Book Review

C. E. Chaffin’s Unexpected Light is an increasing rarity among the books that Wordgathering reviews: it is truly a selected works. In recent years, the trend among books of poetry that relate to disability is to produce slim volumes of poems forming a narrative context from which all individual poems take meaning. Chaffin's volume bucks this trend. Though comfortably sized, at over 140 pages, Unexpected Light is not slim and readers can thank the author for forgoing the high gloss and allowing them to actually afford to buy and read the poems: poem per pound, it is a great deal. Moreover, Chaffin’s choice of organization, alphabetical by title, is essentially one that opts for randomization.

Unlike the author who organizes work chronologically, inclining the reader to look for patterns of growth or development, Chaffin's essential arbitrariness forces the reader to consider each poem individually, a sort of reversion to the new criticism school of interpretation. Of course, simply by the nature of titular alphabetical organization, there are situations where several poems on the same topic may appear side by side as in his “On the Bus” poems. There are also occasions when Chaffin takes a poem out of alphabetical order, signaling to the reader that this needs to be considered with an adjacent poem.

The title implies that the reader, like the epistler to whom it alludes, is more likely to open the lid to satori when he least anticipates it than in any accumulated rational effort. Chaffin captures this zen-mind spirit in the first lines of “Nothing to Say”:

I have nothing needful to say
no comment on the glittering bay
or the dark, snow-topped wall
of the San Gabriels

In the last stanza, his ars poetica unfolds:

I let my words run like water colors.
Time runs only forward.
Why should art be different?”

Indeed, some of Chaffin’s best poems are those in which he merely observes and describes, letting the reader experience vicariously. Bus trips seem to provide a particularly felicitous circumstance for the poet to write in this way. In “On the Bus III”, for example, he writes:

This could be Gettysburg or Pittsburgh,
I don’t know. Light halos paper,
one to salvage this. Every two hours
the drive stops near long enough
for me to smoke. The generous butts
I leave will be inhaled again…

What else needs to be said, he is giving the reader the experience. Fortunately, “Outing,” one of the very few poems that present disability directly, handles the material similarly:

Not all were old.
A young man in a motorized chair
waved at the sea with arms
like bent paper clips.
From his seatback
a Barney kite flew.

When the hot dogs were ready
those who could
grabbed their wheel rims
only to discover
the damp turb resisted.
They would need help –
no matter, they were used to it.

Besides, the sun-drenched grass
was so much brighter
than fluorescent halls
and the ocean air so much
sweeter than urine.*

Nevertheless, despite his zen-like assertion that he “has nothing to say” Chaffin admits:

Its not easy to say nothing well
Words conspire to manufacture sense
and sense awakens the terrible urge to tell
and telling grants the hearer evidence
of what his mind is seeking to endorse

As meaning-making creatures we all have the impulse to interpret and “the terrible urge to tell.” Chaffin is able to formulate these lines because, as a doctor, he has watched how the human mind works, and, as a poet, he often gives in to that impulse himself. Sometimes, he is very successful in this approach as in the poem for his daughter, “On Rachel’s Death” which ends with lines many poets would love to have written,

Loss is a coin
tossed down
a depthless well

you listen
for a splash


There is no false poignancy here. The lines speak an emotional truth that all who have experienced it understand.

On the other hand, there are times when one wishes that Chaffin had let the poem speak for itself, or at the very least, let the reader draw his own conclusions rather being told how to interpret it. The end result of Chaffin's urge to construct meaning, however, are fortunate ones for the book. His subjects are wide-ranged and his poems take modest risks. Though most of his work is free verse, he is does not shy from formal poetry, so the reader may encounter an occasional sonnet, pantoum or poem that plays with rhyme. One is reminded of Forest Gumps ubiquitous aphorism "life is like a box of chocolates." Unexpected Light is a sort of Whitman's sample; there is such a variety that perusers never know what they are going to get. On the whole, this works out very well for the book. It allows the reader to pick and choose as she will.

Sorting the poems that have some relevance to disability, there are several choices in addition to "Outing". In "Boundaries", Chaffin tackles one of the major functions that disability, like race or gender, serves in society for many. The poem's narrator states, "I want to control the distance between us." In doing so he reifies what disabilitiy scholars like Lennard Davis and Simi Linton have pointed out, that what the able-bodied fear when they look at disability is what they themselves may become. "Boundaries" also explains why some persons with "good intentions" are looked at askance by these scholars:

Pity and contempt are sticks
we use to poke the drunk
to see if he's really dead,
though unconsciously we rub
the same spot in our bodies
where he was bruised.

Like disdain, pity is a means of reinforcing one's superiority. As Chaffin somewhat didactically concludes,

This gesture confirms
that anything less
than loving another as an equal
is not compassion.

"Boundaries" is a case of where a poem would have been better off had the poet stopped a stanza short, but the point it raises about disability is an important one. The pity/contempt mindset is one of the reasons that most disabilities activists insist on a social construction, or at the least disabilities rights, view of disability which requires social action rather than viewing disability as an individual problem to be dealt with through individual charity.

Another disabilities-related poem is "Off Lithium." The poem, a monologue with a Poundsian first line ( "My brain isn't Kryptonite for God's sake") is an interesting exercise in protraying the mind in a full throttle rush of ideas and language. Chaffin is able to create this feel by increasingly condensing words, and eliminating punctuation and transitions until he arrives at the next to last line; "Neutrino shield shampoo cure for cretins" in which alliteration overtakes meaning. Here Chaffin has to decide how to end the poem. It is an aesthetic decision. He elects to end with the line, "Am I talking too fast?" Perhaps some readers will feel he made the right choice here, he has after all prepared the reader by using the line previously, but to this reviewer, it rings a bit artificial. Here again, eliminating that last line and leaving it to the reader may have been a better option. Having said this, it would be a great poem to hone one's oral reading skills on.

Lest it appear that this review is unfairly targeting the endings of Chaffin's poems on disability, it is only just to mention one in which the ending works. "Radiated" begins invitingly,

One summer in Alaska
the sun stayed up for weeks
until lobelia baskets
overflowed in purple waterfalls
and marigolds grew big as sunflowers

The images and the repetitions of the b's, p's, l's and g's work well together to create the scene, and the speaker stays in the bushes for the entire first stanza. Further on, after he has made his official entrance into the poem the narrator says:

the nerves
in my forehead crackle
like Geiger counters.

It's a fine image and one that leads as inevitably as entropy to the last two lines:

Soon everything will turn against me,
even my own body.

Who can argue with that? As disability scholars are fond of pointing, due to the body's predisposition to break down, disability is the one minority status into which many in the majority recognize they will eventually crossover.

The variety of Chaffin's poems makes it difficult to do justice to them all here. As one might expect from the title, a number of the poems concern themelves with religious imagery or insights and their secular sidekick, psychology. His poems also argue for a poetry aesthetic:

Polvo dust. Say it again: polvo
dry 'p' with a touch of 'v," a hint of 'b'
shot from your parched tongue's tip.
Purse your lips as if to blow: polvo

It is lines like these, sometimes even more than the entire poems, that make Unexpected Light: Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 worth reading. The book is portable, thought-provoking, and published by Dimuendo Press. Readers trying to decide on their next book purchase could do a lot worse.

*Previously published in Umbrella