KR Reviews

On Some Say the Lark by Jennifer Chang

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2017. 88 pages. $15.95.

As a girl, I lived in a small white house on a hill, at the edge of a modest subdivision cut into woodland. Out back, past the snap of the screen door’s latch, down the hill, was a meadow of milkweed, chicory, and sand burrs. Then the willow, golden and swaying. Then the woods in whose lush architectures I spent whole summers, mostly alone, listening for birdsong, collecting stones along the sandy paths, talking to the oak, the white pine. And then, late afternoon, sensing a downhill slope in time, turning back toward home through a hundred deep greens, and out into the bladed light of the meadow, stunned and blinking, just-born, quietly surprised again by the existence of these two worlds—forest and not-forest; shade and light; solitude and the shouts of kids playing kickball in the cul-de-sac—moving along and over that edge, both native and other in each place.

This is the sensation the poems in Jennifer Chang’s latest collection, Some Say the Lark, create: immersion in the interior world of self and mind, then a walking—a waking—into the shared world. Using literary allusion and borrowings, and placing many of her poems in natural spaces, Chang locates her book squarely in the Western Romantic tradition, and specifically within the tradition of the pastoral. At the same time, she wrests a corner—an edge—of this lineage for herself. In doing so, she both claims and transforms the tradition, making a clearing, a glade, in which the pastoral becomes a node and mode of consciousness and protest.

The collection begins on this edge with “A Horse Named Never”—a poem in brief, prose stanzas that references American history, borrows from Yeats and Shakespeare, and moves, like many of Chang’s poems, through various tonal registers, from casual language (“Never and I lived in Virginia then”) to biblical syntax (“Who wore the bit and harness, who was the ready steed”). The poem ends at a threshold: “Somewhere a gold door burdened with apology refuses all mint from the yard.” This refusal is the first hint of the remaking to come and foreshadows a line from a later poem, “Freedom in Ohio”: “So what / to do about the thrum / of my thinking, the dangerous / pawing at the door?”

In “Small Philosophies,” a poem in three sections, this thrum becomes the poet’s meditations on thinking itself. In section one, “Phenomenology,” the verdant spaces of consciousness both expose and protect the speaker: “You are a twilight / and a twilight bird,” . . . “You are a quality / and a thing silenced // by pine shrug. Stern willow. / Now run and hide in the fern.” Section two, “Logic,” conjuring Issa and with subtle verbal spins, confronts the limits of rational thought: “Who can grasp a lily of the valley / of the field? Every tall grass feigns wheat, and yet / and yet, rash and burn!” Finally, section three, “Epistemology,” examines the nature of knowledge itself, and admits that knowing is a slippery, if necessary, territory. As her speaker meditates on a clearing in the woods created by an ice storm, Chang writes: “I have stood in the clearing and cannot decide / if I miss the trees or if I love newborn clarity.” Here we are again at an edge: to long for, or to love? In Some Say the Lark, the answer is both.

Meanwhile, the collection displays a formal inventiveness that creates both motion and moments of rest amidst the landscape of the book. A striking example is “Whoso List to Hunt,” a poem based on a sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt. In it, Chang fragments the sonnet form into fourteen brief prose sections, leaving the thirteenth empty (a wry nod to superstition). This metamorphosed sonnet ends:

9

Brittle page, history, what am I to you?

10

Thinking is today’s minor captivity.

11

From which I won’t be rescued, this delicate trespass.

12

What is nature?

13

14

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

The last line is Wyatt’s, and its delicious unfinishedness, its rejection of convention and closure, is more evidence of Chang’s willingness to make herself both native and other in a poetic lineage.

I said earlier that Chang transforms and remakes the pastoral, but she does more: she subverts and occupies it—“occupies” in the sense of “takes control of a place, often forcibly, and stays there as a form of protest.” Chang makes the pastoral, a form long used to idealize nature and rural life, into a form for coming into consciousness, for engaging with a complex world, and ultimately, for protest. “Dorothy Wordsworth,” arguably the collection’s most exciting poem and the best example of Chang’s renovation of the pastoral, begins:

The daffodils can go fuck themselves.
I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings
about the spastic sun that shines and shines
and shines. How are they any different

from me? I, too, have a big messy head
on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind.

Despite its staid quatrains and its allusion to one of the most famous poems in the English language, this is the pastoral blown open. In it, Chang implicates not only the tradition, but, as any thinking poet eventually must, herself: “If I died falling from a helicopter, then / this would be an important poem.” The poem goes on to recall, blithely, old loves and their desires, then swerves hard into an ending of anger and refusal:

                              Fractious petals, stop

interrupting me with your boring beauty.
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling it ardor. Who
the hell are they? This is a poem about war.

“What does it mean even to write a poem?” Chang asks in “Again, a Solstice.” Her answer is this collection, in which she inhabits tradition to make and remake not only a self—“My silent habit / is to listen: / for I knew these trees once / as a different self”—but to dwell in and remake our shared poetic lineage at the edge of two habitats: the individual and the communal. Any deeply-lived life requires this kind of remaking, and it feels especially urgent now as our world wobbles under the influence of nefarious political leadership, attacks on the free press, climate change and its deniers, overt racism, and policies that create suffering for millions.

What does it even mean to write a poem? In Some Say the Lark, it means to cling to an interior life and to confront the world. It means to claim a lineage and blow it open. It means, amidst calls for civility in public discourse, to write down the words, “The daffodils can go fuck themselves.” It means to abide as a thinking, living being at the edge of self and self-in-the-world.

Molly Spencer's poetry has appeared in FIELD, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Ploughshares and elsewhere. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado Review, The Rumpus, and Tupelo Quarterly. Her poem “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans” won the Poetry Society of America’s 2018 Lucile Medwick Memorial Award, judged by Maggie Smith. Molly holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop and is Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. She teaches writing at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. Find her online at www.mollyspencer.com.