Sunday, July 21, 2013

Poetry of Witness: Review of The Vigil, by Shelley Chernin, and Interview with the Poet

                                                                                    by Barbara Sabol


The Vigil
by Shelley Chernin

published by Crisis Chronicles Press, 2012

Poetry of Witness.  The Vigil                                            
Some of the most powerful and memorable poetry reveals truths about the world—facts, figures, compass points on the map of human struggle, natural and man-made calamity, tyranny, war. The lyric impulse inherent in a poem pulls the reader, line by line, into a given sensibility; more effective, I believe, than any manifesto. Such is the case with two of the books previously reviewed in the Poetry Matters blog:  Robert Miltner’s Hotel Utopia (August, 2012) and Teneice Durrant Delgado’s Burden of Solace (Feb, 2013). Such is also true of Shelley Chernin’s chapbook, The Vigil, which chronicles coal mining disasters in West Virginia and India, and the environmental and human toll of mining.
This is a poem of witness, a narrative sequence depicting coal mining in tangible and riveting lines. In the compressed space of seven numbered sections, the poet reveals not just the events of two coal mining disasters, but also the underlying fabric of family, church and state in seemingly disparate but ultimately related cultures.  Although geographically and culturally India and West Virginia appear to be worlds apart, they are united by the raw resource beneath the earth, and by exploitation of the environment and the workers whose households depend on the mines. And while the sequenced sections in this collection are about specific coal mining disasters, they reveal the choke of breathing coal dust, the anticipation of its spark.  As poet B.H. Fairchild explains, if writing captures the isness of a thing, the work moves beyond expository prose into the lyric realm. In Chernin’s The Vigil, we are given both the aboutness of coal mining and its ontological isness, the flesh and blood experiences of mining.
In each poem context is immediately established; the reader is oriented to “Dhanbad, eastern Jharkhand state, Damodar River Valley” in the opening section. We are located in the region where “Lord Buddha attained enlightenment” and in the very same place where “the “ground exhales the smoke of coal fires. . .the second most polluted place in India.”  Thus the grit of the mine fields rubs its ugly hide against the abstract purity of Hinduism, a juxtaposition of the sweat and grit earthly existence to the sweet air of salvation that beats at the heart of the collection.
A domestic echo of that same juxtaposition is heard in the section that follows, as we are introduced to the blue/grime-collar world of Sago, West Virginia.  Faces, names and dates are attached to actual events for which the reader may have had no previous frame of reference. In  “2” local color is vibrant with characters and history stemming from the founding of the Sago Baptist Church “in 1856 by/Lucy Henderson, Hester Summerville. . .”  Details of the life of L.B. Moore, wounded Union soldier, temperance leader, Baptist minister, set the stage for the disturbing admixture of faith, politics and tragedy that shadows Sago.
The poet alternates the settings of West Virginia and India throughout the collection, with a progressive accumulation of physical and historical detail as we move from sections “1” to “7.” She also alternates form from one map point to the other:  the sections set in India are written in tercets, while the Sago sections square off in dense, block prose, exuding a fact-packed-in claustrophobia mimetic of the mines.  And while the Sago sections feature a full cast of miners, families, clergy, those in Dhanbad focus more on a privileged figure, a white collar man named Rutajit, who “studies mining engineering. . .plays cricket on collegiate fields” and indulges his hungers until “Rutajit feels full” (“3”).

In addition to the human figures in the poem, the mines and earth itself transform to predominant figures, as evidenced by allusions to vital organs and symptomatology.  In section “1,”  “. . .the ground exhales the smoke of coal fires,/burning in the viscera, perpetual dyspepsia. . .” Then again, in “4” the prayers at the Sago Baptist Church “circulated like oxygenated blood down through the national arteries. . .in search of the miners’ cells.”

In addition to the metonomy of ground-as-body, the poet constructs an additional metaphor connecting Dhanbad and Sago; that is, Sago as place name and sago as chief ingredient in an Indian delicacy, sabudana khichdi, which Rutajit eats to satiation. A delicious play on words occurs during a description of the proper preparation of the dish in section “3”

          . . .
          Cook until crisp. Garnish with coconut and cilantro.
          Do not cover the pan or the sago conglomerates

          into one lump. Sago thickens like tapioca and plots.
          Despite popular myths, white sago is no purer
          than the light cream variety. Rutajit feels full.

The verb “plots” here takes a number of semantic turns, droll and ominous.  In the closing section, “7,” the settings of West Virginia and India converge, as mining disasters in Sago are referenced along with those in Dhanbad.  Here, sago serves its double duty in the first stanza, as place name and as simile for a list of the perished West Virginia miners:

          In the month after the Sago disaster, four more
          miners died in mining accidents in West Virginia.
          Like miscooked sago, the flow of names congeals.

