Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.

11.21.13 | | 4 comments

I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.

Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas… that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation—an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)

The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar—chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him—rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.

I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry.  Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture.

I didn’t sit down and read this in one go. I stalled out often—too much language, too many layered and complex concepts being offered all at once. When this happened I read other things and was grateful to go back to Field Notes with fresh eyes. This book is incredibly dense philosophically and also textually. I had to look up at least a dozen words, I often had to read paragraphs a few times to fully understand what Chadwick was driving at. I had to read each poem multiple times until words and phrases spread out, began to leap out at me and open up a meaning, an image.  But the work was worth it, because I think it helped me be a better writer and a better poet. Here, I will list a few lines from a handful of my favorites and write a little bit about what they evoked for me.

From : “Talisman: traveler’s New Zealand Companion, 1998-2000”:                                   

  ….Pharaoh’s pissed

He didn’t get your permission slips, the sun’s

 

Mounting sand, and the only way to quench

My parched feet is by chasing the cloud God rides

So the firmament can moisturize his skin (42).

I enjoy the pharaoh and mounting sand—which evokes some seriously exodus-related imagery—in combination with “pissed” and the permission slip; these are words Moses likely did not use, though I like to think he had thoughts like that. I like the image of cloud and firmament. A cloud low enough to earth will provide moisture—the water the Israelites thirsted for. And God, down close to us here on earth, will provide the rain of revelation and association with him; living waters, spiritual life.

From “Across the Hokianga” (55):

Crimson-honey sand

across the Hokianga

crimson-honey sky

but only one cumulus

to lick the bay’s narrow tongue

the only reason why I didn’t write down this poem in its entirety is because I want people to go read it. In the book. But the entire poem is a lovely reflection—literally. Sky and water. When the sun is setting over the water, where does one sunset begin and another end, and does it matter? In this poem I see those brilliant colors running together, a picture of how heaven and earth run together, though often we don’t realize it. I found this (the middle stanza) most lovely because of the slight difference in pattern. In the previous and following stanzas Chadwick’s phrasing is “but no____” but in this middle stanza he changes it up and says “but only one” cumulus. To lick the bay’s narrow tongue.  Clouds, earth, again. When clouds and earth come together, we’ve got an inescapable reference to veil, to communion with gods, and don’t forget what happens when clouds and earth come together—rain, a universal symbol of blessings and communion. This window into heaven (the sunset that is indistinguishable between sky and firmament-waters) is, for me, a gorgeous reminder that the veil isn’t so thick as we think it might be. That in fact it might not exist, that the meeting of sky and water, that the horizon is really just a firmament in our minds, something to strive to overcome. This poem ends with night, and no moon, and the sipping of tea… or memory perhaps.  We need to remember these veil-shifting moments after they leave us.

From “Dessicated Tongues” (113):

Adam hears voices

from deep in the serpent’s

caress, hears a thousand

thousand half-truths split

a thousand thousand tongues

slippery with the blood

of a thousand thousand worlds

Split tongues. Spilt blood. And the deep, overwhelming and buzzingly-vast universe we are dealing with when we consider, sometimes, the nature of innocence and knowledge, how it’s twisted.  It’s interesting, reading Chadwick’s Eden-Poetry. There’s a lot of it. I’ve read several of his poems on the topic of the fall, or using Adam, Eve, fruit, trees to evoke the idea of awakening from innocence into deeper knowledge, or growing & gripping desire, or the burden of responsibility.  This “nightmare” (or dream) Adam has, just before he wakes to being offered fruit by Eve.  I feel Chadwick’s explorations and echo his (I’m going to infer here) puzzlement and wonder at the phenomenon of “fall” or maybe a better term is “awakening.” I feel like there are no questions really answered in these Fall Poems of his, and I personally feel that’s the way it should be. Because it is our role to be awakened to one thing after another in this life—points of doctrine, changes we need to make, new experiences, new stages of life.  Here, in this stanza, I sense Adam’s feeling of burden—his responsibility, his fear and premonition of what will come because of a choice he might or might not make. But it’s in the haze of his half-dreaming that Eve offers it to him and he accepts. In almost every one of these poems, and in our own mythology, it’s Eve who has the clarity and greater knowledge, who prods or warms a half-reluctant or naïve Adam into taking the next step.  Eve as a wiser being–I’m not sure how I feel about that. I feel like Adam must have been equally wise, and there’s something missing there. More questions.

