Scaffold by Joel Chace
(Country Valley Press, 2008)
The word ‘scaffold’ brings to mind construction, images of buildings under repair, or going up, or coming down. It suggests a state of suspension, a period of incompletion, paint splatters and chains clanking and men shouting and a look of disheveled choreography, rickety planks and rolls of blueprint. The title is perfect for Chace’s chapbook. Open it, and one sees words scattered about the page in a circumstance of weightless apprehension, as if waiting for a reader’s eyes to connect and associate them.
But the words do form images. The last line on the first page reads:
spread among the barn’s own highest beams
The space between the words creates tension. We sense expanse. Weights in confluence. The volume inside a barn and the structure holding it together.
Here is another:
that network of roots tousling
thinning to silky nebulae
The image created by “silky nebulae” is a web, obviously, but ‘nebulae’ also strongly evokes cosmological phenomena, the diffuse patches of glowing material found scattered among the stars. Some nebulae are shells of gas thrown off by old, unstable stars. Others, which can measure hundreds of light-years in diameter, are clouds of gas and dust illuminated by nearby stars. The conflation of the earthly (“network of roots,” the silkiness of a spider web) with the cosmological ruptures the ordinary scale of things and opens a space for vision and the free play of the imagination. Implicit in this is a philosophy of verbal construction: what makes a sentence a sentence? How does the mind assemble meaning? Is meaning always in a mode of construction, or is it innate, a nucleus of assiduous purport packed solidly and indissolubly in the shell of a word?
One is forced while reading this book to pause at each word, each phrase, and absorb it before moving on. The impulse to connect one nebulous of words with another is irresistible, and there is a delicious tension in that, but there is an equal tendency to linger at a phrase and fully absorb it before moving on to the next. This is an issue Stephan Mallarmé maximized to wonderful effect in Un Coup de Dés, in which constellations of word and phrase have multiple meanings and forms and whose semantic and syntactic instabilities express a crisis at the heart of representation: that exquisitely tantalizing, maddeningly indistinguishable line between absence and presence, being and nothingness, which makes poetry the thrilling calamity that it is. This is implicit in nearly all systems of symbolic representation; as an increased attention to the material fact of words makes itself felt, the provisional aspects of thought and perception are heightened. One wonders, in fact, what isn’t continually under construction. What isn’t, ultimately, surrounded by scaffolding? A scaffold is a temporary suspension in space. But where are we, as writer and reader, in relation to one another? These are some of the conundrums to be discovered and enjoyed amid the scaffolding here.
John Olson's last publications include Backscatter: New and Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press (2008), and Souls of Wind, from Quale Press (2008), a novel about the exploits of poet Arthur Rimbaud in the American West. His essay, "City of Words," which appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2. of The Raven Chronicles, was recently nominated for a Pushcart prize. He is also the recipient of an annual genius award for literature, in 2004, from Seattle's weekly The Stranger.