The Chronicle Review

Monday's Poem: 'Of Beauties,' by Danielle Chapman

October 14, 2011

For E. & F.

Oh child

Out of the scorch

of oil fields

and cliffs of cotton felled

to radiant Tarnation

From coral foxholes

splintering shrapnel

to Oriental jungles

Through interstices of pain

where God's green

meets man's limestone

You come, little ones

As unknown

to the heat-crazed grasses

white obelisks stab at

As to undreamed rimed streets

parboiled with pitbulls

You come

Through the commute's

python inching

to strangle

the skyline's

indigestible jewel

Into the balconies' twinkle,

the yawn of wharves,

the channel between

blacked galleries dwarfed

by the El

and vertical blue

precipitous coves

You cartwheel to the core

of the city

of the year

of innocence

Where windows dwell

on the silenced

stage-lit séance

of angular furniture

and the hospital

garage crooners recall

every floor

You

Murmur rapture

Life

out of nothingness

Mother of beauties

You come through me

Unto me

Twice

© by Danielle Chapman. Printed by permission of the author.

Danielle Chapman is a poet and critic living in Chicago, where she works as the director of publishing-industry programs for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. Tasked with supporting and promoting Chicago-area publishers and writers, she creates programming in collaboration with the University of Chicago Press, Northwestern University Press, Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books, and all of the area's university writing programs, including those at Columbia College and DePaul University. Her poems appear widely in such magazines as the Harvard Review, Poetry International, and The Atlantic Monthly, and her reviews have appeared in Poetry and The New York Times.

The Chronicle Review's poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar of the University of Virginia, notes:

My first conscious interaction with the word "beauty" occurred in the third grade, when I had to learn to spell it for a weekly quiz. How could one word contain so many open spaces, following one another without consonantal break, a melismatic cri de coeur of provocative, blurred emotional registers? One reason the word panicked me so much, I think, is that it forced me to think about breathing. As I walked to my piano lessons, helped wash dishes after supper, or made my way through the subdivision to and from Knollwood Elementary School, I mouthed those vowels, repeated the word over and over to myself, exaggerating the open sounds: "BEEE AAAA UUUU TEEE." In the way of children, I thought of the word "beauty" as a body, a mysterious cache of secret troves buttressed by consonants and ribboned with a fugal, long whEEEEE of a kite tail. My mind still runs through this almost spiritual "Om"- or "Aum"-like sequence each time I must type or write the word.

No wonder that beauty, as word as well as subject and phenomenon, has been and remains utterly compelling to poets. "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth," wrote John Keats in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817—Keats who also ended "Ode to a Grecian Urn" with the famous, enigmatic lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Byron, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Emerson come immediately to mind as poets who have considered the various roles of beauty in our lives and imaginations. Beauty—specular, subjective, mutable—has never been an absolute.

Danielle Chapman signals from the title that her poem will concern beauty, and not just beauty, but beauty in the plural. And yet the poem begins with a singular apostrophic gesture: "Oh child."

What follows is an elemental, anaphoric invocation (part declarative, part imperative) of sites of origin out of and from which this child is approaching the speaker. The poem, long, thin, incrementally repetitious and insistent, visually tropes a helixical strand of DNA, and evokes the formal control and force of Whitman's incantatory "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Chapman's prayer-of-sorts addresses the mysteries of genetics, inheritances, geography, chance, luck, and grace by which new human beings are made and brought into this world. Her litany of personal and historical forces accrues with the latent violence and multiplicity of cell division, and by Line 12 the singular "child," the "You" being addressed, has become not one, but "ones," plural:

Out of the scorch

of oil fields

and cliffs of cotton felled

to radiant Tarnation

From coral foxholes

splintering shrapnel

to Oriental jungles

Through interstices of pain

where God's green

meets man's limestone

You come, little ones

And as the souls of these little ones "come," Chapman's landscape becomes decidedly more local, urban, and particular. Though they are as yet "unknown" to cemeteries ("heat-crazed grasses / white obelisks stab at") or to cold back streets ("undreamed rimed streets / parboiled with pitbulls"), these incipient beings are making their way (as, one imagines, are their parents) through the clotted traffic of the highways, past the "indigestible jewel" of the city's horizon, to the "silenced / stage-lit séance / of angular furniture / and ... garage crooners" of the hospital, where ("Life / out of nothingness") they "cartwheel" to the locus of their becoming, to "the core / of the city / of the year / of innocence," where they "come through" the speaker, and are born—not once, but "twice"—twins—perhaps the "E. & F." of the poem's dedication.

The speaker prepares herself (and the reader) to welcome the unexpectedly replete and inimitable gift of these plural "beauties" in language that itself provokes the pulchritude of even the most sordid or quotidian scapes. (In a conversation I once had with my fellow New Jersey native Robert Pinsky, we talked about how, for a certain kind of sensibility, the slant of light on an asbestos shingle or a profanity-scribbled, blown-windowed abandoned factory could cause an aesthetic, almost erotic shiver of pleasure.)

You come

Through the commute's

python inching to strangle

the skyline's

indigestible jewel

Into the balconies' twinkle,

the yawn of wharves,

the channel between

blacked galleries dwarfed

by the El

and vertical blue

precipitous coves

Floating here are conjurings of the Garden, the banishment, the nativity, the nursery, evolution, geology, making, poetry itself. Death, as Wallace Stevens says, may be the mother of beauty, and certainly Chapman agrees ("Life / out of nothingness // Mother of beauties"), but her focus is on the spaces, the rooms, the protean, complex gifts made possible and enlarged by and within beauty, beauties. Like the windows that "dwell / on the silenced / stage-lit séance" of these births (dwell, from the Middle English dwellen, to lead astray, to stun, but also to reside, to linger over or ponder), the poem itself is a meditation and a place; it is a dwelling on and within all of the spaces beauty can hold, foster, and engender, from the "coral foxholes" and shrapnel-splintered wounds of personal legacy and human history (the "interstices of pain") to one mother's body bringing forth two very particular new worlds. In this way, "Of Beauties" is both an amazed, talismanic, awe-struck hymn of private praise and a meditation on beauty itself—all those vowels, the unexpected plurality—whose redemptive and subjective notions of the lovely are made all the more present to us through the temporal beatitude of children.

Why Monday's Poem? Because what day needs a poem more? Watch for it most weeks at ChronicleReview.com.