Joel Chace, Cleaning the Mirror. Kenmore, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2007. $16.00. ISBN: 1-934289-58-2.
Joel Chace is a late-modernist whose waste land is zeroes and ones rather than “dried tubers.” A highly experimental poet, he tinkers with how words mean and how they are put together. In his Cleaning the Mirror: New and Selected Poems, one recalls everything from the “if you like it, then you understand it” modernism of Gertrude Stein to the typographic play of e.e. cummings. And, though he is allusive throughout, he is not oppressively elusive, and the reader will delight in the blending of mindful erudition and reconfigured cliché. Unlike Eliot’s “Waste Land,” the work seems like more of an anthology, though there are several recurring themes. The collection comprises nine parts, mostly taken from his previous publications in journals such as 6ix, xStream, Coracle, and Three Candles. Many of these “parts” are long poems from chapbooks published by Anabasis/Xtant, Red Pagoda Press, and Puddle Leaflets, to name a few.
“Twisting Tail,” which is for physiological reasons the final poem in the collection, does not merely indicate either his poetics of narrative (tale), or his endlessly “twisting” poetics of the long poem. It also shakes its tail at the reader, implying a layer of sexual innuendo that pervades many of these selections. Still further, “twisting tail” implies the luminous t(r)ail of particles following a comet, this flash across the black universe being the inverse of Chace’s inked word clusters across the expanses of white page. If I appear to be waxing interpretative here, consider the ample space that BlazeVOX, the book’s publisher, provides the reader to do just that: write out interpretations in the margins. With small font and big pages, the reader is free to get creative.
The themes mentioned above in Chace’s play on “twisting tail” do not only surface in part IX, titled “terrible thread,” but also in various spots throughout the collection. The first part, “Time’s Lap,” is a “twisting tale” as well. His “Paper World” and “Falling Waitress” are “twisting” narratives, their tortuous paths marked primarily by irregular stanza and line lengths. For those who fancy a single narrative voice, as opposed to helter-skelter heteroglossia, “Paper World” is the only poem that commits itself to one; that said, it is easy to be fooled by the vaguely explanatory voice. Indeed, the poem treats the notion of a “speaker” thematically, if not performatively as well. Chace’s persistent thematic complexity and his penchant for fragmentation create clever and unique insights, though the reader might ask which truly “poetic” observations are sacrificed when the poet is, as the speaker of the final poem suggests, “just farting around.”
The collection is at its most charming and most fulfilling in part IV, “Heisenberg.” Obviously a reference to the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, Chace’s poetics of uncertainty governs this part of the work. Here, he creates short stanzas of varying length, usually with short lines as well, and separates each by fifteen dots, suggesting something between a prolonged ellipsis and the seam of a garment. Both Chace’s constellations of themes and his clever wordplay create this layered effect, and visually the poem is, as he indicates in one poem, “pied” with fragments. One of these fragments is a highly colloquial and darkly humorous account of a monkey flinging excrement into a pilot’s face and then being shot by said pilot. Here as elsewhere, the poet toys with a “low” poetic discourse, playing the edge between the poetic and unpoetic, questioning Seriousness’ long-standing dictatorial rule. It is appropriate then that he alludes to John Cage’s “4:33” in this section. Cage’s provocative piece opened-up a new space, a space of which, as in Heisenberg’s observation of the quantum mechanical world, the viewer cannot be certain. What, indeed, was the music in Cage’s piece? And where was it? Chace, like Cage, counters the notion that the audience should “think/ appropriate/ expressions of praise then/ leave.” It even becomes uncertain whether the reader or the poet is the one “cleaning the mirror” of the title, as he writes in “Heisenberg”:
he kept cleaning
the mirror kept
finding himself knew
if he kept cleaning he’d
find the new way to move
The enjambment on “knew” suggests that both poet and reader not only find themselves “in the know” by cleaning the mirror, but also find a way to “make it new.”
Much of Chace’s work relies upon the “new,” and is by definition new, as he incorporates gaming terminology and experiments with typographics that were not available twenty years ago. Part V, “Cheats,” suggests the metaphors of writing as programming and reading as gaming. The cheats, apparently designed for a Nintendo game console, are scattered throughout, in such “passages” as, “C-UP + C-DOWN/ R + 1/ + 2.” These cheats seem primarily “programmed” with humorous intent, as during “Grendel’s/ Stage Fight,” one should “Keep holding Start/ and press/ Quick). There is plenty of room in the margin to write, “LOL.”
With technology come problems. Two long poems, comprising parts VI and VII, are referred to as “Translations,” yet they appear to be transcribed onto the computer by an apathetic amanuensis. As the “translation” occurs, the text gets harder and harder to understand, not merely because the keyboard appears to be sticking (as he writes, “kkkkkkk” and “bbs 1111 bbbb 111”), but also because the words are less and less like those found in a dictionary (“kokkels, kebs, all ranes” and “Fool roggen/ bunshapp”). Here, the language computer appears to be breaking down.
But, these “translations” don’t have the last word. One of the collection’s best poems, “stagehand” helps the faltering machine, to my thinking, convalesce in part VIII. Thematically, the stagehand is not merely a synecdoche for theater help, but also a helper on “execution day,” signifying either the end of a life or the day of a performance. Or both. Indeed, the wordplay delivers resoundingly in the final two parts (VIII and IX), returning Chace to his strength: combining themes to suggest interesting metaphor. Reflecting on what to do with these metaphors and ultimately what is at stake is up to the reader.
Gregory Kirk Murray is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. He has presented work on Elizabeth Bishop and Jean Genet and is currently researching ludic poetic practices in American, African-American, and French modernisms. He is also a poet whose work has appeared in limbic, among other places.