JOEL CHACE Reviews
Justified Sonnets by James McLaughlin
(The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Newton-Le-Willows, United Kingdom, 2013)
Here is “Sonnet Seventeen,” from James McLaughlin’s Justified Sonnets.
/ when the
petals turning from
to blue begin
| in |
an instant did
gaze \ at
This poem is a striking example of McLaughlin’s radical structural methods in this collection. On the literal page, in two dimensions, each of the seventy two poems is 14 lines, precisely the same overall size as its seventy one companions, and perfectly proportioned or balanced -- justified not only left and right but also top and bottom. Thus, a set of seventy two identical rectangles. However, McLaughlin’s most remarkable formal accomplishment -- thanks to his use of vertical lines and forward and backward slashes (his “punctuation”), as well as spaces, gaps, whitenesses within the text -- is transforming each two dimensional rectangle into a three dimensional entity, a cabinet of thought and emotion. Each sonnet expands outward, toward the reader, or -- perhaps more accurately -- pulls the reader into its surprising depths. Especially in the first half of the sequence, this effect is profound, indeed. And one can find no clearer illustration than “Sonnet Seventeen”: 26 words scattered into the frame; spare and gorgeous, a poem that draws the reader into its bare, ruined, but possibly redemptive landscape.
Yet, among the ruins, where is redemption, consolation, and how to reach them? For that matter, how to justify the creation of sonnets or any poems? What good reasons exist for such an endeavor? In an absolute sense, there are none, especially if a writer’s intent is to convey the rightness, the good sense of the world around us.
...I frame knowledge to
the point of ignorance \ (Three, 7-8)
have little knowledge of this
particular subject / let me make
many basic errors in the use of
language / goad this prose| (Three, 10-14)
– almost grasps for life| (Seven, 13-14)
deliberation fails the
ability to attain… (Ten, 11-12)
ever the sun fades too fast on a
memory | from nowhere
comes illusion then
justification / wide ranging in
its landscape | is it always so
important to be right… (Nineteen, 2-8)
can we ever reshape design –
model pieces of air into boxes | (Nineteen, 13-14)
Since these poems so explicitly acknowledge the limits of language, McLaughlin (especially, again, in the collection’s first half) more than earns the right to argue that, in an absolute sense, there is every good reason for launching sincere, courageous poetic explorations out into the mess and glittering swirl of the world.
compelled to form images
\ and ideas in the mind /
wonderful things… (Twenty Five, 8-11)
we try to
grasp daggers before us |
tiny dots of light dart as
images forming a circle | or
close in | many things
remain incompletely / present (Thirty One, 9-14)
| a desire seems to
hold the eye | much is
much / of so much /
extraordinary | listen can I | (Thirty Three, 11-14)
Given the inevitable inadequacies of any medium, including language, any artist may feel tempted not even to make an attempt, at all.
...resurrected under leaves and
branches \ or rejoice in this
broken lime ray and font |
luxuriating on dust /
wondering at nothing at all (Eleven, 10-14)
corpse like I
slide into the estuary /
become part of nothing | (Twenty Three, 9-11)
| to withdraw reason and
make notice of nothing /
nothing in particular along the
river bank / nothing of note by
the forest floor… (Twenty Five, 1-5)
But this poet resists such temptations. For he understands that artistic failure never results from not solving the world, but that such failure comes from not confronting the mysteries around and within us.
Needless to say, such great mysteries include memory and loss. In McLaughlin’s sequence, along with the particularities of the surrounding natural world -- flowers, birds, streams, sky -- a “lost one,” a particular person, now gone, haunts the speaker.
me a frigid look… (Four, 5-6)
love is such a gambler
| I saw that in your eyes | (Four, 13-14)
that broken crow you took
home and cried over | (Twenty, 12-14)
perhaps one of
several actions or courses
/ a toss coin | (Twenty Six, 12-14)
I was /
we were - too irregular, too
slippery – over used | (Thirty, 8-10)
take my arm and die (Thirty Six, 13-14)
Time and its assassins stun us with losses. And for remedy? -- time, of course, and ever unreliable memory.
I look back
there are uncertain
lines (Ten, 6-9)
signifies memory again and
again | all seems at variance \
knowledge ceases to
understand (Thirteen, 2-6)
comes illusion then
justification (Nineteen, 4-6)
Time, memory, and words can console, but not enough.
Joel Chace has published work in print and electronic magazines such as The Tip of the Knife, Counterexample Poetics, OR, Country Music, Infinity's Kitchen, and Jacket. Most recent collections include Sharpsburg, from Cy Gist Press, Blake's Tree, from Blue & Yellow Dog Press, Whole Cloth, from Avantacular Press, Red Power, from Quarter After Press, Kansoz, from Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press, and Web Too, from Tonerworks.