Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review of Sherry Chandler's THE WOODCARVER'S WIFE

The Woodcarver's Wife
by Sherry Chandler

Wind Publications, 2014
ISBN: 9781936138661
74 pages


I first met Sherry Chandler several years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. The past two years I've enjoyed participating with her and other poets in writing a new poem every day during the month of June for the Lexington Poetry Month Writing Challenge, organized by Hap Houlihan of the Morris Book Shop and Katerina Stoykova-Klemer of Accents Publishing to promote local poets and poetry.

(I also had the good fortune to interview Sherry. Click here for the interview.)

     Karen L. George

Review of Sherry Chandler's The Woodcarver's Wife

Sherry Chandler's The Woodcarver's Wife revolves around her forty year marriage to "Thomas, the Woodcarver," to whom the book is dedicated, and the farm in Kentucky where they lived. Her poems are grounded in lush concrete detail, particularly of the natural world, enlivened by her exquisite sense of humor and wit, and suffused with an irresistible essence of tenderness and longing.  

In the first poem of collection, "Amateur Photography," with the epigraph "For Thomas on His 61st Birthday," Chandler introduces us to some of her layered and recurring motifs such as personal histories, the importance of memory and reverence for the past, the honoring of various types of creation in art and craft (whether it be woodcarving photography, music, writing, knitting or crocheting), and the dualities and cycles of life. This poem is based on a photograph evidently taken many years ago as her husband blew out candles on his birthday cake. In the following last two stanzas of the poem she gives us a sense of their connection through imagery:

            I want to tease that wrist with my finger
            the way a child might trace
            the letters of her name.

            I'd learn a hunger for more than cake,
            a flame that consumes
            and with each consummation fires again.

There is such tenderness and yearning in the image of a child tracing her name, and it creates a sense of tension with the following stanza and its image of desire as the element of fire that "consumes" and yet becomes even stronger. This ending image of "a flame that consumes and ...fires again" suggests the phoenix of Greek mythology, a bird that is reborn from its own ashes, also associated with the sun and its cycles. Various types of cycles thread these poems along with the elements of nature: earth, air, fire, and water. This poem begins with "you with lips shaped / to your breath" and later the phrase "the wish breath," introducing the image of elemental air.

The poem "Duet," near the end of the collection, mirrors "Amateur Photography" with its epigraph "An epithalamium for Thomas on his 60th birthday." "Duet" speaks of how the couple has aged, and transforms the image of elemental air in "Amateur Photography"  to: "I wake myself snoring. This morning / I woke to our duet, gentle buzzing / a little out of time." She goes on to say:  "We start / each day with variations on a theme of ache," one of many examples of the poet's charming sense of humorsome gentle whining mixed with acceptance of things as they are. The poem ends evocatively with a remembrance of their wedding day, and the lines:

                                                     ...This January
            dawn I compose myself in the warmth
            of you along my length, grateful you're
            still my side man in this sometimes off-
            key, always modulating measure.

The use of contrasting images of warmth and coldness repeats throughout these poems, as in "Bonfire:" with: "...bake my aches / against the hot brick of your back." The lovely echo of the long "a" in "bake" and "aches" along with the alliterative use of "b" and "k" add emphasis to the image.

The element of water is introduced in the poem, "Sonnenizio On a Line From Hayden Carruth." A sonnenizio is a form of the sonnet, where you take a line from another poet’s sonnet to use as the first line of your sonnenizio, and then repeat one word from that first line in each of the subsequent 13 lines, ending with a rhymed couplet. Chandler borrows her first line from Carruth's The Sleeping Beauty, "The fury of romance, surging, resurging, wet—" and then every line ends in the word "wet," perfect for a poem about love and passion. She contrasts the opening line's "fury of romance" to say "Ours was rain after drought, a wet / that heals cracked earth"—just one example of the way she uses earth images.
This contrasting image of wet vs. dry recurs throughout the collection. In the poem, "Dry October," near the end of the collection, she opens the first stanza with "The ground is hard with drought" and ends with "We find no forgiving softness." The poem tells of burying their cat and concludes with the haunting imagery "The moon / is humpbacked. We crunch back to the house." The "crunch" refers to the dried leaves underfoot, but it also suggests brittle bones and the creaks our limbs make as we age. This is reinforced by the following poem, "Numerology," which opens with "I'm brittle as a stick of stale Juicy Fruit, / porous to the bone." While this image has a humorous quality to it, it also holds the rub of reality—the challenges aging forces on us. In the lush "Medjool Dates" the succulence of the dates contrasts with the aches of the couple's "extremities, ends / of fingers that crook, yet will not bend / to our will."

Chandler mirrors nature's cycles with the cycles of human life, and also how even the structures we work and live in deteriorate over time. In the poem "What Bugs Us," termites, spiders, crickets, wasps, wood bees, and moths are having their way with the couple's house. The poem ends with the grim line "The end's the same: we eat until we're eaten." The poem, "Tobacco Barn," opens with "A wake of turkey vultures makes a roost / of its ruined roof...their shadows gliding over the grass." It ends with "The shell of ours will stand a few years more / the uneasy tenancy of this scavenger colony— / but vultures are magnificent when they soar." Again we see this duality of life (birth and death, health and illness, beauty and violence) reflected in the stark image of the vultures as scavengers and yet the poet is able to recognize their beauty "when they soar."    

