National Poetry Month: Danielle Chapman

Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."

These lines, with their intricate linking of sound (bubbles/unburdening/bearing/bliss/broke), indicate another kind of intensity that Chapman is sensitive to--musical intensity, the way that language, in its play of sounds, can bear meaning beyond the merely semantic. Here is the opening to "Rituxan Spring," which echoes the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "As kingfishers catch fire": "As derricks draw ink / from parched plains / we've struck / Time, silky and game / as a stick streaming / snake roe."

This isn't the only time I heard Hopkins haunting the background of Delinquent Palaces. Like Hopkins, Chapman is a poet of religious intensity. Her poems engage with suffering head-on, looking to God not as a way to forget about loss but as a way to think through and with it. Here is the concluding stanza to "In Order":

Now that that grief's gone and others come

I come back again to understand

the first one, plum blossoms brushing

the attic window as I look out upon

a yard that has been left untended

by any hand but that of God.

And here she is in "Believer," which begins with the declaration that the speaker "hadn't wanted to believe myself / numbered among the unlucky ones" and ends with this description of the beautiful and haunting complexity of suffering :

In fact it seemed a blessing or a talent

sometimes, or its own kind of deeper luck,

the way I walked into each suffering

which was its own intricate world complete

with wild children wrangling to be king

of every broken square of concrete

and market stalls of shrimp kept cool on ice

whose infinitesimal limbs caught light

as if hauled glittering into genesis.

Finally, Chapman's poems return, again and again, to one of the primary intensities of lyric poetry: the intensity of love. We hear that "To love you is to love the grackles screaming / in Starbucks/ single tree"; to love you is "to build a teensy fortress of Dante's hell / within the real one, to read / while the underworld takes Texas back again." We hear of Chapman's love for her twin daughters: "You / murmur rapture / Life out of nothingness / Mother of beauties / you come through me / Unto us / Twice."

"Expressway Song" begins like this:

The expressway encircled me

and this was why I'd come: to love, 

believing in a love like work,

knowing the true work is waking

to pierce each morning with intent

and evening with irreverence

until the city surrenders,

lifts its iron, and lets one in

with the grace of a raising bridge.

And it ends like this: "a voice fell through me like cold chrome-- / we come to love what turns to stone." For Chapman, love is a matter of piercing, irreverant enchantments and chastening tragedies, a symbol of grace and an inevitable source of pain.

The poems in Delinquent Palaces show this again and again, and they suggest what poetry offers its readers, not just in National Poetry Month but the whole year-round: a reminder that, if we look, we will see a world bathed in beauty and terror, "the fire hydrants redder / than berries of blood on islands of thorn." 

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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