February 28, 2020KR Reviews

On North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. 112 pages. $22.00.

A book of landscape and memory, of travel and grit, North American Stadiums is more like the act of penance than anything else I have ever read. In his debut collection, Grady Chambers takes us nowhere and everywhere, rendering the continental United States as unforgiving pastoral. Smokestacks and forges, winter and jackknives, bodies broken, exhausted and fragile—these images, repeated throughout the collection, insist upon an interrogation of beauty, savor the hard details, speak always with a tang of blood. While Chambers takes us on the road in a manner similar to Whitman or Kerouac, this is a form of travel that feels more like haunting than road trip—with the speakers of these poems not so much confident as shameful and perpetually unmoored. Above all, these poems seek to remember, record, and perhaps be forgiven along the way.

On the level of language and sound, North American Stadiums is straightforward, unadorned. Though often pleasing to read aloud, these poems are measured, refuse to be carried away by sound. The book’s opening poem, “Explaining the Resurrection in Simple Words,” demonstrates many of the poet’s tendencies. As the title suggests, this short poem offers a definition of the miracle of resurrection in plain words, beginning first with a statement, an attempted definition:

A blessing can be the act
of invoking divine
or a favor or gift
bestowed by god . . .

Yet this act of definition turns to searching, to an admission of unknowing, when the speaker continues:

and I don’t know
how to define mercy,
but the field
is lit like the heart
of the night, gnats flitting
above the crosshatched grass,
huge shadows of the ballplayers in stadium light
whistling in signals
from the outfield.

We know so little, the speaker seems to say—so little that he is hesitant to state even a theory, any possible definition for mercy. Even the poem’s syntax is unassuming, in the way it splits sentences up into clauses, rarely breaking an image or phrase up across lines. Given the poem’s title, we perhaps expect explanation, expect the poem to return to statement from image—but it doesn’t. Instead, there is more description, before the poem ends in yet another image: “I’d pressed my back to the dark / damp wood of the trunk. / Yellow flowers fell on me.” This image is so quiet that, for readers like me, it seems almost a deflation; the speaker has relinquished his power to meaning-make, to editorialize the moment. Yes, this is what happened: a back pressed to a tree trunk, a shower of yellow flowers. But what did the speaker think? What did he feel? He will not tell us. “But the field,” the speaker insists. This, the poem seems to say, is the knowledge we may access: an image. Memory. The telling of what happened. Pay attention, watch the flowers fall, and you will know what you can.

The whole book continues much in this fashion, like a prayer—more concerned with meaning, image, and narrative, telling the story right—providing a record—than with singing. As the collection’s title suggests, the poems offer a sprawling and expansive vision. And contrary to “Explaining the Resurrection in Simple Words,” most of the poems are long ones—of the book’s twenty-seven poems, only nine are a single page or less. Many are wild, expansive, recounting images and details in a fashion so exacting that it seems almost like purgation, a wringing-out of the mind. “Another Beauty I Remember,” “Thousand Islands,” “Far Rockaway,” “Jackknife,” “Pin,” “Dragons,” “The Syracuse Poem,” and “Blue Handgun” all fit into this mold—recording, clicking from one detail to the next. There is no such thing as mere description, Chambers seems to suggest. Instead, the book forces us to interrogate our ideas of what an image can and should do, what constitutes meaning, movement, and transformation in a poem. Meanwhile, poems like “Dispatch: Pittsburgh,” “Dispatch: Canal Zone,” and “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966” sprawl deep across space and time, expanding to the geographic scope of the landscape chapters in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the temporal scope of the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

In “Dragons,” the poet’s unassuming style, the careful swell of his image bank, and his use of repetition hit a devastating crescendo—a seven-page poem that moves back and forth between the speaker’s insomnia and alcoholism, trips to visit his ailing sister, and childhood memories of a dragon in a storybook. Chambers is so restrained in the ways that he conveys tone, and this poem is a master class in the careful tuning of arrangement and return—each section of the poem a rosary bead fingered, to be returned to. The poem starts:

I was having trouble sleeping.
To try, I drank. When I slept, I sweated, woke
in early darkness, stumbled up to piss.
Back in bed, I remembered things—
a Christmas party I went to as a boy—
the breath of the adults—
the children’s hands
taken into bigger hands, our endurance
as our faces were touched, our hair touched, rearranged.

These lines bookend the poem: the scene in them like the children’s hair, rearranged over the course of the poem as the speaker remembers more details, changes the story he tells us. The winters, the trips to the liquor cabinet and the sick sister, the lying awake, and the dragon all begin to overlap one another, each thread coloring the others with resonance. The dragon, in particular, becomes an almost-symbol, a parallel to the speaker. “It was protecting something, or had been forced to.” “It became important to me / whether the dragon was good.” “When it breathed, / something burned— / its whole body seemed a weapon.” The speaker doesn’t tell us what the dragon means, doesn’t ever reach for metaphor to draw a comparison between himself and the creature—and he doesn’t have to. Instead, the poem teaches us how to read it, invites us to cross its disparate threads, so that when we reach the ending, we have been on a journey. We feel every modification to the language from the poem’s start.

Chambers’s debut is abundant and deeply attentive—so fastidious in its detail that it can overwhelm, appear almost invasive in its searching. And yet there is something deeply moving, so self-aware and vital, in these poems, in their deliberate statements and descriptions, shot through with longing and shame. And there is a generosity in the way this book is crafted, in how it unfolds its history and interrogates. In “Stopping the War,” Chambers writes:

. . . someone had spray-painted a bomber

inside a giant circle: red wings, black tail
spread to the circle’s edge,
making the sign for peace.

Which I looked at. Which I put here
because I thought it pretty,
and because it felt significant,
and because I remember.

Here, image is an incision that the speaker’s confession opens—his artist’s statement also an apology, an admittance that opens him up to dissection, to further scrutiny. Here, and throughout this intimate and haunting book, statement is never mere declaration. No, it always implies a question—telling a way to plead.