Hunger For Salt
by Elaine Fletcher Chapman
Saint Julian, 2017
90 pages, $12.00
Review by Barrett Warner
The poet Gregory Orr once wrote four consecutive books of poetry in which only one poem did not take place outdoors, and that one occurred inside a pick-up truck which was parked outside. And so he is perhaps known as being a little woodsy, someone who fully accepts the purpose of nature as assertion and metaphor, and someone who has suffered long enough to have mastered swimming in his own wound without drowning in it.
Elaine Fletcher Chapman is no less woodsy, and no less free of guilt in her debut collection Hunger for Salt (out now from Saint Julian Press) but her outdoor places come inside for a spell, just as she goes out to them, and one doesn’t feel any barriers between natural and unnatural areas. The elastic journey is everywhere. A ghost. A hawk. A feeling. There’s plenty of ache too, but Chapman isn’t selfish about it, and doesn’t spin her world on that rusty axle. Even without seeing it or hearing it we feel the presence of hurt sharing a spirit with higher grace. In “Birth of a Wing,” she finds amid “the off-shore wind creating havoc” a gull’s wing. It is “whole and intact, / detached from its body. No blood, a clean break. / Feathers, Aegean white and undamaged.”
The beach otherwise vacant. The remainder
nowhere near. Your life changed, even unrecognizable:
wind-blown, not broken. The inexplicable carnage.
Chapman solves the riddle, where does empathy begin? The answer lies in embracing what you could not possibly understand, and nurturing a bending ego. It’s what is good for our messy lives. She begins “Morning Poem” with weather, possibly calling the ghost of fellow Virginian Charles Wright. But haven’t we all seen those radar maps swirling with color like Van Gogh paintings?
This morning, the air heavy with heat.
I pull back my hair and breathe.
The poet changes herself, draws the weather inside of her, notices “Grasses still wet with dew” and asserts, “It’s good to begin a day in the field.” The movement is from all the air to a breath, and from a patch of wet grass to a field, or large to small, small to large. Her love is a dog who is “driven by routine,” yet she breaks from routine and discovers her life, and concludes, “Crazy, in the midst of loss, to be loved so.”
The drift in current poetry, perhaps as a means to represent our aloneness and our fear of dying alone, is to begin with the vast—climate change—and to work our way down to a single cherry tree producing a single cherry as Lauren Davis did in her recent poem “Botany” (Sinking City). This pattern argues from the general to the specific, from the whole to the fractured. But Chapman just as often goes the other way, moving from the singular to the plural. In “Half-time” (itself a strange word suggesting time may be full or empty), she begins, “Only daughter, my first born, somehow I thought you were against me.” The poem leads us to a homecoming parade and its attendant crowd, before returning to the singular: “You handed out / lists of famous lesbians while standing / in a wire and paper bomb. Confusion echoed / against the crowd. The governor waved back.”
Chapman shifts her shape and proportion and from the one to the many as her poem calls out to time and space, so there is a delightful amount of unruly swerves in her poems which are surprising and sensible. “Yesterday / the subject was hands / today funerals” is a wonderful upsetting pair of images. Enthusiasts of Billy Collins who appreciate that his swerves come with a decisive wink may not like Chapman’s innocence, but she seems refreshingly unaware of these swerves, as if in her mind they are not swerves at all. The short poem “Returning from the Beach during a Storm” is almost all transition and magic:
I licked my lips and tasted salt,
blown and embedded in my skin.
I thought not from tears this time.
I moved the gold band
from my left to my right hand.
I wore it there for three months.
Yesterday I removed it and placed
it in my grandmother’s dish on the dresser
where I noticed a few grains of salt.
The lower tidewater country where Chapman writes knows a thing or two about change as land itself forms and dissipates, all the dust returning to the ocean. Her brackish marsh is home to ospreys, herons, and eagles—birds which do not sing. Instead they cry or shriek without any melody, fashioning homes on orphaned posts. In her kitchen, she remembers, “Only days ago we sighted three bald eagles / and six blue herons in the marsh. / Sat for a time by the ocean. / It seems indulgent to want more.” Oh but she does, for Chapman is a greedy poet, greedy for restoring her soul: “I mixed the flour, eggs and warm milk. / Kneaded the dough. Let rise in the warmest room, / then braided and brushed with raw egg. / Sprinkled with sugar. I’ve lost confidence.”
Chapman engages her own doubt, her failings, her losses, her loves and lives gone bad, her intense sadness. She has suffered. We have suffered. Everyone is suffering. To create music around such heavy feelings (music to lift the spirit), that music must either be technically flawless or else very original. Chapman is both. Her pitch is tempered, but not perfect, her chords lightened by a percussive whimsy and airy space.
“Not Failing” begins with a meal that William Carlos Williams might have adored: “Cold roasted sweet potatoes / from the Eastern shore / on a yellow plate / beside the glass of wine. / Red pepper flakes.” And then her brilliant swerve: “Mostly, the men in my life / have failed me.” She continues:
Forty years ago, in the dark,
I crouched on the stoop
of an antique shop on a busy street,
keening, not understanding
the turn my life was taking.
A stranger stopped and asked
if he could help, I answered no.
What I meant to say was yes.
In some ways, Chapman will always be that young relation we each have who seems to get carried away very easily: “I entered the labyrinth / and a lion entered me.” Thank God she is so carried away, and so willing to bring us with her into her poetry of not being prefect.