Guest Poetry Blog Series #5. American Poet Susan Browne Features American Poet Chelsea Harlan – Part Two of Two

American poet Chelsea Harlan. Photo Credit: Copper Canyon Press

Susan Browne Features Chelsea Harlan

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the work of American poet Chelsea Harlan, currently living and working as a librarian in upstate New York. Her debut poetry book, Bright Shade, won the 2022 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Jericho Brown. I’m still trying to figure out why I’m attracted to her style. Voice, definitely. She has a completely original voice. But, then, so do many poets, or the poets I want to read. So that isn’t really it. She has some great similes, such as “Loneliness prances by like an invisible bull.” In that same poem, there are many leaps and statements that don’t seem to connect, yet they do in a different kind of way, and this adds up to a powerful effect. Here’s the poem:

Some Sunlight  

Loneliness prances by like an invisible bull
where I loll at the overgrown rodeo.
You would’ve loved it.
I dribbled orange juice all over the bleachers.
I peed in the weeds.
I sat there for hours and hours with a giant book
I didn’t read.
A gate rattled against itself in the distance.
Existence, existence.
“Incalculable Loss,” says the Times.
The warmth of some sunlight on my back.
The pizzicato footsteps of a quail in the grass.

Chelsea Harlan from Bright Shade, The American Poetry Review, 2022

In this poem, as in all good poems, there is the triangle of feeling, thinking, and imagery. Let’s start with imagery: Loneliness is a prancing, invisible bull; the rodeo is overgrown; (I take that to mean the rodeo arena is full of weeds and maybe bushes, ivy, grass, yes, kind of a lonely, haunting place, an overgrown rodeo where there used to be a lot of action); the speaker lolls; orange juice dribbles; there are weeds and pee and a giant book; the sound of a gate rattling in the distance; the touch of sunlight, warm on the speaker’s back; the sound of pizzicato footsteps in the grass. Twelves lines of poetry with lots of imagery going on in them that we can see, feel, and hear.

What is the feeling here? The sunlight is warm but loneliness is a bull (fearsome, heavy but the bull also “prances,” which is a lightness, too) and the speaker is relaxing (lolling) in an empty, (lonely, too, we can infer), overgrown rodeo arena. She says the “you” would have loved it, so we infer she loves it, too. She has a giant book she doesn’t read for hours and hours. She is just being, although she also drinks orange juice and pees like any human, what humans do, drinking and peeing are part of existence, yes. So the feeling, the emotion in this poem is complex, but overall, I would say it’s an acceptance, a resting in what is.

Existence. Existence. This is what existence is like sometimes or maybe most of the time. A gate rattles against itself. I like that “against itself.” Do we rattle against ourselves in our simple, complex, empty, full existence? I think we do. Is this a bad feeling? Not necessarily. See, I’m thinking, so what is the thought, what is the thinking in this poem? The line that really gets me thinking is, “Incalculable Loss, says the Times.” What newspapers always tell us: constant loss, and, of course, that’s existence, too. And yet: the warmth of sunlight on her back. The musical sound of that quail in the grass. A quail’s footsteps. I love the surprise of that image/sound, along with the word “pizzicato.” To pluck the strings with one’s fingers.

Existence is so big, it contains all this loss and beauty and humor and love for the lonely, lost world, and pee and orange juice and overgrown rodeos. We live and we get “some sunlight.” Gratitude that we get some sunlight, live for a little while. That line “You would’ve loved it.” I think this poem is an elegy to the “you.” Perhaps the you died. Or the you might just have left, so maybe this is a break up poem. But loss is there as loss always is in the beautiful lonely overgrown rodeo of existence.

And why is the book a giant book? I think because you can read many books, big books, they can be the biggest in the universe, but you’re never going to know what it all means. And the speaker doesn’t read the book. She’s just there, existing. Taking it all in.

This small poem is big. Every choice of detail/word is selected to create the effect. I want to write this poem. For me, that’s when a poem is the best. I want to write a poem like this poem. It has inspired and changed me.

I think about that when I read or write a poem. How has it changed me? If the poem I write hasn’t changed me a little, it can’t change the reader, either. A poem is an adventure, it is an experience. I love going on Chelsea Harlan’s adventures in words. She said in an interview: “I put words in a party with each other and see what happens.”

To whet your appetite some more for Chelsea’s poetry here is another one of her poems:

Alone Time

How to tell of the cherry tree
in spring but with piano.

There’s no knowing,
only the miracle of flight,

a periwinkle winged thing
I first saw as a flower.

I am at my most at home
at home. The illusion of how

the clouds around the mountains
make the mountains look bigger—

is there anything lovelier than rain
and the day once the rain is done?

Having a bath,
I traipse around the lower field,

pines soft as girlfriends,
grasses’ nonsense promises

whispers against my ankles’
naked white knobs, so

secondhand and loose
in my corduroy coveralls.

It can be a frightening thing
to find yourself, but isn’t it

still worse to lose
yourself altogether?

Or is it,
or is it?

I find the spine and skull
of a deer not long ago

gone, and I take some
to give to the dogs.

Dully clattering
through the holler,

why is it I am
always bringing home bones—

Chelsea Harlan , ibid

Poetry Guest Blog Series # 5, Part Two. A Feature on Chelsea Harlan by Susan Browne, December 2022

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