Your Favorite Poet. Leigh Chadwick. Malarkey Books, 2022. 141 pages.
Much discussion is had about the question “what is poetry?” And while that fruitless discussion is ongoing, Leigh Chadwick is getting busy putting together yet another block of prose poetry that, once you turn it over with your reading eyes, reveals underneath it a network of wriggling life: turns of phrase, juxtapositions, gags, and just overall startling weirdness. Chadwick writes from a point of view that is as jittery and prone to collapse as an unstable nuclear core; sentences run on or stutter or flip. The shattering, kinetic energy of these prose-poetic paragraphs has to be measured by cutting edge instruments. Everything is in motion. Reading the book I was put in mind of the Rube Goldberg-derived mechanism of the board game Mousetrap, where players build an almost unnecessarily elaborate contraption out of plastic parts to cage a mouse. It’s all done for laffs, but from the mouse’s perspective it’s deadly serious.
As a critic, it would be lacking in rigor and dignity to say that Chadwick’s effect is similar to that of a recreational drug, but hallucinations do creep in around the edges of the poems—and more often lunge into center stage to grab the mic and do a tight five from their stand-up routine. To quote from the book (Chadwick informed reviewers they could do this without being sued):
I go to bed a Jehovah’s Witness. I dream Armageddon filing its taxes. I dream people climbing out of the dirt and dusting off their cellphones. I bathe in ampersands and wake up a Scientologist. I sit on a televised couch. … I hire myself to play myself sitting on a couch, watching a shot-for-shot remake of the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. …
Surreal fractals of imagery leap forth from a sentence, only to begin turning the crank on a still smaller Jack in the box which pops soon after; a cascade of observations and jokes oozes down the page like a nude slinky descending a staircase, only to be reset at the top of the next page. The poet’s job seems to be to describe a world regulated by a set of private rules that are as random as the true ones might as well be: “It is more likely that you will get shot in the face than fall in love. I’m not sure that’s true, but science is taking a nap…” A few lines later and we’re given this bit of ritualized and all-too-logical security: “I never forget my daughter but I’m always losing my keys, so I attach my keys to my daughter.” The instability of the objects and their relationships in the poems seems to, at times, signal a need for a measure of stability in an unstable world that can only be achieved through the poems’ own playful and idiosyncratic logic.
These ludic images from the bottom shelf of the game closet are perhaps creating the impression that it’s all laughs, which it’s not. Who is speaking to us, and what does she want? We’re repeatedly reminded in one whole section that this is “Leigh Chadwick” speaking—the self-possession of the voice is that strong—and for the course of the book we’re in the hands of a distracted, perhaps manic, witty and fun mother of young children who nevertheless has experienced enough of life that darkness has begun to dig its nails into the flesh of her arm. The mirror she holds is ornate and zany but the light that it occasionally reflects is stark and upsetting. The reader is often made to feel the narrator’s fears and sadnesses as a series of shuffling masks taken on and off in rapid succession. Moods hit hard and leave reverberations but are soon replaced by other ones. You don’t know what to feel from one moment to the next, and the humorous sugar-coating on the pill is no guarantee of its consequent effects several sentences later.
One example of the tonal shift which occurs with remarkable prevalence is the way national tragedy interferes with the ongoing children’s birthday party of life. The comedy of infinite recursion is at work, until it is interrupted by nationwide gunfire. Gun violence—the inescapable way it chronically reappears in the news and throughout American culture with each new shooting until it is a reliable feature of the cultural landscape everyone can steer their zeitgeist SUVs by—is a major preoccupation of the poems on display here. Bullets proliferate and take precedence over other more vital objects such as the groceries. In particular, the ghosts are “miniature”: child victims of gun violence stand outside every conscience’s door in Chadwick’s world. From “Pudding Poem”:
During morning announcements, the principal comes on the PA and tells the student body, If you survive the semester, you will automatically receive straight A’s. … I dream a group of miniature ghosts I am empty field. The ghosts say they are all sad they weren’t able to graduate from playground and move on to puberty and first touches. They sit in a circle and play duck, duck, goose. The ghosts tell me that no one wants to be the goose.
A powerful impression is created of a wacky, colorful, often adorable monologue that is, as if interrupted by a banal chorus, distracted by news of unimaginable horror and the monologue’s imagination is struggling to adapt to the unimaginable. And it is only through contrasts—the spiky mosaic-field of attention-deficient comedy against the foregrounded tragedy which is announced from off-screen—that either visual space can be understood.
If I had any criticism of Your Favorite Poet, it’s that Chadwick does occasionally overindulge in precocious hijinks, and that the sum total of the concentrated jeux d’esprits and confidently surrealist about-faces one after another can be desensitizing. This made me need to set the book down, view the substance of life through monochrome lenses for a spell, and come back to the book later with all my conceptual Crayola crayons (64 colors) resharpened. Having said that, there’s too many wonderfully fused images and thought-patterns captured here for readers of adventurous, effervescent, deceptively soulful poetry to miss. Recommended.