the human experience, both its losses and pleasures. Her style is eloquently plain but never prosy or flat. You can set your metronome by her iambic pentameter. Chandler’s poems often skirt light verse, but her comic touch is usually tempered by a seasoned acceptance of life’s disappointments. In her foreword to Lines of Flights, Rhina P. Espaillat rightly notes that as a poet Chandler specializes in “the duplicitousness of experience itself, the inevitable damages that reality works on our lives, and our hopeless and hopeful attachment to the world in which that damage takes place.”
Born in New York City, raised in Pennsylvania, Chandler has lived in Canada for forty years, spends her summers in Uruguay, and holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada. She translates poetry from the Spanish and French and possesses some of the North-South cosmopolitanism of Elizabeth Bishop. Lines of Flight is her first full-length collection after publishing several chapbooks. One of the collection’s finest poems is another sonnet, “Vermont Passage,” dedicated to the American poet Deborah Warren:
Wildflowers thrive and form, in mid-July,
a buoyant blue and gold receiving line
the length of Interstate Route 89,
as if to welcome friends and passersby.
But high up in the hillside meadow teems
a purple floret whose divine perfume
makes one forget that roses are in bloom—
mellifluous, the stuff of summer dreams.
And when Vermont’s Green Mountains turn to white,
when northern folk see little of the sun,
before the sugar maple sap can run,
when better days attend each bitter night,
I breathe in honeyed memories of clover,
and winter, for a while at least, is over.
Effortless binocular vision is typical of a Chandler poem, as is the ease with which she balances summer and winter, green and white, flowers and snow. Her wisdom and technical fluency are, in the best sense, middle-aged. Her choice of a flower to celebrate is revealing. Clover, though fragrant and beautiful, is humble and easily overlooked, not showy. It fits with Warren’s residence on a dairy farm in Vermont, where clover is a traditional source of fodder for cows. Nitrogen-rich clover sustains the soil, the food chain, and memories of when “better days attend each bitter night,” when the promise of summer is sure to cheer us.
Chandler’s weakness as a poet is her occasional slippage into sentimental moralizing. Too often she indulges her inner preacher, as in “To the Man on Mansfield Street.” Poems about homeless people, like concealed weapons, ought to be strictly regulated, or we end up with lines like this:
I see the bright-eyed boy you surely were;
I see the tender infant, newly-born,
The baby who, before the cross and thorn,
Was given gold and frankincense and myrrh.
This recalls nothing so much as the lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” one of Bob Dylan’s most insufferably hectoring songs: “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it . . . / I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’.” Adolescents mistake earnest self-righteousness for poetry. Grownups should know better, and Chandler usually does, as in another of her finest, “Drought,” with “(Saladillo, Argentina, 2009)” appended at the end:
Above our field of stunted corn and thistle,
a lone chimango circles, scouts, homes in
as sure and swift and savage as a missile,
pins down a leveret, rips away its skin,
ignores the terror-stricken eyes, the squeal,
devours the pulsing heart. His thirst now slaked,
he leaves the rest for a carancho’s meal.
The land is quivering, crumbling, cracked and caked,
the stream a silent checkerboard of mud,
the well near dry. I pray this lack of water
won’t leave me stony at the sight of blood,
of rational, inexorable slaughter.
The chimango is a South American raptor, the levert a young hare, and the carancho a carrion-eating falcon. Chandler sets out a three-character drama, the life-and-death cycle in miniature: the chimango kills the levert and the carancho eats the leftovers—“rational, inexorable slaughter.” This is nature’s way, life sustaining itself, an arrangement not open to human judgment. Chandler’s speaker prays her heart will not turn “stony”—drought-stricken—at the sight of it. As humans, we dwell in nature but, because we have not transcended it, are not bound by all of its strictures. Chandler reminds us our world is often savage but not exclusively Hobbesian, where even the human heart has a place. Here is “Flammarion Woodcut Pilgrim Redux,” about the French astronomer’s much-disputed illustration:
He scans the sky and wonders if the Hubble
Will burst (or not) the quintessential bubble,
Plotting new data on a deep field chart
Light years removed from any human heart.
The provenance of Flammarion’s engraving has never been established beyond a doubt. What does it represent? Does it debunk the medieval worldview? Does it allegorize the search for spiritual enlightenment? Scientific knowledge? Is hope the thing with feathers? And where is there room, Chandler asks, for the human heart?
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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