The final section closes on a significant similarity between the two―faith.  Faith despite the odds, despite the hardscrabble life into which the workers are born.  Deep inside the mine, in any coal mine, anywhere in the world, a scene unfolds:  “. . .The men died in denseness.  Unable to see/their own hands.  Thick in prayer.”

The poem sequence in The Vigil is thick with political, cultural, socio-economic and religious references, along with the stark, decidedly unromantic descriptions of the mines, the environmental devastation, the horrors of a mining disaster.  The poet deftly unites two distinctly different places― Sago, West Virginia and Dhanbad, India―vis-à-vis the destructive underbelly of the coal mining industry.  She manages this without moralizing, without sentiment.  The collection is mind- and heart-opening, instructive yet managing to avoid didacticism.  In a sure-voiced approach, grounded in tangible images, raw data, the poet presents the even-darker side of the coal mining industry. The speaker’s tone is neutral; the language minus drama or bombast.  She states the facts in a manner of reportage, creating effective tension between objective tone and inherent drama of the sensational and disturbing content of the poem.  The Vigil is a  poem that prods our awareness with palpable images of grit, heat, depth, darkness, breathlessness, of "dust and ashes," written by a poet of conscience who calls the reader to witness. 

Interview with the Poet, Shelley Chernin

Congratulations, Shelley, on the publication of The Vigil. This is an important collection not only for the strength of the poemthe language, rhythm, craft but also because this is a poem of witness.  The lines lead us directly to the heart of coal country in India and in West Virginia, and into the environmental and personal tragedies associated with coal mining.  The reader stands among the families holding vigil after a mine cave-in, breath held.  It’s clear that the poet has some stake in the history and politics of coal mining, and that this collection shapes a statement about the topic, which leads to my first question:

B:  There is a sense that the poet felt compelled to write the poem sequence in The Vigil; they resonate with an urgency, a need to share the stories about the described mining incidents and the larger issues connected with the industry.  What led you to choose coal mining, in general, and these two specific locations in India and West Virginia, specifically, as a theme for your chapbook?

S: I wrote The Vigil as a single poem, a short time after the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006. Like the rest of the country, I followed the news closely for the two days that it took to determine that only one of 13 trapped miners had survived. Not long before the Sago disaster, I had read Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith, about the conflict between religious faith and rational thought. Throughout the long wait while rescuers tried to reach the trapped miners, a wait that included much public prayer, and in the days after, as Westboro Baptist Church members showed up for the miners’ funerals, I found myself grappling with the role of faith in this incident. As I began to write about it, a process that included research on Sago, West Virginia, I made the connection between the name of the town and sago the food, widely used in India, a country that also relies on coal and has a long history of mining disasters, and the parallel stories fell into place.

B:  I’m very interested in the voice throughout the poems, which feels objective and the tone more matter-of-fact reportage.  This is in stark contrast to the poems’ content, which is tragedy, above and below the earth’s surface, coupled with social and economic injustice and religious near-sightedness. There is a powerful tension created by that contrast which builds throughout the collection. Why did you choose the objective, third person narrator’s voice, versus a first person mode, such as persona, that would have lent greater subjectivity and emotion to the work?

S: It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I don’t think that I could have written the poem that I needed to write in the first person. I went back to my original notes for this poem to try to remember a little bit of what I was thinking when I wrote it, and I discovered this note to myself: “This needs to start at the surface and move down into the mine – perhaps drill into the earth from 2 sides, US and India?” I needed to start the poem at some distance from the core, literally and emotionally, in order to have room to move deeper. In fact, the poem starts in 1856 with the founding of a church. Understand that I have no personal connections with miners, West Virginia or India; I am not and never have been Christian or Hindu. It was the humanity of the stories that grabbed me.

B:  Larger factors related to the mining industry and disasters figure prominently in the poem; i.e., religious, economic, political spheres that coincide with the sub-standard conditions and dangers of mining.  I know you to be an engaged poet, with a world view that shows through the lines of your work.  What is the statement that you want to make about the connecting and controlling spheres that keep coal mining such a figuratively dark industry?

S: I work hard (against contrary internal tendencies) not to make statements in my poems. This is another reason for the third person narrator, I think. I would rather tell stories and let people come to their own conclusions. I could certainly tell you what I think about the coal mining industry in relation to the environment, to the economy, to government, to working conditions and safety. I could tell you what I think about religious belief and how it impacts the human condition. But I’m more interested in letting my poems do the work of moving people, perhaps in a way or to a place they’ve never been moved before. I must credit my daughter, Jessie Herzfeld, a painter, with this perspective, but I’ve always felt that if I could say what I wanted to say in some other, more straightforward way, then I wouldn’t bother to write a poem. Jessie says the same about her paintings when she’s asked what they’re about or what they mean.

