Weaving a New Eden
Weaving a New Eden is two books in one, with an additional prologue and epilogue. The first major section, “The Grandmothers,” consists of poems about — and mostly in the voices of — the author’s female ancestors, who were pioneers and rural women in the hills and hollows of Kentucky. This is followed by “The Frontier,” which reimagines the life of Rebecca Boone, Daniel’s wife. In addition to the common setting, Chandler uses the imagery of weaving to connect these sections into a more cohesive whole, as she points out in her prose introduction.
I also found myself writing weaving forms of poetry — sestinas, pantoums, a sonnet crown — and I consider the weaving chorus of voices in “The Grandmother Acrostics” a tapestry of Kentucky history.
Chandler’s mastery of poetic forms is rivaled only by her command of Kentucky history and genealogy. And when I say “mastery,” I mean she makes it seem effortless. In less expert hands, the exigencies of poetic forms sometimes force odd constructions and word choices, which can of course be made to seem edgy or hip — it’s always easier to be difficult than to be clear. But there’s no way such an approach would’ve worked with poems about what the Foxfire books used to call “plain living.” “How to Cook a Chicken,” for example, for all that it conforms to the intricate arrangement of a traditional sestina, never deviates from plain-spokenness. Here’s the penultimate stanza:
Disjoint the legs, first step in cutting up a chicken,
bend the thigh joint till the bones shine through the skin
like a knuckle, aim the shining edge of the dark
blade at the highest, whitest part, cut. Plunge
blade into flesh at the breastbone’s high point, dress
out the wishbone, later to be split by daughter’s hands.
This unforced quality was equally present in the aforementioned “Grandmother Acrostics,” a 10-page, 17-poem sequence that was the high point of the book for me, and easily could have made a satisfying chapbook by itself. And many of the women whose voices we hear in this sequence also appeared in other poems earlier in the section, adding to the impression of interwovenness.
Chandler isn’t just a traditionalist, though: the book includes two found poems, as well, suggesting perhaps the influence of Charles Reznikoff. One was a series of postcard messages from her grandmother on a Greyhound bus trip out to California in 1957, with “original spelling and grammar transcribed as written.” Given the “lost Eden” theme of the book, “Card 8: Greetings from Paradise” seemed especially resonant:
Then on October 9 Elezbith Aunt Nanie Mae
and I went to Pardise
we saw the gold Minds
and Elezbith and I helt hands and looked down in the minds
Throughout the book, Chandler is keen to give voices to the overlooked and forgotten, both among her own ancestors and in the more well-known narratives from Kentucky history: a nameless “old Dutch woman” from an Indian captive story; a slave woman named Dolly; the Boone family cat; the mysterious Ellen Tingle whose name, birthplace, number of children, appearance and manner of death have all been forgotten by her descendents. I was fascinated to see how Chandler dealt with the gaps in knowledge. The cat plays its bit part, mentioned in the chronicles,
Then Jemima came running in. “Daddy!” she cried
and I disappeared again into the fogs of history.
“Calloway’s Dolly” and “The Old Dutch Woman” both actively question the official record — how reliable can it be, if it couldn’t even supply them with proper names? The latter refuses to confirm or deny whether she harbored cannibalistic impulses toward her more famous fellow escaped captive Mary Draper Ingles, as Ingles claimed.
She says I tried to murder her. She says
I wanted to eat her. That may be true.
I could blame it on the roots we dug.
Who knows what poison we ate to stop our guts
from cramping. I could blame the bloddy flux,
the fever. Or I could blame the story. Always
the strong hero must have a weak companion.
Ellen Tingle protests more plaintively about the forgetfulness of her descendents:
They’ve forgotten how I looked, how I smelled, how
I held them against my heart and kissed away their fears.
No, surely once I tingled in Ben Lusby’s blood.
Give me that.
Even “Rebecca Boone’s Loom Has Its Say” in a six-stanza pantoum:
Though Boone’s Ticklicker wove the tales men love,
those Long Knives would turn tail with breechless butts.
My cloth provided cover for a conquest.
Wilderness can’t be tamed when men run bare.
Historical poetry is a fascinating genre. As with historical fiction, the leeway it provides for the exercise of the author’s imagination can make the past come to life in a way it seldom can in straight history. I’ve certainly read books of historical and biographical poetry that were more lyrical, more rich in metaphor and simile than Weaving a New Eden, but I can’t remember any that felt as comprehensive, or wove together as many different moods and modes: comic as well as lyric, elegy as well as ballad, limerick, ode. Reading it in one sitting, out loud, as I did this afternoon, might not be the best way to take it in, however. Its complex tapestry rewards the slow and attentive reader.