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Tar & Tallow, Turpentine & Twine

By: Midge Goldberg
February 12, 2018

atherine Chandler understands grief. In her latest collection, The Frangible Hour, she delves into its many conflicting aspects—deep sadness, of course, but also fear, anger, and its wordlessness. The poem “Untitled” begins “There is no name for it,” as she describes the indescribable, the loss of a child by suicide. She uses the sonnet’s line breaks to show the double-sidedness of grief. In the line  “Ineffable, its definition lies/within a loss for words,” we understand the word “lies” first to reveal the falsehood that any single word can encompass this grief. Then, as we continue to the next line, we understand the second meaning—this kind of grief resides in a place that is indefinable. She continues to use these end words to portray both sides of what cannot be said: down, defies, prayer, shreds, threads, guilt, scream.

Chandler portrays the pinball nature of grief in “Almost,” a poem about her experience of hearing that her daughter had just suffered a cerebral aneurysm.

You lose
your voice, then find a stratagem,
your shoes,

your cell, your cool, your car keys, certitude.

That contrast between the mundane and the emotional perfectly captures how one reacts to this kind of enormous fear, the brain bouncing between the absolutely practical and the absolutely terrifying, the emotions in between the motions. It’s reminiscent of “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop, but even more immediate and poignant because she’s reacting to an actual threat to her own child.

In “Pena negra,” part iv of “Almost,” Chandler explores the anger that was also part of her experience dealing with her daughter’s illness. She starts by examining the cowardice in calling the anger anything but what it is, all framed in terms of color:

“I will not mince my words and call it brown,
as in brown study. No insipid blues.
I will not misinform with pastel hues
or undertones…”

She then ends with the full force of her anger:

But red won’t do. The words that span this line
that runs between the points of hell and back
can only be conveyed in shades of black.

Chandler uses sound and language to elevate what could have been an ordinary description. She calls the decline of a town “ramshackle bad,” making us understand the pathetic way it has gone to seed. Her spice rack becomes the judge of her lack of cooking skills: “My double-decker spice rack glares at me./In its glass eyes of marjoram and mace.” In “The Cassette,” a con artist’s spiel is “slippery bunkum.” And in “Ribbons” she again brilliantly uses the double meanings of words to wonder, as her mother is dying, about the silence that existed between them:

and wonder, on the fringes of
   this sad alliance,
if we will give away our love
   or keep our silence.

In the poem “Tomboy,” a girl begs to play in a sandlot baseball game until a batter allows her to pitch to him. She strikes him out, and, humiliated, “he still calls me bitch,” revealing some of the deep anger directed at girls as they fight to play and compete with boys.

Chandler displays her mastery of rhyme, meter, and a variety of forms throughout The Frangible Hour. In “White Night,” her use of trochaic tetrameter and rhyme heightens the sense of tension, repetition, and inevitability:

Minutes. Hours. Darkness pressing
through the window. Not a breeze.
Freight train at the level crossing
wail and goad my turning, tossing.

The heavy trochaic meter echoes the rhythmic sound of the freight train approaching, and the effective line break at “pressing” builds pressure until we arrive at the next line, where the pressure is released “through the window.”

In “Resonance,” Chandler uses the interlinked rhyme structure of the sonnet’s octave to build up the act of swinging:

I found some comfort on our backyard swing,
pumping and chanting into the arc’s peaked crest
where angular momentum let me fling
toward light-spangled leaves.
                                          It was the best
of amplitudes—this go-for-broke reprieve
from gravity

and then show the release, the jumping off, at the end:

                                                      I let
go, flying from the damping pendulum,
which soon regained its equilibrium.

Occasionally, at the end of sonnets, the last line takes off in a new direction right when it should be closing the poem with a snap. In “Rip,” an examination of a family through the actions of its dog, the last line reveals a chilling fact about the family, but at a point in the sonnet where it feels unexpected and jarring rather than shocking and true.

Chandler ranges widely in the topics for her poems, including current events, ancient mythology, art theory, travel, science, and mathematics. The poem “To the Iron Goddess of Mercy,” which is addressed to a type of oolong tea, is a Fibonacci sonnet, using the Fibonacci sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 to determine the number of syllables in each line. “The imaginary axis of reality” refers to the mathematical concept of the Argand Diagram, a plot of complex numbers as points. And if that weren’t enough for a 14-line, 66-syllable poem, the line “wavelets bending” refers to Huygen’s Principle of Diffraction. In case you thought I was a genius who recognized all these references myself, rest assured that I did not. Chandler provides a thorough set of notes at the end of the book that provides much-needed information about a number of the poems. It is necessary to have this extra information to fully understand some of the poems, but it’s a very enjoyable way to learn.

Religious themes run through the poems in The Frangible Hour, sometimes more overt, sometimes less so. In “Wherein the Snow is Hid,” Chandler attributes the hope that gets her through her literal and virtual Marches:

                                                  …a mass
of freeze-thaw scree bears witness to a love

that once approached the melting point of glass.

Many of the references are almost asides, mentions of rosary beads, novenas, and venial sins, which show how her religion is woven throughout her everyday life. It’s most evident as she sits beside her daughter through her surgery and recovery: “the words tell how, with nothing left but prayer,/I trusted in a surgeon’s hands. And God’s.” For me, the concession in the last two words of part iv of “Composure: An Elegy,” encapsulates her struggle with grief within the framework of her religion, as she watches her father being buried:

And when they place you in the lower berth
of Greenwood Cemetery’s soft brown earth

beside my mother, I will count to ten,
keep to my promise, and concede, Amen.

In the last poem of the book, a ghazal, Chandler cleverly ends not with her name but with the tools of the chandler’s trade: “She deals in tar & tallow, turpentine & twine.” These items are perfect metaphors for the poems in The Frangible Hour—the black, sticky grief with which we struggle, as well as all the ways that we brighten and repair our lives.