Terrain.org Reviews.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Uncertain Delights

Kim Barke reviews Unexpected Light, poems by C. E. Chaffin

Unexpected Light, poems by C. E. ChaffinFor C. E. Chaffin, it seems, common perceptions often trigger philosophical or political digressions. His lyrical poems tend toward a homiletic style, relying heavily on rhetorical questions and aphoristic judgment. For example, the poem “Chico Creek” ponders the point in space where the eye lands on the creek, ending with, “How can we commit self-pity without laughing?” One of the most compelling poems in this collection, “Details,” describes experiences we all share, such as forgetting overdue books and extra cell phone charges, and sums it up as “Capitalism depends on forgetfulness.” The rhetorical question in this case is, “Do you really have the energy?”

Of course poems can and have been used successfully to illuminate society regarding moral issues, but it is often the case that the political attempts strain the art in a poem. Edna St. Vincent Millay learned this lesson the hard way, when she attempted to write about the horrors of WWII and discovered that “propaganda was never good art; it wasn’t even good propaganda.” She felt that the work of a poet is to write poetry and “that is not the same thing as a reporter, an agitator, or a reformer.”

What then does it take to write poetry? Helen Vendler says in an essay in the New York Review of Books that the function of poetry is “to clothe common perceptions in striking language, not to enunciate striking perceptions.” Chaffin does have many moments rich with such striking language. His poem “Queen Melancholy” dazzles with these lines:

She reassures us
in a smoky cocktail voice,
making unendurable pain
immune to reason’s solace.
She will choke you
with a noose of accusations
woven from strictest honesty.

Chaffin is a retired psychiatrist and therefore has the ability to write about states of mental illness in uncanny ways. It is these poems the reader will find most compelling.  “Split” evokes the idea of schizophrenia, or at least auditory hallucinations, and “Off Lithium” is where he really excelled. In this poem, the bi-polar patient is the speaker:

Drank a twelve-pack and didn’t feel it,
slept three hours and woke refreshed
with the marvelous idea of making shoes
with living grass for insoles…
I’m sure a fresh idea
could bust that monopoly I gotta get
a patent lawyer soon.

Here, the inner life of a bipolar patient in a manic state is described in a way that only someone who has spent his life working with patients like this could. The language and images are fresh and vivid—“living grass for insoles”—and nowhere in this poem does he judge.

Poetry and psychiatry rarely meet, and yet the novelty of that marriage is not the reason that Chaffin’s book is so engaging. It is his writing, when he’s not in a narrative or expounding mood—“if my blood has been desiccated and ground to red pepper, remember me on your pizza”—which offers the momentum to carry the reader through this decade-long collection that spans an eclectic mix of subject matter, from clinical anxiety to the Chinese New Year in L.A.


Kim Barke was born and raised in New York. She earned a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology, and an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in The Chronogram, Ducts.org, and CommonDreams.org. Her first book of poems, What the Tide Brings, was published in 2008.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Unexpected Light: Poems

By C. E. Chaffin

   Diminuendo Press
   174 pages
   ISBN 978-0982135273


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.