by Alfred Nicol
In November of 2019, Catherine Chandler came to Newburyport to take part in the Powow River Poets’ celebration of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she donned a pair of Minnie Mouse ears to read aloud “Pack Rat, or Renascence Redux,” her parody of Millay’s breakout poem, “Renascence.” It is the single funniest poem I have ever heard or read. When I learned that the poem had received honorable mention in the X. J. Kennedy Parody Contest, I was taken aback. The judge had been Joe Kennedy himself, the world’s leading authority in the field of funny verse, but surely this was some kind of pre-ordained recycling of history; it called to mind Millay’s original poem having received honorable mention in the Lyric Year, in 1912, when the young poet became famous by not winning the prize.
There is too much to praise in “Pack Rat,” and too little room in this introductory essay. Only consider the gorgeous silliness of Chandler’s revision of Millay’s famous opening lines:
All I could see from where I lay
Was stuff saved for a rainy day.
I turned and looked around the place
And saw what I’d kept, just in case.
So with my eyes I traced the walls,
The cupboards, closets, rooms, and halls,
Straight around, above, below
To where I’d turned five lines ago;
And all I saw from where I lay
Was stuff saved for a rainy day.
That eighth line slays me: “I turned,” she writes, “To where I’d turned five lines ago.” Written in lieu of Millay’s “Back to where I’d started from,” Chandler’s line draws attention to her writing the poem equally as much as to her surroundings. “Notice how very like the original is this poem of mine,” she is saying, offering up her literary ambition as part of the joke. The ambition to win a prize is, after all, the one thing the two poems truly have most in common.
Literary ambition is a funny thing. Chandler skewers it without worrying about the collateral damage to her own reputation. One of the “bios” she’s posted on this magazine’s website reads, “Catherine Chandler is a well-traveled, well-padded granny poet.” She must not have gotten the memo about the wind-swept hair and interior gaze essential to an author’s photo. Unlike so many of us, she’s not convinced that her own poetry is for the ages. “The metrician / may be a dying breed, / a dodo bird. Agreed.”
Chandler takes aim at other targets besides poetic ambition, of course. It would be hard to get certain colossi out of one’s sights, but Chandler challenges herself to use the tiniest of slingshots to bring them down. When Chandler wields a tailgater, fools take cover. Here’s one starting with a line of Christina Rossetti’s:
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
And yet they’re shouting, “Four more years!”
What is most likely to tempt Chandler to be more expansive is the chance to play with language. Even when writing about a villain, she is quickly diverted from grievance to delight in the music of language. Her poem about Imelda Marcos is a sonic extravanganza. If syllables could glitter, the list of shoes in Imelda’s famous collection would be blinding; consider “Ferragamo flip-flop leisurewear” or “cap-toe slingback sandals by Chanel.” She must have rubbed her hands together with delight when she opened this closet of melopoeia.
Catherine Chandler’s gift of humility hasn’t made her a shrinking violet. Whether or not she considers herself worthy, she’ll not deprive herself of the joyous company of poets in the pantheon, whom she treats as her equals. She helpfully suggests a revision to one of Robert Frost’s most famous lyrics; her poem, “The Buzz,” posits a less lofty end of the world than either the fire or the ice he suggests.
…something simpler can occur—
a microscopic massacre:
perhaps God’s last Put out the Light’s
a few strategic tsetse bites.
Regarding William Carlos Williams’ apology for eating the plums, she finds in it reason to scold him anew: “what’s worse, / you could not take the time to use meter and rhyme, / but confessed in prosaic free verse!”
Perhaps because she spends half the year in a place where they speak French (Saint Lazare, Quebec), the other half where they speak Spanish (Punta del Este, Uruguay), she’s alert to the quirks of the English language and sees each of them as an invitation to mischief. Why, for example, is the abbreviation Mrs. pronounced the way it is? Hmmm… Might we abbreviate other words similarly?
How modest and shy my new Mrs.
She blushes beet-red at my krs.
She hasn’t the heart
to sneeze, burp or fart,
and denies that she poops and she prs.!
Don’t think that—because she misbehaves in the classroom—this poet doesn’t do her homework. At heart, Chandler’s relationship to language borders on reverence. Unfortunately, I’ve already squandered my superlatives on “Pack Rat”; I should have saved a few for “Ballad of the Fruitcake,” in which Chandler channels the early balladeers to write about a dessert the Scott expedition left behind in the Antarctic. The poem is so good, it won’t do to quote only a bit of it here. It’s available in the archives of this magazine; I urge you to read it.
Catherine Chandler has got her funny-bone bona fides, without question. Still and all, a proper consideration of Chandler’s light verse would require, if not re-defining, at least refining our definition of the term, interpreting “light” not only as the opposite of heavy or ponderous, but as the opposite of dark, without vision.
Chandler—an occupational name given to makers of candles in Medieval England—seems a very good name for a lyric poet, someone you could think of as a maker of little lights. Take for example this tailgater beginning with a line from John Greenleaf Whittier:
Blessings on thee, little man,
Rosary in thy minivan.
The poem is entirely serious. She’s not poking fun at that fellow. She’s literally sending a blessing in his direction.
My one biggest takeaway, from reading the poems of hers that Light chose for this issue, is that the Deity addressed in several of them is not a literary figure. It’s a rare thing to see in contemporary poetry. She takes her own faith for granted and, letting her guard down—because, after all, this is just light verse—she speaks as though her audience shares that faith.
The poet Dan Brown once said to me, “When you read George Herbert, you believe what he believes.” (He was appalled to hear that Allen Ginsberg, reading Herbert’s poem “Vertu” aloud, had left out the last stanza to make it a Buddhist poem.) A reader has to exercise a similar suspension of disbelief, at the very least, to get the joke at the end of Chandler’s poem “Quittance,” which is light verse written very much in the manner of George Herbert. The same goes for another of the poems included in this issue, her beautiful lyric, “A Mother’s Kyrielle.” Though its repetend evokes that of Dunbar’s famous kyrielle, “Lament for the Makers”—TIMOR MORTIS CONTURBAT ME, or, “Fear of death disturbs me”—its closing lines take solace in the same quittance, which is at the heart of Christian belief.
Aristotle considered it a sign of metaphysical intelligence to have a sense of humor, designating (at least some) humans as homines risibiles, the beings who laugh. Their descendants are still around: that would be Catherine Chandler’s target audience. And despite her protestations to the contrary, her verse, both light and not, will likely still be around when a lot of heavier stuff has rotted away.