Summer = reading time! While I am just over half-way through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which is marvelous, by the way, so watch this space or add it to your reading list now if you’ve not read it), today’s post is about Dan Chelotti‘s first book of poems, X.
Yep, that’s it up there. A lovely, hardbound book with a yellow cloth spine and handsome cover boards. I like the simple, retro look of the cover, but the whole book is nicely made — nice green endpapers, and the blurb on the back is printed on an easy-to-remove label. I’m a big fan of easy-to-remove labels. 🙂 McSweeney’s is doing everything right so far.
Now this is all very superficial. What’s inside the book?
There are a number of poems that I really liked a lot, and my favorite — which inspired the title for this post — has to be “Lion” (28). At first you may be tempted to read it as another cat poem — there’s already one poem openly addressed to Chelotti’s cat — but it’s actually about a lion. Some sort of magical lion, or a creation of the whims of a cynical cosmos, because it is tiny:
I’d say the lion is perfectly healthy / but toy-soldier small. / When I draw close / it roars like hell, / postures to nibble my finger.
So far, so good. This could be a perfectly boring poem, but Chelotti doesn’t show us a peculiar creature just for peculiarity’s sake, he realizes, slowly, his relationship to the lion:
I can’t bring myself to kill it / or put it outside.
In its determination and its absurd size, the lion becomes a mirror for his own weakness, his own want of means to defend what he loves:
while terribly / insufficient, it will take / on whatever darkness may come.
I’d say this poem is fairly representative of the collection: Chelotti’s poems are not loud, they don’t go Bang! in your face, and they don’t always do what you expect them to do (as poems). There is a certain emotional, if not moral, ambiguity to many of the pieces. There are open questions.
There is, also, an abundance of alone-ness (albeit not necessarily loneliness) throughout. It starts in the very first poem, “Ball Lightning,” where we are told about ball lightning and the speaker’s habit of carrying a camera, always, — not so much in the hope of actually taking a picture of the phenomenon, but, at least at first, in the hope of being asked about it. Now, having gotten older, he explains
I am grateful to find / that my loneliness / accommodates my desire, and not, / as it used to be, vice versa.
What started as an attempt to encourage others to take notice and talk to him, even if just to ask what “the deal is” with the constant camera carrying, has now become an end in itself, so that it does not matter that nobody asks. The loneliness that was the primary motivation at first has now become secondary.
In a way, he is looking at himself as he listens to two men discussing ball lightning in their podcast. (How many poems are there that mention podcasts? Could this be the first one?) In the age of camera-phones, carrying a camera at all times is much easier and much more inconspicuous than it used to be, and while he doesn’t mention this outright, this may have been a game changer almost as much as his own maturation.
Maturation is another theme here, and I’ll quote “Slow Dance” in closing, just because it seems like a nice way of bracketing the collection.
I used to hate most / everyone but now / I want to slow dance / with everyone.
There you have it.