The Chime by Cort Day. Alice James Books, $11.95
Reviewed by Laura Solomon
In The Chime, Cort Day conducts a philharmonic as cacophonous as it is sonorous. Words do indeed chime--within a line, a poem, between poems--though the resulting music varies from reverberant to tinny. While "There is no disharmony in the skyline," Day milks every friction. Consistently playing on the paradox of being both one and many, the poems, and the book itself, resemble the stratified unity of a chord, each note wavering with vibrato. What Day deftly builds, however, is dis-chord, atonal progressions that fragment as quickly as they compose. His writing "suicides" as it "flowers": "Terminal, it likes to destroy itself" ("Monad, a Deluxe Pastoral, Deepens and Unwinds"). Poet and poem vie for dominion to no avail. True, Day is conductor--both god and vector--inflecting and channeling bolts of sound and light ("All the gods on this plain are capacitors"); it is language, nevertheless, that proves the ultimate string-puller, the invisible hand "setting all the puppeteers to dancing" ("Not a Cloud in the Sky"). In monadic fashion, Day divvies complexities in ten-line increments while rhythmically employing and subverting the pentameter--the basic metrical unit in ratio with the basic monetary unit. While these poems are frugal in line and length, even terse on the surface, they do not economize a reader’s time. The Chime is a jealous book, demanding repetitive reads and rewarding one’s input with variable decimals and decibels of output.
Like so many poets, Day tropes on text as textile, as woven, unraveling. What distinguishes his cloths, suits, garments from the crowd’s is a multi-layered figurative play and keen attention to etymology. The poems turn on the masked, the disguised, the encoded--what is being invested, enshrouded like the word’s root--and what is being tailored to market, is marketable (i.e., the quotidian dismantling text trope). Like Zeus (another tired but vendible figure), the poems mutate in a blink, sometimes within a given reading. In this sense, Day exhibits a very palpable self-consciousness toward self-consciousness, an ironic stance intimately wary of irony’s trappings. His pivots on the word invest, his delvings into the economies of guise, are innovative and revealing, but the result can be poems plagued by paranoia, verse that must morph incessantly and inwardly to evade its own gong. Day tempers tongue-in-cheek quips aimed for a post-modern reader-consumer, ("I only get ten minutes in this mask"; "Every portfolio has a tapeworm"; "I sell you the words for nipple, for strawberry") with apologetic, stirring passages like the following whose very lyricism must finally question any attempt at sincerity. Here, too, the poem must succumb to the jangle of change:
When your body left mine, a chime.
The sun, vibrating imperceptibly,
causes monad to invest in chains
of waterfalls, green vitreous strands
I resonate inside. Investigate me.
I’ve been awarded a franchise.
Day spins verse that evolves as it revolves, and this tendency to convert, to turn and return, complements the book’s central motif of transaction--be it carnal, fiscal, or verbal. In "White, Ordinal," the modifier "white," as it is repeated, becomes modified by that which it describes ("boxes," "string," "logic," "keys"). In an illustrative move, the poem then begins to orbit outward from its axial repetition:
a forest turns. Reach, you just might touch
your father’s hand, your mother’s face. As this
displays, the forest hardens. As this is white,
the forest turns, dangerous. So you turn
softly. You are holding "fields of phlox."
Like money, words function as instruments of exchange, phonetic representations void of any inherent value. There is no gold or Platonic standard to a given word. Meaning is dependent upon present usage. Day writes: "I pin currencies to you. They rise and fall." The poet executes a shifting nomenclature ("I classify us as bone ash, then as lilies") as intermittent as the world it describes ("Tool & Die was the Lord’s purpose"). Whether employing the imperative or moving in curt declaratives, the poems always confirm economic cycles, dictating the market’s ultimate condition of consumption and waste. In "Elect Bastard Toadflax," Day directly addresses this condition, this "tiny application running inside everyone: / disposable, disposable, disposable, disposable." It is this repeatability, this pending replaceability, of people and words that make them commodities of narrative. Later, in "Tiny Fable," this theme explicitly recurs:
Darling, your infant’s been whispering
into my dictaphone again, and its tiny fable
scares me: it says the new Disposable Symphony
will repixelate all property as green or
"rain is money."
Indeed, fable and myth proliferate due to the same ingenuity and repeatability that dull them. Similarly, Day’s chiming repetition alternatingly enlivens and deadens a poem’s cadence, a word’s significance.
Given the book’s fascination with the deadening of language, it should not surprise anyone that the first line of the first poem contains two cliches: "Off to market. Not a cloud in the sky." From the start, the poet announces his intention to transpose the jingle, to revive the fable, and does, at least to the extent that language and market will permit him. For still, language must be bracketed, can never just be. Language proves similic, easily commodified, often motive-driven, always an approximation: "By then my voice was 'a neutral, / highly ionized gas' involving the entire planet, / and then it was my turn, and I had nothing to say" ("A Little Song About Plastic"). These punctuated interjections are far from gratuitous, performing roles as various as the dictions that chime in and as disparate as the resulting images. At his best, Day forces us to recognize death as animate and inherent to life, "The sack cloth / corpse leaning forward in your rib cage," as he seeks to excavate a soul or at least make room for some sort of non-automation existence, doubting the possibility of such all along. What connects us to one another and what connects a word to its meaning is an inevitable disconnection. Day offers us this beautiful nightmare, the clangor of consciousness, and always we are "amazed / at the living and dying getting done in our extremities."
From Verse, Volume 18, Numbers 2 & 3 (2001). All rights reserved. For information about this issue, please see Arielle Greenberg's poem below.