Mario Chard | Land of Fire | Tupelo Press: $17.95
Mario Chard’s first collection Land of Fire inevitably comes contextualized with biography; Chard was born to an Argentinian ‘immigrant’ mother and an American father. And many of these poems deal directly with the experience of immigration into America; a writing which, in some ways, could not be more timely. But the poems do much, much more than that. The cover of the book is an illustration of William Blake and a number of the poems reference Paradise Lost. Thus, the poems reach into a very rich context of religious writing, particularly, that peculiarly English tradition of the eschatological and the apocalyptic. It is in this kind of context which the title, Land of Fire fits, although, clearly that is a translation of Tierra del Fuego, the Argentinian territory, at the very tip of South America across from which my own father was born near the Chilean city of Punta Arenas. So, I have to state a personal interest in this collection, from the beginning.
This meeting of the immigrant experience with the religious is clearly a heady mixture and were Chard a less skilled writer, it is a mixture which would simply topple his control. But, as the blurb writers point out, Chard’s writing has a ‘muscularity’ about it which means that the material is held and worked with both delicacy and confidence. The ‘muscularity’ shows itself in a spare, understated style which involves short sentences and a very sparing way with adjectives. But ‘muscularity’ should not be interpreted as ‘machismo’. There are a number of poems about men and, for example, father/son relationships, which are, again, both delicate and deeply emotionally intelligent. These personal poems also fit with the emotional tenor of the collection, which is unusual in its consistency; a measured, calm exploration of how we might be and become empathetic.
One aspect of Chard’s control is the way in which the poems are organised into an organic flow. An example of this is ‘Austral’, which is quoted whole here,
Name for what we never name above:
Far South. Farther. Land of Light
that goes out slow. Land of
prisons without doors. Land of fire.
Some say the angels God cast down
fell for an age. From here
we use our palms to blot out the sun.
The prisoners we send south
soon lose their names. The young
their sight. The sun grows old.
Still, when it dies, not even distance
will keep the land of fire cold.
In some respects, this short poem moves quite quickly. The first line/sentence elides the main verb and, because it begins with ‘Name’ almost conflates an imperative and a noun. This elision is followed by the larger gesture of ‘for what we never name above’. That collusive ