Saturday, April 07, 2012

Jim Chapson, Daphnis & Ratboy / Scholia

The poet Jim Chapson has published two recent collections, Daphnis & Ratboy (2009) and Scholia (2011), with the Irish press Arlen House. He has appeared in journals and in chapbook form since the late 1960s, but these volumes are his first full-length collections. Born in Hawaii, educated at San Francisco State University, based in Milwaukee where he teaches at UWM, but also in touch with the Irish poetry world, Chapson crafts a poetry that is economical (both in terms of the writing itself and his comparative rate of publication), spare, though not without a large dose of ironic humor and wit.

However, Chapson’s primary sources are classical — Catullus, Callimachus, Theocritus — with the satirical mode of Catullus to the fore. Indeed, Chapson is scathing toward a number of fellow poets, some named, some not. Billy Collins is one such figure, and Chapson demolishes the former laureate’s folksy, faux-naïve “shit” (as Chapson sums it up) in “A Poem for the Laureate.” He returns to Collins again in “Daring Billy,” which bears reading in full:
Billy Collins in a poem on Catullus
jokingly calls him ‘a foul mouthed cocksucker’,
thrilled by the poet’s daring obscenities
aimed at his friends,

but if Billy would really honour Catullus
(who had the balls to give Caesar the finger)
he’d insult those pussys and impotent pricks
who made him our poet laureate,

not Catullus who neither can answer back
nor knock him off the short list for a Pulitzer.
This combination of irony and direct attack is effective. Elsewhere in Daphnis & Ratboy, a would-be guru and the British royals are deserving targets of Chapson’s poetic ire. It is interesting to note here that while the tone of these poems could at times be taken as arrogant (in the sense that a dose of arrogance might pertain when a poet takes upon himself the mantle of arbiter of opinion), Chapson makes his arguments from the point of view of our common streets, not dumbed down but intelligent: Collins and the British queen are revealed to be fools precisely because they have set themselves up as and embrace their roles as “laureate” and “royal,” pretentious.

Along with satire, there is also homage in this first book. To Michael Hartnett, for example: “Navigating pub to pub the streets/ of his adopted city,/ hearing the joyful noise he follows/ a crowd hurrying to where a parade/ of rafts comes down the river:/ they are his books! (“The Poet Hartnett”). In a poem about Constantine Cavafy (“10 Rue Lepsius”), Chapson writes, “Maybe I should have gone along,/ given in to what he wanted, but he was hesitant, polite, easy to refuse.” Clearly, however, this is not a poem that draws on personal experience. Cavafy died in 1933, before Chapson was born. This is a vision of a poet filtered through generations and hearsay, a second-hand memory or perhaps even fantasy. Incidentally, the poet Kent Johnson calls Chapson “our Cavafy, completely unknown.// Out of time” (quoted in a back cover blurb). Certainly something like this describes Chapson in these books. He reveals little of himself and what he does is revealed obliquely; it is not autobiography or confession. He clearly does not see such a thing as the primary function of poetry.

There are exceptions, however. “Days in the Playhouse,” for example, at least on the surface appears to be a personal reminiscence on the poet’s days in New Orleans. And we get a sense of his Catholicism in a number of poems that take up stories from the Bible, and especially in “In the Temple of the Reformers.” The latter is an ironic attack on Protestantism: “In the temple of the reformers I saw/ how much they’d improved our religion....” It ends with an affirmation of idols and the Catholic art that depicts “a human god” and his “bleeding wounds, his agony;/ we need to see him dead in his mother’s arms.” The title sequence “Daphnis & Ratboy” is about an older man and his treacherous younger lover. It is unclear, though, which, if either, of the figures the writer might sympathize with.

Scholia builds on the themes and motifs of its predecessor. Chapson further satirizes the notion of the “laureate” in two short poems both titled “Wheel of Fortune.” A bad poetry reading provokes this welcome response: “Thankfully there is a fire escape where the beer cooler sits,/ offering a view of rooftops over which passes a strange bird” (“House Reading”). Post-structuralism comes in for attack (“No One Gets Fat on Poetry,” “Embarrassing”), while Chapson conversely vaunts Jonathan Swift (in both books, in fact), another poetic forebear, perhaps. (Now, I often like stuff that points up the limits or the materiality of the medium, but I take Chapson’s point at the same time.) Poetry is real for him; it is neither a hobby nor a series of word games. The lead poem in this collection, “There Were Rhetoricians,” posits poets versus the “barbarians,” by which he does not mean a “lower” order of people, but a usurping ruling class with little regard for culture or the arts — not unlike, say, the mindset of a number of our contemporary politicians. (And certainly the “barbarians” reference is another nod to Cavafy.) The poem expresses, in allegorical terms, the plight of poets and artists today: “Some of us, I regret to say, obliged;/ others retired to the countryside/ where we ended our days polishing/ hendecasyllables, crafting elegiac couplets.” There is also a challenge in this.

On a similar note, coming back to Chapson’s primary role as satirist, many of the pieces in Scholia (as well as the previous book) are critiques of contemporary society, and the aptly titled “Culture” is one. In it, the workers at numerous low-paying jobs in Milwaukee are likely to be poets or English BAs/MFAs. But this is “[not because it is] a city of high literary culture”; it is because there is hardly any role today in America or the rest of the West for the poet. In such a situation there is little choice but “obedience/ to suffering; ease in deprivation” (“Fealty”). No, it’s not a return to the image of the romantic, starving artist, but a result of commitment in inhospitable circumstances.

What solution there is to this predicament, if any, lies for Chapson in poetry itself and in community (and to be fair — more subjectively, a number of further Biblical tales provide him inspiration and material for contemplation). Returning to Daphnis & Ratboy, there are the “cattails, water lilies, and reeds” in the beautiful, imagistic poem titled accordingly, where despite the garbage that pollutes the Milwaukee River, “Out of the shallow water primitive reeds rise up, their roots/ Grottoes for crayfish and frogs; not courageous like oaks, reeds/ Stay together, bend, each one perfect in its lack of personality.” The alliteration of “reeds,” “rise,” and “roots” almost seems to enact on the page this sense of communion, this binding together, where the individual is, if not subsumed, strengthened by “stay[ing] together.” There is something problematic in the phrase “lack of personality,” no doubt, but to enter into Chapson’s vision is nonetheless to enter into that sense of poetic community, to be encouraged by it, and to be challenged to be true to it, in its sincerity and in its irony, despite it all.

Arlen House produces well-made books, and Chapson’s are no exception. (Daphnis & Ratboy is even available in hardback.) Both feature cover artwork by Kyle Fitzpatrick, an up-and-coming painter also from Milwaukee who I really like. Both of these volumes are more than worth it. Read Chapson, read Chapson!

2 comments:

Teppichfesser Press said...

Thanks for writing this Mike. Jim's work needs to be discussed. I like sharing these books with people who have preconceived notions of poetry as a series of indecipherable lines driven by quirky one liners on language and pop culture. Those same people who can't marry intelligence with spirituality much less wit with words.

Mike Begnal said...

Keith, I agree -- of course, I wrote the post, so I would. But, Chapson reminds us why being a poet is a serious thing. I am all for awareness of medium (in fact it would be naive to not have such an awareness), but poetry is not some silly game. OK....