Karla Huston and David Chorlton illuminate the corners of two very different worlds
By Zhuang Yisa
Catch and Release
Opening the covers of Karla Huston's Catch and Release, I must confess I did not expect myself to be moved; I have had enough of Mary Oliver. Sometimes we do make mistakes, confusing the identities of those who do not resemble each other at the very start.
Catch and Release. The title suggests itself. A collection that is interested in the uniqueness or particularity of a moment's inspiration. It might be a chance recollection:
Or the discovery of something quite unexpected and whimsical:
which continues in 'Finally':
There is no situation too absurd or trivial that Huston is unable to invest with a humour strangely filled with gravitas, not even her forgetting what she wanted to write as she attempted to begin a poem. Like Margaret Atwood, Ms Huston is a poetess of confidence – the power in her writing comes not so much from her subjects, which are wondrously diverse, than from the fact that she writes.
Her poems generally begin with a premise which she builds upon, and whose essence she reveals slowly over the course of the piece. What matters to her is not so much the explication of the initial premise, which she puts forth both to herself and her reader, than the recognition of that particular idea as a secure base from which she can further wander from to ruminate on something larger, while never straying too far from its essence.
Her poems are stories; it does not matter if there is no one else to hear them. Virgina Woolf said: "As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world." I suppose David Chorlton would have paraphrased it thus: "As a man I have a country. My country is the world."
I imagine the world constructed within Huston's Catch as a backwater country town where the weary go to for respite. I imagine Chorlton's as the frontline of an unfinished war whose beginning no-one can pinpoint. Another Word is a slim volume of fifteen poems, consistently charged with the heat of war.
War is conflict and its resulting dislocation. Exiled from a previous state of peace, the soul constantly tries to move forward, but always finds the past looming up before it. History is slung round the traveller's back like a millstone. In 'Children's Drawings':
Chorlton's tone is stately and assured, and he is confident in the statements he makes. Another Word rings with a sustained musicality, which resonates through the rest of the poem:
Surreal and elegiac, the poems are connected by the themes of renewal and remembrance, but the poems in the chapbook are marked by a division into two fairly distinct halves, not unlike the split being dreaming and wakefulness.
The poems of the first half display a somnambulistic quality, like words dreamt or muttered in sleep:
A key technique of Chorlton's is to allow a word or idea to suggest the next. Strongly imagistic, his lines also result in an impression akin to the visual assault of a Surrealist painting, where swirling colours and disparate images blend together.
The contrast of sleep and wakefulness is a powerful device – even by daylight memories of atrocities haunt their survivors. It is a paradigmatic device that hints at futility of these poems to offer respite, a sense that is made all the more powerful by the function of these poems as moral witnesses to the scenes they depict. The aforementioned split between dreaming and waking is marked by the aptly-titled poem 'The Immolations':
Thereafter, the contextual reality within the poems becomes more familiar and less surreal, as if this self-same reality demanded a head-on confrontation with the poet who is no longer allowed to negotiate his engagement with reality from the shelter of words and lines.
From a poem to the next, one retains a sense that each is connected to the one before, seeming to serve as an accomplice or a conspirator in some mnemonic entreprise, and the feeling that lingers at the end of the chapbook is an overwhelming sense of having journeyed through a dark forest of collective memory, where the reader has been made to bear witness. The links constructed by Chorlton are such that one gets the feeling of an infinite continuum of events from which nothing escapes:
That is why even departure is never a final escape from the past:
The Surrealistic touches in these later poems lend an aesthetic air to the harshness of the reality they portray. The poems gather in complexity as one progresses through the chapbook, culminating in the devastating 'Another Word for War'.
The epithet to this poem, from Ingeborg Bachmann, translates as: "The war is no longer explained, but continued." Labouring under Bachmann's shadow, the clumsy assertions of the poem's polemics (not even as wildly lyrical nor poetically abandoned as Ginsberg's) take on a new dimension. It is the voice of a speaker, the observer, driven to his wits' end in the search for words.
Chorlton's poetry is the space within which the speaker is a distant observer, unsure of the position on the margins she occupies to view the panorama before her. The best view is gained by acquiring distance and perspective, and its details can only truly be captured by one with a keen sensitivity.
By contrast, the world of Karla Huston does not deal with such loftiness. Hers is a vision derived from teasing out the wonder of the everyday, a feat which is no less compelling than Chorlton's endeavours. Her work is an impressionistic series of snapshots reflecting her world and her inimitable experience of it, while Chorlton's resembles a montage of images that ultimately constitute a massive narrative arc.
Poetry, as the great Louise Glück has aptly defined it, is "a metonymic alternation between anecdote and response". Writing poetry is thus the creation of a meaningful scaffold upon which ideas and memories can be hung and made intelligible, forming a coherent structure for both poet and reader to behold. For Karla Huston and David Chorlton, and Chorlton in particular, both writers have gone beyond mere scaffolds to build something stronger and far more powerful.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005