Along with this idea of duality, Chandler writes of challenges involved in marriage paired with the idea of things falling into disrepair in "Attrition":  "It's too late now to whine about the state / of things. Of course the kitchen tap will leak / if you don't replace the washers...The drip in the attic won't wait / until you turn the last page of War and Peace." In "Rough Winds," written "after Shakespeare's Sonnet 18," she says,

            I blow my cool and have a temper fit
            and you retreat in anger and dismay
            to brood among your scorps and router bits,

"Rough Winds" brings in the element of air metaphorically, but there are poems about literal rough winds, such as in "Poem Beginning With a Line from Helen Losse," where the couple go:

            down underground in basement caves
            to ride out its reliable fury.
            When it passes we'll clear debris
            torn trees, slashed shinglesburn and bury

The above lines exemplify Chandler's use of internal rhyme, assonance and alliteration that create a lovely sense of rhythm and music throughout her collection, part of what makes her poems come alive. The repeated "ow" sound in "down" and "underground," the long "a" sound in "basement" and "caves," the long "i" sound in "ride" and "reliable," along with the repeated "s" sound in "trees, slashed shingles" create an opulence of sound that resembles what they might have heard during the storm.

In speaking of the rhythm and music of the poems, I want to also mention that many of the poems are written in various forms, such as the sonnet, sonnenizio (discussed above), pantoum, and terza rima, with specific end rhyme schemes, adding to the enticing sound patterns of her poems. I was particularly struck by her expert use of slant rhyme in such pairings as "even/robins," "freeze/leaves," "content/lament," "bloom/time," and "seeds/feast."

Another type of rhythm is created in several poems through Chandler's use of lists. In "Sonnenizio On a Line From Hayden Carruth" she lists various instances of wetness, in "Clearing Out" items someone has collected throughout a lifetime, and in "Bennet's New Latin Grammar (1895): A Love Poem" the following hypnotic list of terms related to Latin: "... copulatives / and supines...dactylic foot and caesura. Diastole, systole...parataxis, hypotaxis, clauses of  wish / and proviso." In "The Woodcarver's Wife," the long title poem that comprises Section II, she uses several lists. Part 5 lists types of tools. She begins with:

            Chain saws
            pole saws
            bow saws
And ends with:
            and planes
            as many and golden
            as autumn leaves:
            fingers and fores
            jointers and jacks
            rabbets and scrubs

There is such music in the way she arranges these items as well, for example in following "scoops" with the like sounding "scorps," and "lathes" and "planes," and in repeating the consonant sounds of "f," "j," "r," and "b" in the last three lines above. The way she uses the very short lines also adds motion to the list so that it becomes a chant, a litany, a celebratory song. In part 9, the last part of the poem, she lists types of trees:

            Rock maple, water
            maple, sugar maple,
            black cherry, black
            walnut, black locust,
            black oak, burr oak,

The poet appears to have carefully thought out how to arrange these trees for optimal effect.  She combines the different types of maples, then all the types of trees with "black" in their names, then types of oak. Again this list accumulates into a pleasing rhythm, and conveys a sense of the poet's connection and deep appreciation for the variety and beauty of the natural world. These lists also add to the playful, teasing tone of the poem.  The poem begins with the line "Men love blades." It goes on to describe "wood-be carvers" that "stroke the arched / cherry vessel...fondle the turned / pear bowl...," sexual imagery emphasized by the short lines shaped like a phallus on the page.

The poem "The Woodcarver's Wife" is also an intimate song of seduction, and I couldn't help but think of the Sirens of Greek mythology. The following lines are interspersed throughout the poem like a song's refrain, using whimsical internal rhyme, addressed to her husband: "Woodcarver, my Lad with the Adze," "Woodcarver, my Knave with a Shave," "Woodcarver, my Swain with the Plane," and "Woodcarver, my Scamp with a Scorp." The flirtation continues with such lines as "Join me. We'll be mortise and tenon, dovetails, / butterfly wedges" along with the tenderness of "our union / cups us deep in heartwood that, polished dark by / use, resists decay, thus outlasting younger / juicier sapwood."

Chandler adds richness to her poems by referencing Biblical figures such as Eve and Mary, and literary figures (ancient to modern), such as Catullus, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Cyrano de Bergerac, Rilke, Hayden Carruth, William Stafford, Helen Losse, and Tony Hoagland. In her poem "An Old Lover's Invitation to Practice a Different Alchemy," I was delightfully reminded of both Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Chandler's "An Accounting" plays wonderfully off of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)," and "For My Valentine, a Modern Pastural With a Lot of Bull" playfully parodies the pastoral tradition of literature which idealized rural life and landscapes.