From Mother and Child (171-172):

A woman

kneeling bedside, telling tissues

wrung dry as a rosary run out of beads.

as her uterus chapped like a mid-drought

riverbed

I like the fact that Chadwick wrote this as a sort of attempt to delve into the mind and emotions of his sister, who struggled with infertility, when she reacted negatively to his announcement that he and his wife were expecting their first child.  Instead of being hurt and angry (though maybe there was a bit of that mixed in there, I don’t know) he worked on identifying with her and understanding the place she was coming from. Feeling for her.  An example of how exploration through the medium of poetry can be redemptive.

From “On Crucifixion by J. Kirk Richards” (211):

 

When God cross-dresses in death, does

the universe blush? Does it worship

the crimson-stained grain of his skin,

the shadow of his ribs? Does it praise

his left breast until milk warms the tongue

like redemption? Like Silence? Like Blasphemy?

At first this poem puzzled me. Then I realized, I needed to look at the painting, of course. What I love about this is the image and the poem together evoke some interesting and important lines of thought. God “cross dressing in death;” if you are looking at the painting, Christ’s body seems both feminine and masculine.  The reference to the left breast—in the painting, it does seem rather engorged. And the twining of flowers around everything. A beautiful image: the body of Christ (the Body of Christ) is beautiful, and the painting (and poem) seems to include aspects of the feminine and masculine in Christ’s form. Because we (the body of Christ) are made up of women and men, and because we happen to know God is both a woman and a man (truth is reason) (though mainstream LDS culture doesn’t often talk about that), this exploration, for me, leads to a place that’s sort of above all the speculation and is declarative of one thing we know is true—divinity is both male and female, and Christ died for all of us, and we are all part of the body of Christ.

Last of all, I wanted to talk about Chadwick’s Koru poems.  I remembered, when I got to these in the book, being puzzled last year on facebook when Tyler posted a bunch of images of what looked like conch shells and fiddlehead ferns. And writing things about First Korus and Second Korus. So I went into reading this section with a great deal of curiosity.

The image and movement of Koru—a spiral opening outward, but more than that—also curling inward, but more than that—growing into being from the source of life (or curling up into death), was something amazing to me. And also dizzying. I’ve always wondered about truth being one eternal round, circumscribed into one great whole, and I can see that as Koru after reading Chadwick’s descriptions and imagery. It’s an image that almost operates in another dimension of space—movement, origin, and ending being the things that throw it beyond 3-dimensions.

These poems require that you look up some Maori words if you want to experience the imagery fully. Here are some of my favorite images:

From Koru 1 (62):

Let’s slip, you and I, into memory’s

inner coil, into reminiscence supple

as slow passage into prayer, as

unfurling into birth—Let it spoon

into the soul—Let it lap the flesh like fire

I feel here the movement of the Koru. Slipping into the inner coil, the slow, unwinding passage of that coil as it grows and unfurls. The relentless strength of it as it spoons in—plants grow slowly and have terrible strength, symbolizing the un-opposable strength of the passage and dawning of life, and the growing in between.

From Koru 2 (62-63):

Come and sleep unsettled as death,

whispers loose in the waves still unsettled

by Mother’s burial, anguish thick in the ash

Father wept when the gods wrapped her in memory

and slipped her beneath the veil of mist spread out

to dry while the powhiri circles into dawn—

Here we’re talking about death, but still about life. The word powhiri refers to a Maori welcoming ceremony. So she is being welcomed into a new life (dawn) even while he is experiencing her death. With Chadwick’s help I see Koru as life and death at the same time, moving and growing in each others’ anti-space. And neither one is an endpoint.

From Koru 3 (63):

 

Let their spindrift settle like styptic

Into the soul—Let it cauterize

The emptiness between us—let it sear

The tongue’s buds to clarity and prayer

 

and speak with the subtlety of spring—Speak

the verbs spread through soil rich with the gods’

afterbirth—Press them, like balm, to lips chapped

by the wind’s etymology—Let the earth’s

 

predicates move you to prophecy—

(confession, I also had to look up styptic.) To me, those last three lines shiver with great imagery and sonosophy. This particular section of verse struck me with its movement—settle. Cauterize, sear.  We’re cleaning up after the great events of life. And in the next verse, we’re talking about the gods’ afterbirth, and the calm, peace, and subtlety of the stirring of new life. The balm of that, pressed to lips chapped by too much wind (or fire) and the earth (which is in most writing, a gentle, subtle creature) moving us to the quiet state where we can find prophecy.  It reminds me of a poem I wrote a while ago titled “recovery” where I mention tucking red feathers behind an ear while waiting for pumice dust to clear. After the big event, the peace. The forest fire that clears the clutter and tangle of overgrown space to allow peaceful plains of new growth.  I love that image.  That in-between time, the time of slow growth and spiraling between transitions.

