BooksWeekend

The Extraordinary Ordinary in Prose Poems

For Maxine Chernoff, language is both the promise and the breaking of the promise.

In Maxine Chernoff’s Under the Music, the absurd proves inextricable from the ordinary. “Once on a train going backwards, I met a man too generous for his own good. To flatter me, he guessed my age, and I, to prove him foolish, said, ‘Sir, I am a chair.’” What are we to do with a story like this?

Chernoff subverts the expected, exposing the seams that stitch together our experience of reality. If, as she writes in the prose poem “Drones,” “The usual mixed with the strange is the stuff of dreams,” then this collection, published by MadHat Press in 2019, places us squarely within a reverie. The work spans four decades and ten books, yet constitutes a surprisingly cohesive collection, especially given the fluidity of narrative modes. That Chernoff forgoes established genre categories — oscillating between poetry and prose — only intensifies the dreamscape. She throws routine into relief, foregrounding moments in which “suddenly the mundane appears fearfully beautiful,” and vice versa.

Propelled by crystalline similes — sharp, clear, refracting — the work is disarming, tinged with sly humor or heartbreak, sprouting like a human head from a garden, as occurs in the 1977 piece “A Vegetable Emergency” from a book of the same title. Beneath the absurdity, angst simmers: “I wonder if the head, like a hangnail, is a little-discussed but nevertheless common occurrence.” The narrator’s neighbors are “sympathetic but noncommittal.” The head’s presence in the garden persists like an unspoken shame and, in the end, avoidance is easier than confrontation: The narrator resolves to sell their house and move away, leaving behind that which haunts them, buried in sweet flowers and foliage.

“Quizzing Glass” offers a compact meditation on religion and the culture of mass production and consumption, the “replica of replicas.” In an uncertain world, we look for something to provide solace, and throughout her work, Chernoff shows that the search for meaning comes in many forms, each with its own set of consolations and flaws. “I’ll live like a hermit among the people whose notion is Fate” she writes, “They have no jokes or festivals. Their god is a fish who can hide in clear water.”

Chernoff frames estrangement in relation to identification, assembling idiosyncrasies as if to mold them into a community. “Singular,” for example, conjures the “fearfully beautiful” in a catalogue of contradictions:

We are broken and fixed. We are mended and torn. We are the underlining of the soft belly of kangaroos crossed with examination books. We tell jokes that aren’t funny and laugh with our eyes closed. When we open them, someone has died and another been born.

We praise Jove. We praise Allah. We praise the mark-downs at the Nordstrom Rack where a handsome young woman was weeping into her hands […]

We are unkind to our neighbors. We cheat on our friends. We are witnesses to the first bee in the jasmine we planted at noon. We are witnesses to the harms of a life and its slow repetitions that lead to new beauty. We travel to see peasants enact old rituals that we would find foolish in our own doorways. We are peasants as well under our skirts and children and finally fools.

Language, too, is a form of ritual, a way of performing belief. Chernoff bears witness to the arbitrary nature of, to paraphrase Joan Didion, the stories we tell ourselves to live. In “Sotto Voce,” the narrator’s young daughter says “Words are the finest toys” and “Verde, Verde”—green in Spanish. “She thinks so much depends on it,” the narrator comments. “I can’t disappoint her.” Perhaps Chernoff is alluding to William Carlos Williams’s line “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow,” but her rendition is more question than assertion.

In another piece, she writes about language that “is never proper to the moment but serves as a repository of the possible though the possible is not enough, as a tent is never enough in a storm.” Language, like belief, is both the promise and the breaking of the promise.

This paradox is also found in the prose poem “Commentary”: “I am writing this knowing that it is first excessive and second unimportant.” Still she writes it. The stream of consciousness is punctuated by text-speak like “UR” and “LOL,” mimicking ironic usage online (how often, really, are we laughing out loud?). The gimmick creates a ready foundation for the juxtapositions of the 21st century: connection and isolation, the endless streams of “content” aimed at dwindling attention spans, and the mix of nihilism and fervor in the face of ongoing political, social, and personal disasters.

In a time like this, what even counts as commentary? And who gets to decide? “…we all lose everything eventually but the stories have different weight over time some are told and some are not some are redacted and blurred.” These stories are equalizers and oppressors, lifelines and sinking vessels (“It will not save you to write poems that save you”). In a conclusion that could just as well be a lyric from Gen Z pop-goth star Billie Eilish, she asks, “what is the sum of our woes? LOLLOLLOL.”

Over the course of this collection’s nearly 200 pages there are lines that miss their mark and humor that falls flat, especially in a series of awkward dialogues in the middle of the book. While many of the volume’s pieces are not impressive at first, patient attention provides a glimpse into a complicated and profound world — Chernoff’s work grasps reality’s hard surfaces and insists upon life.

Viktor Shklovsky posited the idea of ostranenie, which is commonly translated to defamiliarization or “making strange.” The Russian Formalist believed that rendering the familiar foreign would serve as a perceptual wedge, inviting a space for critical thought. Art, he has been quoted saying, is “the dream of every structure’s collapse and at the same time the dream of the construction of new structures.”

We count on artists to offer alternatives, to take what is unremarkable in our daily lives and thread it with meaning, make it in some way marvelous. Though Chernoff expresses a healthy skepticism about writing’s potential, she is not without hope: “Let us be imagined by the sympathetic eye, borders realigning, singularity lost as bees in cumulus clouds over a locus of belief.” Poetry is at the very least a meeting ground for possibility, where pasts can be thrown into the fires and re-forged into something new, different if not better.

Under the Music by Maxine Chernoff is published by MadHat Press and is available from Amazon or your local indie bookstore

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