Greatest Hits, 1975-2000
Pudding House Publications
Spring 2001, 34 pages
The Runaway Spoon Press
Fall 2000, 63 pages
Birch Brook Press
Fall 2000, 56 pages
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It’s hard not to want to like the work of Joel Chace. After all, he’s been published widely in small literary magazines since the late 1970s, he has about nine collections of poetry to his name, and you can’t help but feel some kinship to the man after reading his anecdote of Amway horror in the introduction to his Pudding House Publications chapbook, Greatest Hits 1975-2000.
Upon first glance, past the plain brown wrappings of this book, the reader seems to come upon a poet whose career has been linguistically innovative, philosophically challenging, and often even bold. Of course, somebody needs to let Pudding House in on the flaw inherent in presenting a cursory retrospective of an artist’s work. As any serious music fan can tell you, such repackaging tends to misrepresent an artist’s depth and diversity and range, and I would like to give Chace the benefit of the doubt by saying that, maybe for the same reason, these repackaged “hits” from (according to the marketing nugget on the back cover) one of “the hottest poets across the contemporary American literary landscape” wear thin quickly.
Which is not to say you can’t find enjoyable work in these pages. The poems that comprise the first few pages of the chapbook provide a deeply satisfying glimpse of his older work that attempts heights of innovation, not for its own sake but in pursuit of complexity and connection. These poems stand up with intellectual depth, language dexterity, range, humor, and a strangely satisfying candor. Add to these an earnest eye for the unusual, an astute ear, and a thoughtful rigor that allows precise images to appear before our eyes. Chace’s early work is lovely in its cinematic clarity:
The abandoned toy factory holds
its breath; October moon,
too. An eight year old boy
has thrown a rock:
it is one-quarter
of an inch away
from the factory’s last unbroken window.
His older sister has been pushed off top…
(“Still Life West Hill Street”)
Some poets manage to turn this kind of muscular writing clear description, little reliance on the metaphor or analogy into the power to reconfigure the world for us and thereby change the very way we read our lives. After this strong start on page 1, I kept anticipating that release, that reassurance that poetry can continue to “make it new” with reverence for language, music, and truth.
Chace is not afraid to experiment, and his titles hint at pleasures of discovery. Flipping through the soberly designed little chapbook, I found myself hooked by the lure of “Independence Day At The Lake” and “Paper World” and “Fury” and “the maggnummappuss” and “in the kingdom of the American Way” and “curriculee curricula.” I also was glad to see Chace break up white space in ways that might seem common these days to anyone at all familiar with the work of almost any postmodern poet, but that demonstrate a willingness to push the boundaries of the printed page.
Unfortunately, after the first two or three poems, the heart mysteriously seems to go out of the writing. Why? Reverence for language is hard to find in the flat line Chace prefers, and music seems absent in the everyday phrases he piles on without mercy. Such ordinary language for a poet who has been working for so long! I know Chace is trying to celebrate the ordinary, but he does so in ways so ordinary as to verge toward the mundane and even cliché and redundancy. Too often he settles for the obvious adjective, as in “hefty bundle,” and when he attempts to stretch to analogy, he seems to strain to find clumsiness like “. . . moving slowly into future’s / sprawling, moral novel.”
Even his experiments don’t put much into motion. In poems such as “uncertainty principle” and “in the kingdom of the American Way,” experimentation amounts to forgoing standard punctuation and grammar and a few odd line breaks (e.g., “. . . it’s observed th- / irty-three . . .) instead of any substantive struggle with themes or with ideas about poetry. Purportedly, according to Chace in the introduction, one of the more experimental poems in the book, “10 o-d-e” is merely a cute play on the name of the Japanese historical period called Edo mostly it’s one long sentence running on for several pages and broken up liberally with white space:
oldest dreamer will
with painting will
saying . . .
It’s the kind of experiment I ordinarily take to when I can latch onto some arresting image, idea, turn of phrase, weird grammar, unforeseen juxtaposition.
With Uncertain Relations, the mystery becomes, really, two mysteries: how someone so apparently skilled and dedicated to a life of writing poetry can fall so far; and second, why? Chace seems to have given up completely on the impulse to break the reader’s heart and given in, sadly, to the impulse to baffle with cloudy erudition about Heisenberg’s poetic uncertainties. Apparently a sequence triggered by the subject of physics and a walk across campus, Uncertain Relations is fifty-some pages of not much about anything.
Failing to use language to its fullest repetition there’s a lot of, but he woefully misses out on variation and re-contextualization to reveal new meaning and drive poems rhythmically, most of Chace’s work lacks intensity and urgency. The pieces in Greatest Hits come from longer sequences, Chace says in the introduction, and he is certainly a published talent who has definitely made his mark in the literary world. I would like to think he did it on the strength of poems like those at the beginning of this Puddinghouse chapbook, those rough gems that combine a heartfelt vision, philosophical introspection, and modern sensuality.