The Pleasures of the Book: Spring 2022

by Wendy Galgan



Dedicated to a friend and the young son she buried, Isabel Chenot’s collection The Joseph Tree resonates with moments of transcendence and grace, of deep spirituality, and of immersion in the glory of nature. None of this, however, is treated simplistically or superficially. As an opening poem, existing outside the three sections into which the collection is divided, “The Joseph Tree” (which first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of this publication) embodies these characteristics while grounding them in the unbearable pain of the loss of a child. In this poem, Jacob’s grief upon being shown his son, Joseph’s, blood-soaked coat of many colors and told (falsely) that Joseph has been killed, draws empathy from God, “For God knows what it cost // to have a son torn / from his coat.” God took the coat, “unwove clotted fibers” and “sewed them through a tree,” which would then blaze in “all the colors in the thread.”

Here, then, we find the poet showing us how even the most devastating loss can be transformed into a grieving beauty, whether that beauty is found in the natural world or, in the case of the woman and boy to whom this collection is dedicated, through the art of poetry. In The Joseph Tree, Chenot combines the natural world with poetry in ways that both dazzle and captivate the reader.

“Outbound,” the first poem in Part I: “Broken in Simple Lines Poems from California,” brings us immediately into the natural world through “a large land” that is “half-lit, half-showing / through sharper desert near at hand, / a sawed-off blueness on a mist-edge.” Things seen and unseen, that which is anticipated (“My eyes grope for the interval of a car’s headlamp”) and that which is intimately understood (“The map that I could draw by hand”), all coexist in the desert through which the speaker moves. She knows the way through what is, in essence, a changeless space. While she, herself, says that “every day, I change,” that change does not extend to this well-known landscape: “But, in my heart, I hold that way / through what is changeless and gargantuan.” These last two lines of the poem, describing the physical world through which the speaker moves, also reflect the larger world of faith, of belief. The speaker is moving through her faith just as she is moving through that “large land.”

Many of the poems in this collection deal with moving, with knowing the way, with containing within oneself a map not only of the surrounding landscape of the world but also of the landscape of one’s heart. “My heart knows the desert way to the mountains” says the speaker in “Cartography,” and in “Contour Map” the speaker describes the mountains as “the three sides of my soul,” rising above “a flat of sand,” “bent / like highways through an innate land.”

As part of knowing the world around us, we are charged by Chenot with seeing that world as well. When the poet uses “look,” she presents it not as a passive action but as an active way for the speaker – and, by extension, the reader – to engage with the natural landscape which exists in the poems. And in order to see, there must be light. Many of the poems in The Joseph Tree (particularly in Part I and Part II: “Sometimes the Light Poems from the Midwest”) are infused with light: direct light, reflected light, natural light, human-made light. In the desert, the light is “a watercolor grain” (“Before a Storm”). Inside a room, as evening falls, “the light’s a fading alphabet that glows” (“7:30 p.m.”). There is even light to be found within oneself, as the speaker in “Old Light” explains: “I can see the light behind my eyes / in darkness, where no other light is seen.”

In “Lake Michigan,” we see the light interact with water

Sometimes the light is gathered, largely,
and I seem to see
my way to walk on water.

Sometimes the wind scatters light across
the lake’s wrinkles…

while in “8:00 p.m.” it becomes a metaphor for those moments of quiet (“mute”), delicate (“slender” and weightless) contemplation that eventually dissipate, leaving the memory of the moment behind even as the moment itself fades (“my eyes hold it, / fail to hold it…”)

Stillness settles on my heart like evening glows on water —
a birdsong threads the light
from which an hour’s reflections hang inverted, glimmering
mute and slender,
weightlessly slight
without gravity in their trembling other world.

In “Lake Michigan” and “8:00 p.m.,” it is the light’s interplay with water that we see. Illuminated by light, water can shimmer or shine. It can reflect or absorb. It can move or stay still. In “The Coast, Sunset,” the illuminated water mirrors the world around it, while at the same time breaking that mirrored image into pieces:

The film of water holds the shattered images
of birds imprinted on its motion,
a slow shutter of the light.

Here, we see that the act of looking, of seeing, is interrupted by the water, but as the person to whom the poem is addressed sees a fleeing of the light (“You said / the light receded when you walked into the waves.”), the speaker perceives how “color bled / around you” and how “I saw your shattered image / in the glazed erosion.” This double image, the “you” the speaker sees walking into the water and the “shattered” reflection of “you” in the water, presents us with the difference between what is seen directly and what is cast back to us, altered and fragmented, from the joining of light with water.

Thus, light and seeing, moving and knowing, the heart and the eyes, become connected in Chenot’s work, existing as they do in a landscape of opposites: desert and mountain, field and ledge, sky and ground, earth and water. Faith exists within our perception of, and engagement with, the beauty of the world, finding its expression in both nature and our existence within it.

While faith is infused throughout Parts I and II, it then becomes implicit in Part III: “Prophecies and Dreams.” The section begins with “House of Supposition,” after Emily Dickinson, where, as in “The Joseph Tree,” poetry (in this case, “words”) becomes a way of knowing, of seeing that which has, until now, been unseen: “Faith apprehends the dark disclosed / in words creating their own sense.” The ultimate unknown, unseen thing is, of course, death.

In “May Triptych,” the dead of Flanders Field, and a women’s dead child, serve as illustrations of the grief our world holds for us, a grief that is felt in the marrow, that courses through the body like blood. In the first section of the triptych, “On Seeing WWI Photographs of Flanders Field,” the speaker asks what caused the tragedy at Flanders (and other sites of war, such as Khe San). The answer is “Freedom, and love — and the first sin.” She then addresses God directly, asking that he

…loose the shards embedded in the seams
of all the splintered soldiers who have given
us their bodies — given
us their unexploded dreams.

The triptych then moves from the tragedy of war to a much more personal grief in “To a Mother, On Burying Her Infant Son.” Using stark, striking birth imagery to attempt to counsel the grieving mother on how to endure burying her child, the poem instructs her to

Breathe deep, grip hard.
This is the most convulsive hour.
Eternal life is waking him.

“You were his space, his flood, his element — / your blood was his kinetic spark,” the woman is reminded.

But moving on your water was genesis: Spirit
and spirit’s ark.

This is a kind of metaphor.
Remember it, when you commit him to the earth.

In this metaphor (and metaphor is, of course, the poet’s tool), lies the way forward for the mother burying her son. She must move through the pain, bear down, yet continue to remember that just as she gave him life, “Love gave him birth.” In this concluding line, we hear both that the mother’s love brought him into this world, but also that God’s love will birth him into the next.

This idea is brought to its culmination in the third poem in the triptych, “Waiting for Spring,” where that season’s promise is not just present on the earth where “Because of Winter, there is Spring,” but also present in the promise that there is something for us after our time on earth ends.

Because of death, there’s something more to be.
Because a mother braces being against loss.
Because a soldier wants us to live free.
Because Christ walked through desert to a cross —
whatever falls back into dust

newborn, war-torn, time-buried —
waits for Spring.

The beauty in those last three lines is breathtaking, offering the promise inherent in faith, the possibility of transcendence beyond physical death, and the ways in which grief and grace follow us through our life on this earth.

Throughout this collection, you will find those breathtaking moments. Lines that rise from the page and lodge in your heart. Words that both reveal and illuminate. Poems that, in their luminous generosity, invite us to read further, look closer, and find the beauty that is all around us.