Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems
by Chase Twichell
Reviewed by Dennis Barone
Some people will say that these words
make a dull clopping. I hope they sound
like horses on the road -- plainspoken.
(from "Playgrounds of Being")
Chase Twichell's Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been provides generous selections from six books, 1981-2005, and twenty-seven new poems (in a sense a seventh book). The poems range from five lines to five pages and explore themes such as displacement, suffering, desire, fantasy, appetite, and dream, all in a dark vision that offers the warning of a jeremiad or the conundrum of a Zen koan.
What's the poem to do? Twichell notes many possibilities: words may be "crushed for their inflammable perfumes" while "language smudges and erases / and redraws what it wants for itself," and poetry itself is "not window-cleaning" but rather "it breaks the glass." The poem may have imagistic phrases or inventive language such as "a vine like honeysuckle scribbles / over the wall" or "watching the little landscape flare / in final colors of foreclosure." The poem may make use of an adage: "What is an individual grief / but a flake in the storm?" And the poem may find its own form of speaking, as do two three- stanza poems, "Tech Help" and "Arcade" -- both of which state a fact about the self in the first stanza, depict something seemingly unrelated in the second, and finally use an oblique connection as the impetus of poetic force.
Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been shows Twichell to be an ever-dark, deep, sonorous, serious, and changing voice. For example the ecologically mindful poems from The Ghost of Eden (1995) speak directly to the reader in a manner reminiscent of Denise Levertov's poems of environmental concern such as "The Stricken Children." (In fact, the word "stricken" appears a number of times in the selections from The Ghost of Eden.) In one poem Twichell writes:
The flume was always
full of bark-colored shadows,
shafts of green light fallen
from the pines, and the silver swirls
of rising trout where now
the gray-fleshed hatchery fish
feed on the damaged magic.
But Twichell, unlike Levertov, offers no redemption or transcendence, "trapped as I am in the purely human." The natural world seems in Twichell's writing to become more and more indifferent and separate, though both realms -- the human and the natural -- are equally horrific, a Hieronymus Bosch picture for the present: "The English language / is also a beautiful river, / full of driftwood and detritus, / bones hung with trinkets."
If the poems from The Ghost of Eden describe a destroyed but recognizable world, those included from her next book, The Snow Watcher, (1998), turn inward. Here the poems are short and enigmatic, at times even epigraphic. Yet the selections from her most recent work, Dog Language (2005) and the new poems that close this volume, are often personal and easily accessible, but nonetheless poems that describe various sorts of devastation. "For years I sat zazen intermittently / while reading fervently, a form of bullshit," she writes, but now "It's a matter of life and death." These are frequently poems about an aging parent or the aging poet herself, and if they turn back to childhood, there is no nostalgia or innocence, but horror and inhumanity instead.
In "Arcade," the speaker of the poem proclaims:
I write for the euphoria
gravity and uplift at once,
and the jing-jing-jing of luck
in the arcade's private rooms.
I play here every day
in the maze of thinking,
of music and weeping visions
Or, as she wrote much earlier in her career, "A music / composed of vital sparks, but played / with a plaintive, funeral coloring." That's Twichell's poetry. She is the elegist of no single person, but instead sings the somber winter of a generation -- with barely an intimation of Easter bloom.