These poems are so full of life's abundance with their concrete details of people, places and times, and yet this poet knows only too well that tragedy and death must also make its appearance.  In the chilling "Jaws of Life" she sorts through a box of old jeans and finds a pair with "both legs slit, ankle to waist" from when her sons were wrenched "from the belly / of a smashed Geo Prism" when its battery exploded. In "Clearing Out," she is "trying to separate treasure from trash" after a loved one has died. The opening line asks the haunting question "Who knows what will document a life?" This brings us again to the motif of memory and personal histories. She tells us:

            Some things I discovered and rediscovered
            tortured shapes of tree fungus, a pilfered chunk
            of the petrified forest, a dusty starfish,
            one leg broken off at the tip, a bracelet, each
            link the flag of an Allied Nation.

The poem "Memento Mori" starts out so beautifully (except the title foreshadows) "...each blade of grass glistened. / I was planting onion sets / in earth worked fine and fragrant," until she hears one of the spring calves "sudden bawluncanny / gurgling bray." The calf dies, the poet tells us, and though it happened thirty years ago, she can't forget how the calf:  

                     ...butted at every
            udder that looked like mother,
            suckling the only source she knew
            how her need was met with kicks,
            even from that which birthed her
            how the old cows seemed to know
            she was no longer like them,
            an eater, had already
            become a feeder of grass.

In "Toxicodendron radicans" she battles with poison ivy in her "bed of daffodils and iris" (some of them "heirlooms,") and yet she tells us the poison ivy "vine and rhizome / both were here long before I came," suggesting the dualities inherent in what comes from the earth, how everything interconnects. The poem creates such a whimsical image:

                      ... I claw the earth with condomed 

            fingers, grasp the root and heave
            at occult tendrils tough and entwined
            as my Southern Baptist heritage.
            It creeps for yards at grass roots,

            and I am pulled along its path, a fisher
            hooked into Leviathan...        

The repeated hard "t" sound in the second line above creates the effect of gritting her teeth as she engages in the battle, and yet I sense she is also laughing at herself, imagining how she must look to someone else.

This lightheartedness rubs up against the unpleasant realities of other poems, creating a sense of back and forth, a tension that builds throughout the collection.  In "After 40 Years," near the end of the collection, she describes the corrosive things happening at her home place: "The towering black locust that stands south of the house / is infested with mistletoe now...and a bolt of lightning "crippled / the ash" and yet the hole left by the lightning has became "a stairwell for squirrels." Which brings us back to the duality of life, and how in nature, violence can bring something else to life. The end of the poem creates such a sense of resilience, and its wickedly delightful sense of humor pays homage to the past:   

            So where once you stood at the threshold and sang
            Raise high the roofbeam, your member vertical as a drill,
            mine in answer deep and fiery as a hearth,    
            today we huddle by the dwindling embers and remember.

The luscious repetition of the "h," "r" and "l" sounds adds to the sensual effect.  The mention of "hearth" and "embers" continues the element of fire motif.

The poems of The Woodcarver's Wife are grounded and tied together by the poet's connection to the natural world and her emphasis on the importance of place in her lifethis farm in Kentucky where she's lived with her husband for forty years. The poems are full of birds, insects, plants and trees that inhabit their farm. Owls appear in several poems, so fitting in this collection, because many owls mate for life.  In "An Accounting" she refers to a pair of owls as "the spirits of this place," and their song as a "pair calling duet / under the Hunger Moon." In "On the Eve of Leap Day," she says "Owls talk to night." In "Dissonance" Chandler envisions an owl:

            She is out there somewhere,
            nested in the hollow of an oak,
            brooding a single egg.

In the poem "Homeplace with Birds and Trees" she describes the position of the sun and moon behind specific trees in the different seasons, saying, "These periods of home I know as my tongue knows the map / of my teeth." In "Ephemera" she walks into an area of their land that they let grow wild, where "deer take refuge" among "blackberry canes, / goldenrod, / swarms of viceroys / and bees. // Along the leaf-mold floor, / a twisting grapevine / binds all into slow silence."

The collection ends with the poem "Beginning" which creates a satisfying sense of having come full circle. The poem starts with the haunting lines:

            I don't know how to begin, you say. No more
            do I. How do we see begin with end
            so imminent, and how do we begin
            to end?...

Like many poems in this collection, "Beginning" speaks about the circularity of life, the paradox of how when we're near the end of life, we feel as if we're only beginning, and how we struggle with imagining the end of our lives, how we will actually go through that process. She ends the poem and the collection with what she states as "Only one thing I know:"

            We spin in common orbit.
            Faithful companions, like the Dog Stars,
            we'll wobble our way to an end, binary.
While this poem may be unsettling, it's also comforting and beautifula perfect way to end this collection that speaks to so many of life's dualities.

The poems in Sherry Chandler's The Woodcarver's Wife vibrate with exquisite sound, imagery, emotional resonance and layered meaning. She looks unflinchingly into her past with glances to her future, but these poems remain rooted in the abundance of the present moment, with gratitude for her life partner, and reverence for the land and its inhabitants. The Woodcarver's Wife invites us to look more closely at our own history, and how we connect to the people, places, and essences that comprise our lives.

Karen George, MFA, retired from computer programming to write full-time. She enjoys traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and forthcoming The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015). You can find her work in Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Wind, Permafrost, Blast Furnace, qarrtsiluni, Found Poetry Review, and Still.


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