From Koru 4 (63-64):

Slip into Hineruru’s omen….

 

“Come,” she’ll sing as you settle into her

prophecy: taste the Gods’ entymology—

Let it smother the tongue—Let it open

your palate  open death’s palate open

 

your tihei mauriora out of the silence

hung heavy on each breath as desire—

OK, so, interpretations first: Hineruru is an owl-woman, a Maori protector-goddess who people see before they die. So she’s an omen of death but she’s also a protector and guider to the next life.

Tihei Mauriora is a Maori term for “breath of life,” but it’s also the term for the opening speech or the beginning of a speech in a Maori ceremony, usually a welcoming ceremony.

So here, the image for me is, settling peacefully into death—allowing yourself to be smothered into letting go the drives and fears that keep us here in this life, slipping into the peacefulness of the next. But then you open yourself into a new life—You are brave enough to break the silence and you breathe a new breath of life.

I enjoyed this because I fear death (like anyone else). For me this is about how death is not really what we think it is. We pass through into another stage of coiling outward, of growth. We breathe a new breath of life when we cross the boundary of this one through death.

Koru 5 (64):

Let the rest between breaths come heavy            

with desire, come heavy as flesh flushed lactic

while you wrestled the sun, wound its sinews

around the tongue  hung heavy from TekoTeko’s mouth

high in the raftered womb…

TekoTeko is a Maori statue-guard. The tongue typically protrudes—like the ceremonial dances the Maori do, tongue protruding, to intimidate/scare away. Or welcome, but with a show of  force in order to inspire caution in a new visitor.  So this section, for me, not only evoked the sensuality of life “between breaths” or between those big events, new breaths of life, when things have time to grow and mature and ripen, and we are driven to experience our flesh and create; that drive to create. It also evoked an embracing of what is new and perhaps intimidating-but-also-welcoming if you come to it with the right heart.  A fearless embracing of the thing that unsettles us—our own creative forces. Not just the overwhelming drive that exists with the procreative experience, but embracing the newness of each experience and each phase of life, intimidating as they may be.

 

Koru 6 (64-65):

Whet your tongue on the ora mate ora of the sea—

Let it pulse—Let its murmur and forgetting

Seep into your soul, into your song, into

 

The posture you hold like a talisman,

The prayer you put on like the grave, your body

Unfolding like spindrift, unfolding like an elegy—

Ora Mate Ora is literally life, death life. The rhythm of the sea—waves washing up and back on a beach, waves rising up and sinking down in the ocean. Symoblic of death and life. But also illustrative of the overall concept—that they are really one, that without one you do not have the other, that one is not as fiercely divided and separated from another as we human beings with our limiting fears assume.  To let its murmur, and forgetting (of fears, perhaps) seep into your soul, into the posture we hold like talismans—fear, protection, worry of what comes next—and letting the body unfold, our experience unfold. Letting go and embracing the koru. The experience as a whole, rather than guarding against stages we see as stages but which are really just continuous growth and experience, and existent only as a whole.

One last thing I wanted to discuss about this book–Chadwick is unapologetic in his exploration of language—exploring the sonosophy and etymology of the F-word, for instance (though he doesn’t actually spell out the F word in his book) and also tackling the concept of sexuality in the written word, not as pornography but as an exploration of one of the most driving and important factors of life.  Sexuality does affect everything we are (if we’re to believe things like the Proclamation on the Family, which declares gender as eternal, imbuing humans with certain specific traits.) This is a topic we struggle with as LDS artists, I think.  And Chadwick explores that in one section of the book—how he came to his own peace about his curiosity. He starts with an experience he had as an undergraduate student, where a teacher had the students read a poem about Lorena Bobbit, only without the title, and then told them what it was about after allowing them to speculate.  Chadwick described the experience as difficult for him. He was shocked, he even talked to his in-laws about it that night and agreed with them it was “inappropriate.” Over time, he learned to allow himself to explore his curiosity and enjoyment of poems with sensuality or sexuality as subject matter.

