May 25th, 2011
Review by John Freeman
FROM THE AGE OF MIRACLES
by David Chorlton
Niagara Falls NY 14301
2009, 31pp., $!0.00.
Around fifteen or so years ago I initiated a correspondence with David Chorlton because I admired one of his books of poetry. The correspondence was brief, and over the years I lost track of his poetic career though I found individual poems of his in some of the magazines in which I published. Thus, when I found his recent book, From the Age of Miracles, on the Rattle review list, I jumped at the opportunity.
The thematic burden of this book is the struggle to reconcile any type of metaphysical tradition (which is for most of us the soil in which our psyches are rooted) with the rationalism and materialism engendered by the inexorable advance of science and technology. The title contains a double entendre—“from” can mean either a glimpse within or a leaving behind. The poems waver between the emotional nostalgia of the first meaning and the intellectual recognition of the second.
It is understandable that a sensitive man would feel dismay when confronted with the cold, unforgiving and unsentimental factuality of the scientific materialism that has replaced his sense of awe before the unknown and the security of faith.
Chorlton’s poems abound with such nostalgia. The opening stanza of the first poem states the conflict starkly:
Whenever you are reading this
as the ones who tried to live backwards
and teach creation
while scientists built a tunnel in which
to look back at the beginning of time.
(“Postcards from the Age of Miracles”)
Chorlton, though acknowledging the presence and power of science, clings to the hope that “truth” and “meaning” can still exist beyond the scope of science. In “Letter to Cezanne” he confesses:
Why doesn’t science impress me? Did you ever wonder
how Mont Saint Victoire became the shape it did?
When you stood in the lavender scented light
with the warmth nibbling at your skin
and a beam of concentration linking you
to the peak, wasn’t it a shade of blue that mattered
or am I missing something? I care more for the shadow
slipping over the rock’s shoulder like a cloak
than I do for a theory of how it came to be.
However, the ecological and political ravages that result from scientific materialism have to be faced:
Rash assault you called it,
and called on us to share the passion of a just disdain.
I’m writing now to share some,
to tell you how the ice is warming and the handshakes
of men securing deals
for oil are colder than ever; how hunters
call it sport when they’re the only
side that can win; how advertising tells us
how much more we need and the space to grow it
diminishes as we watch; how forests
are chewed up by machines; how rivers
are stolen from their beds; how yellow monsters without hearts
plough the desert open
until nothing remains of it but the howl and the coo
when foxes and doves nest
in our memories….
(“Letter to Wordsworth”)
In fact, the reigning spirit of the age infects every important aspect of our lives, as in “Letter to Ryokan”, where “politics” can be substituted for “science”:
The issue for me
is that I want to be free of politics…
have become so loud, even the ones I agree with,
and every argument leaves me more like my adversary
than like myself…
The “alienated artist” motif has been a venerable tradition in our literature since the Romantic Revolution. But it has rarely sounded as harsh and hopeless as today. Chorlton opens “Letter to Isabelle Eberhardt” with:
Dear Isabelle, I’m writing as one who can’t find his way
to a culture he’d want to check into
as he would an old hotel…
and in “Letter to John Clare”, he laments:
Some of us resist. Not belonging
is a way of life for us, and talking back
gets us into trouble. They haven’t caught me yet
and I’m free to walk the streets…
Though his outlook is bleak, Chorlton is not completely bereft of hope. As he explains in the concluding stanza of “Postcards from the Age of Miracles”:
Talking about the virgin birth
or resurrection keeps
a sense of wonder in our lives
even though we can’t explain
how they were possible. Neither
do we understand digital technology,
although we came to love it once
we were told it’s only ones and zeros.
These poems are, however, far more pessimistic than optimistic, or even accepting of the situation. I do have one negative comment to make about an otherwise excellent book. Others may disagree, but I believe that contemporary poetry has passed the saturation point with such themes as lamenting the destruction of the natural world by human development and technology. I don’t know that any fresh ideas or viewpoints on the subject are possible at this point. It’s like listening to the same sermon every Sunday. It may be an excellent sermon, and one we need to hear, but eventually it becomes cloying.
Don’t get me wrong—I lament the ongoing environmental degradation as much as anyone. I spent my childhood on a farm in rural Mississippi, and after moving to the city was an avid Boy Scout. My psyche was immersed in, and nourished and partially formed by, my relationship with nature.
But too often poets have dwelt on this theme, as well as other “gloom and doom” topics, to the exclusion of the positive events and feelings that make a life livable. Such poetry is all about what’s wrong with the world, with little attention given to what’s right about it. I find it hard to believe that any poet has no positive experiences about which to write, though many refuse to do so for what I consider spurious political reasons.
From the Age of Miracles is short—only thirty-one pages. Perhaps, since the book is thematic, there was simply not enough room to include poems that would have given the book more balance. And perhaps my criticism is too idiosyncratic, since it does go against the grain of the prevailing politically-driven theories of what poetry should be and do. At any rate, because the poet’s vision is encompassing and complex, and the poems are well-crafted, this is a book worth reading.
John Freeman is a retired teacher living in Harvey, Louisiana. His poetry has appeared in many magazines, including Rattle. He is author of three books of poetry.