Suffering Insight: On Chase Twichell

Introduction to a Reading by Chase Twichell
Tuesday, July 16, 2012
The New York State Writers Workshop
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, New York

When you step off the plane at Albany International Airport and you’ve had a moment to remember you’re not cattle in one of Temple Grandlin’s supposedly humane slaughterhouse chutes, it dawns on you that, no, you are not salted fish just lifted from an aluminum can and dropped into the maw of elsewhere: you’re a human who suddenly needs some space.

Once you get your bearings toward baggage claim and the almost pathetic “We try harder” confessions of Avis, just then, if you don’t trip over your roll-a-board, you can look up and see a large black and white sign with a sharp, confident arrow encircled in a halo of fluorescence, as if to say “This way to paradise.”

The sign next to the arrow actually reads: “Business Center, Meditation Room.” I looked that direction and a man in uniform was coming my way pushing two empty wheelchairs.

These are not metaphors. This was this afternoon. But, as the proverb goes, “When you’re lost, everything is a sign.”

I imagined standing below the glow of that arrow with Chase Twichell. I thought of how we might have laughed together—Chase has a wonderfully conspiratorial laugh—about that marriage of business and meditation, about centers and rooms. I didn’t go down the hall to look at the architectural facts; I had emotional ones. That’s all a poet needs.

When I think business, I think: my dog does her business, I’ve failed at business, I rarely seem to mind my own business.

Chase, for her part, would follow the arrow toward higher purpose. She goes regularly to a monastery to sit zazen in a meditation hall—the zendo, which, from the pictures I’ve seen, looks nothing like the Albany airport. There is no bust of Joe Bruno, for one thing. Chase has also built a meditation room up in the woods past the garden above their house in the Adirondacks. It’s a place Chase’s poems take us, like Frost, beckoning us to follow into a field of awakening, which is a kind of business forever intertwined with meditation: raking the leaves from the pasture spring, running after the dogs. You come too.

For whatever reason, I have not followed Chase up the path of Zen Buddhism, so I hesitate in writing about how to understand its influence on her poetry. Zen defies our twittering, compulsive, impatient need for abridgment, summary, bullet points and emoticons. I have seen a Zen Powerpoint, though, which may just mean I’m perhaps now the least informed person in about Zen in the room.

Perhaps it is easiest to just quote Chase on the subject: “Zen holds (this is the bouillon cube version!) that what we regard as our “self” is a fiction that we spend a lifetime building and then maintaining. The only problem is, it’s a phantom. The work of Zen is to learn to see the world (including the self) for what it really is: constant flux.”

Chase has written about how Zen has “put her poems through the car wash … only the essential, no decoration, no dust, no distracting stories!” But even scrubbed clean, Chase’s poems are so compelling because of their physicality: the places, objects and moods we find there; and the poems themselves are such carefully-crafted objects of line, rhythm and shape. They are things to behold, in the way someone comes down from the woods to show the mushrooms she has gathered or the fox skulls she has found among dead leave in the forest.

There are clouds, snow, rivers, grass, boats, blood, fish, dogs, carnival rides, even decoration and dust in Chase’s poems, and more recently and wonderfully for me as a neighbor, the Miami Beach flotsam she describes as “bottles and Styrofoam packing peanuts, condoms, flip-flops, packing tape.”

But since her first book, Northern Spy, there is something else that appears again and again. It is a strange, but common word, a word with less weight and shape than stones and bottles or even dust, but it describes an infinite web of mystery, confusion, awe, and trouble. The word is consciousness, a word repeated in every one of Chase’s books and in dozens of her poems. A sister word, sentience, often treks alongside in these poems of the mind of winter.

This constant question of self-awareness makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s famous winter letter of 1932: “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring, roaring, diving. And then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?”

What is consciousness? It’s startling that we can ask the impossible in just three words. More humbling evidence for how limited our words are, even if the words are good.

In “Sayonara Marijuana Mi Amor,” Chase writes that the only erotic tastes she remembers, the only kisses that have mattered, are the ones that actually interrupt the passion, the odd, anxious kisses that stop because the beloved can’t help asking that nagging question of consciousness. What is it? We don’t know. And just as this presence, this awareness is shared in its mysteries, Chase can also write of its necessity: “I want you with me, and yet you are the end / of my privacy.”

So what is consciousness? Is it a danger to intimacy? Is it a series of stages toward a truthful apprehension of the world? Is it dreaming constrained by the blunt bodily facts of our hunger, need and pain? Is it the supreme fiction? The mind not right?

Jung wrote that there is no coming to consciousness without pain. Joseph Brodsky says the history of our consciousness begins with our first lie. Peg and Bob Boyers’s great friend George Steiner writes in Real Presences that consciousness develops in “the discovery of the scandal of death.”

Chase has something more violent to say about consciousness than pain or lies or death. I’ve noticed that when people spend a lot of time among animals, not just the solitary pet, but farmers, veterinarians, people who work in animal shelters, people intimate with the wilderness, they see something more graphic than dying, which has become sentimentalized in our antiseptic age.

The violence that comes to mind isn’t dying, it’s killing. Chase Twichell can make swatting a mosquito or running over a snake with the lawnmower gruesome and maniacal.

Now, make no mistake: I’ve never met anyone who loves and understand and treats animals with more respect than Chase. But that’s precisely why she can tell ruthless truths about our violence toward one another, toward other animals, toward the planet we are killing with stunning speed and efficiency.

For example, here is the last stanza of “Sideshows”:

Do you sometimes suffer a stab of insight into another’s sentience, unwanted knowledge, unbidden, both animal and human? A dog lost a fight so his owner doused him with gas and lit him. The holes of our eyes met—I saw the shriveled spirit that survived. It ran off to join the circus of semen and murder. Chase loves forensic television dramas: both for the buzz of image and inanity that can put her in an altered, somewhat absent state with a glass of wine in the evening, and for the fantasy that our murders might always be measured and organized and contained, that we can assign irrefutable molecular blame for them, that we can always catch the killers. That leaves us in the comfortable distance, leaves us bored and blameless, just spectators.

Whatever it means to be conscious, whatever it means to give voice to the question of existence—and however ambivalent Chase Twichell can seem about the use of poetry when this consciousness is itself jeopardized (and she is certainly it is ambivalent)—she continues to write with stunning clarity and fearlessness.

In “Fox Bones,” published this winter, Chase writes with all her usual grace,

To write a poem is to study oneself. To strip away all but the sinews, and then the sinews.

This idea — the poem as an inquiry into one’s thinking—has been placed in nearly every possible register in Chase’s diverse work.

She can put the task mildly: “How strange to send out words,” she writes in “Walky-Talky,” the way “two tin cans and a taut string made a telephone through which a voice could be heard but not understood.”

She can sound more final: as in “The Playground of Being”: “The little engine of thinking sputters/and dies in the great silence.”

Or she can be brutal: “Out of the twilight,” she writes in “Bad Movie, Bad Audience,” “a small voice hisses / Shut up, just shut the fuck up.”

Related: Introduction NYS Writers Institute Saratoga Springs poetry