I admit felt a bit puzzled at the long explanations. I felt, when I first read it, like it was somewhat defensive… too explanatory. But I forget that people who come from a place of strict Utah/Idaho/lds culture often do not discuss sexuality even with their parents; it’s subject matter that is taboo in every respect (even where it should be appropriate. For instance, discussing the workings and purpose of sex when a child becomes sexually mature, or before a child is married and enters into that relationship.) So, coming at it from that angle, of course Chadwick has gone through some serious thought, some shame even, and needed an eventual resolution before he could move on and be all right with studying those sorts of writings that are not pornographic, but which explore the sensual and sexual.

I come from a different place. Sex was a matter-of-fact subject in my house. Something normal. Something that would happen to each of us at some points in our lives, so we needed to learn about it.  No taboo, except that we didn’t slander the subject matter by making it dirty, or funny. It was sort of treated in my house like God’s name is treated—we don’t take the name in vain. We don’t take sexuality and intimacy between a man and a woman in vain, but it is something beautiful, something to think about, something to look forward to meeting up with.  And yet, like Chadwick, I still struggle to decide what is appropriate to read and to write on the subject matter. A while ago I wrote a poem which was published on Wilderness Interface Zone, about my relationship with my own best friend and lover, about our first experiences. And then squirmed a whole lot afterward at various reactions.  Some reacted to it by saying it was “sizzling,” “sensual,” they had enjoyed that aspect of it. Some were surprised… I’d let my “mask slip” in ways they hadn’t anticipated I would.  I meant the poem as a tribute to my husband and our love… the sweetness of that desire and ultimate fulfillment with someone you love.  And I still feel that every time I read it. What will others feel when they read it? I can’t control that. Some might use it as pornography. Does that mean I don’t write it?  Because others will understand and feel the sweetness I describe, and perhaps look forward to that or apply it in their lives, or rejoice over the sweetness in their own relationship.

Especially in our culture, wich reveres family, children, and procreation as Godly attributes (unlike some religions which demonize such things as evil, and the root of the Fall, etc) we should be able to celebrate sexuality. So how do we do it? What is appropriate? I think that my definition, and Chadwick’s, is perhaps more open and inclusive than that of many LDS people, but remember that’s a plague in our culture—the guilt associated with No, No, No, and its hampering what should be an utterly sweet, godly relationship where the physical reflects the emotional reflects the spiritual.  So that’s an open question I leave at the end of this review.

I appreciate that Tyler allowed me to do this. It took a lot of trust on his part. I felt, as I read this book, how much of him went into it. I hope many people read it and ponder over it, though not all at once. This book takes time and breaks to digest and savor properly. Sort of like good chocolate. (Sorry for the obvious and banal comparison, but I am eight months pregnant and chocolate is very important to me.) I only give books on Amazon and Goodreads five stars if I consider them “life changing,” and this is one.

4 comments: “Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.

  1. Th.

    .

    I’ll be starting my copy soon. I intend to give it the kind of attention you’ve given it—the sort of attention it seems to deserve.

  2. Wm Morris

    Those are some excellent close readings, Sarah, so I don’t know why you need a disclaimer on your credentials.

    And that’s an excellent question. I think it’s hard to develop author-reader trust with LDS readers because, frankly, some of them have been burned by other creative works. It’s not just the fault of the families that aren’t more open about sexuality (in that particularly modest [using the more common meaning of that word -- as in the opposite of blatant or in-your-face]: it’s also the fact both artists and advertisers have been so profligate with their uses of and depictions of sexuality.

  3. Sarah Dunster

    William. Sorry, coming back to this after a long time. By “burned,” do you mean, they’ve been exposed to things that are disturbing and harmful spiritually, or do you mean, they’ve (we, lds people) been made fun of and treated poorly because of our beliefs, which we hold sacred?

  4. Wm Morris

    Both. And I’m not saying that all those feelings of being “burned” are fully justified (or perhaps they are justified for those individuals, but other individuals who were a bit broader in their view of literature would not have reacted quite so strongly), only that that’s a reality that needs to be reckoned with in relation to Mormons and the arts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>