B:  The forms in The Vigil are very distinct.  Can you talk about your choice of the prose form for the parts set in West Virginia, which alternate with the tercets of the India-based parts?  The reference-dense, block form seems mimetic of the claustrophobia of the mines, while the tercets , although equally detail-rich, seem to flow and “breathe” more easily.

S: I played around with form in my rewrites of this poem. It was originally written entirely in tercets. I settled on the prose form for the West Virginia sections not only because I liked the denser feel of that, but because I wanted it to be more conversational, to have the feel of an oral history. The space on the page in the India sections is a chance to catch your breath.

B:  There is so much material to mine, as it were, with all the elements and characters and events described in the poem.  Why just seven sections? And do you have plans to expand this collection?

S:  As I said, this was written all at once as a single poem in seven sections. I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to read parts of it aloud, but I don’t think they hold together on their own as individual poems.

B:  I’m struck by the degree of detail in the poem.  How much research did you do to make the poem so tangible with person, place, thing so precisely named and described– all very flesh-and-blood palpable. What research sources did you draw from?  And do you generally write the research-based poem, or would you say that your work is more experiential?
S: This was very much a research-based poem. I started with the news stories about the mining disaster, but ended up reading all kinds of material about the history of Sago, WV and its churches, mining disasters generally, mining in India, Westboro Baptist Church, Hinduism, etc. I found it all on the Internet. The State of West Virginia, Division of Culture and History, has a wonderful website with a wealth of historical documents.
I write both research-based poems and experiential poems. Many of my poems contain elements of both. The Vigil is more heavily research-based than most. 
B:  I see that your daughter did the cover art for the book. Very striking!  Do you and she collaborate on other art or writing projects?
S:  No, this is our first collaboration, and it wasn't a true collaboration because she didn't draw that picture for my poem.  When I was looking for cover art, I sent her a copy of tje poem to read and asked her if she had any art that might fit.  She suggested that drawing as a possibility.  I knew it was right as soon as I saw it.
B:  Can you tell us about your writing life?  You are a free lance writer as a profession and undoubtedly have a schedule for completing writing assignments and projects.  How do you balance non-creative writing that you do for a living with your creative writing? Do you have a routine or rituals around your poetry writing?

S: I need to confess that I’m a terrible procrastinator. My professional work involves lengthy writing projects that must be completed by a deadline. I’ve been working as a freelancer for almost three decades, and I still haven’t learned to pace myself. I regularly find myself in a crunch to get a work project completed, and during those crunch times, I don’t write much poetry. Mostly, I’ll write a poem if I need something new to take to a workshop, although there have been times in my life when poems happen without the push of a deadline. It’s not all that unusual for me to be at the computer, writing a legal form, and suddenly have a poem idea that I need to write down. Sometimes I have a poetry document and a work document open on my computer at the same time and switch back and forth between them.

B:  You also write songs – lyrics and music – and accompany yourself on the ukulele. We recently had the pleasure of hearing you perform at The Root Café! So, when the muse strikes, and you begin to compose, how can you tell whether lyrics to a song or a poem will emerge?

S: My process for writing songs is very different from my process for writing poems. Songs come as songs, melody and lyrics together. When I sit down to write a song, I either write with the ukulele in hand or I’m hearing a tune in my head and putting lyrics to the tune. Parts of some of my songs have been written while I was jogging. I think the rhythm of running helps stimulate music and lyrics.

B:  What project(s) are you currently working on?  Is there a next collection in process?

S: I’m not focused on any particular project. I tend to write whatever comes up for me in the moment. As a result, I’ve written a wide variety of poems that don’t necessarily fit together. Over the last five years or so, I’ve on and off written poems in the voice of a fictional dead poet, an academic blowhard who writes about both his life and being dead. I find that for whatever reason, I’m fond of my dead poet and keep coming back to him. I hope I’ll have enough poems for a collection someday, but it could be a long time.

Shelley Chernin is a freelance writer and ukulele player.  Her poems have appeared in Great Lakes Review, Scrivener Creative Review, Rhapsodia, Durable Goods, Big Bridge and in the anthology, What I Knew Before I Knew: Poems from the Pudding House Salon (Kattywompus Press, 2011). Shelley was awarded 2nd place in the 2011 Hessler Street Fair Poetry Contest and Honorable Mention in the Akron Art Museum's New Words Poetry Contest in 2009 and 2010.  Her debut chapbook, The Vigil, was published by Crisis Chronicles Press in 2012.