Book Review   

Slender Human Weight by Sue Chenette, Guernica Editions Inc., 2009. $15.00

Reviewed by Lou Roach

By the time I finished reading Sue Chenette’s first full length collection of poems, Slender Human Weight, I knew I had been given an unexpected gift. I always look forward to examining the poetry of others and the opportunity to discover new and distinct ways of “seeing” the world, its inhabitants and happenings through “new eyes,” as Proust recommended.  But seldom have I been as touched by the precision of a poet’s use of words and the sensitivity with which those words are written.

Chenette, who grew up in Phillips, Wisconsin, has lived in Toronto, Ontario, Canada since the early ‘70s. With a degree in music from the University of WI-Madison, she spent a number of years as a classical pianist, performing with a variety of concert orchestras.  She was also a faculty member at Havergal College,
teaching piano. She then chose to earn an MFA from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of three chapbooks: The Time Between Us, A Transport of Grief and Solitude in Cloud and Sun. Chenette is also one of five co-authors of Weathering, a chapbook-length renga.

Whether describing a moment, an experience, loved ones or friends, Chenette captures the essence of each subject with caring thoughtfulness and depth of feeling. Her writing offers lyricism with a palpable intensity. These poems evoke a sense of wonder in the reader at her attentiveness to even the smallest detail as she reveals emotion and an  intuitive wisdom.

With “Fragility,”  Chenette borrows four lines from Emily Dickinson’s “There came a Wind like a Bugle.”(in italics below).  She then weaves those lines into her own elegy for a relationship:

 . . .Then at least
We could have said later –
as if to prove we couldn’t have done more –
We barred the Windows and the Doors

. . .
and we – freed into happiness –
welcomed it whole, unseamed,
delighted in warm wind’s messages,
now-and-then whispered lusts,
As from an Emerald Ghost

. . .
Say we forgot to shut the windows,
bolt the door – that even with locks,
a restless presence
would have roamed out rooms:
For where would we find
The Doom’s electric Moccasin

but on out own feet, still unsettled,
. . .
When finally we turned
to make repairs, we found,
too late, the chimney crumbled,
roof half-gone, the moment missed:
That very instant, passed.

The poem “Transoms,” is a perfect example of Chenette’s elegant combination of words.  She speaks mindfully of natural and architectural images—gently interlaced so as not to disturb the beauty of her subject:

Across quiet back lawns, lighted windows,
         golden, amber, ivory
squares of silk in mat black night,

patterned with shadow-lace of leaves
         the thickened darkness
a branch’s curve, a slanted bole,

or, with the calm geometry of transoms
         and mullions,
soft light quilted into squares;

the straight lines of a porch rail,
a glow sifted into even stripes.

. . .
and there – a calligraphy of twigs
         complicatedly clear
as the unfolding of dream.

“At the St. Cloud Veterans Hospital,” dedicated to her father, Chenette visits the secure ward where he had been placed.  The reader aches with the poet as she tries to reconcile her memories of the man she’d loved all of her life with the withdrawn, elderly being before her.

You stood beside the window, hands
clamped into fists – hands you’d
bloodied, pounding –
your knuckles taut and
shiny, scabbed,
head bowed and shoulders
hunched as if you’d fold into yourself
and disappear.

Through dim halls,
down stairs, through great heavy doors,
round corners where gaunt men
with bathrobes, whickers, spittle, canes,
sat mumbling.
“Not you
here!” I thought.

. . .
“What will you do tomorrow?
When do you think they’ll fix the pool? Do you
remember the time we climbed Old Baldy
and saw the ovenbird?”

You nodded, frowning.
My sentences gave out.
All that was left,
. . .
to sit with you
and let you be
as you would be.

Chenette’s mastery of finding “just the right word” is most evident in a series of sonnets filled with vivid impressions of her stay in the Gâtine, a region in west central France.  She has preserved her memories in seven word-paintings, like mosaics created with colorful stones, selected because each serves a  specific purpose in bringing the poems alive.

Each “little song” draws the reader into itself to experience the sights and actions, as if he or she is as much an observer as is the poet. The poems include meditative, nature and celebratory types of the sonnet with practiced attention to meter, rhyme and structure.

What caught my eye in the seven poems was the deliberate use of the last line of the first sonnet in a slightly altered form as the first line of the second, then following that pattern through the series, so that the final sonnet ended with a repeat of the opening line of the first sonnet in the sequence.  The construction underscored a consistency of tone throughout, as well as emphasized the atmosphere of the French countryside.

“Waking,” sonnet I, begins:

Land of ancient pastures and soft rain,
magpies nested in pale poplar trees,
stone houses, hedgerows lush with blackberries
I picked that fall along the muddy lane
Sure that I’d found, here, my way back again

to nature: still that unchanged self, peace 
embraced in ageless mysteries;

and then “Calm,” the last work in the chain of sonnets ends with:

I couldn’t know. Some must have liked it less,
some more, like any home. Still it was plain
they wouldn’t trade their hard life’s peacefulness:
C’est calme ici, they said – like a refrain
that calms me now, as I remember, yes,
it was a land of pastures and soft rain.

A number of poems in Chenette’s newest book address family members—her parents, sister, husband—aswell as some of her most meaningful memories. She has dedicated one of her chapbooks, Solitude in Cloud and Sun, to her mother.  That slim volume gives the reader glimpses of conversation, spoken by her mother,
often revealing the values, spirit and love that surrounded Chenette as a child and then as an adult daughter. Those poems also disclose how well she listens to others.

After reading the few selections that address her relationship with her life partner, I wanted to learn more about the poet’s view of marriage. I found the poems about the two of them written around the ideas of commitment and intimacy, but can only wonder what an entire book of “partner poems” would tell me.  Of
course, I always want to know more.

Because Chenette’s writing is so well-honed and so deeply honest, I will seek out more of her work, certain that I will be enriched by doing so, but also that I will not risk being disappointed.

Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. RagFree Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do free-lance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.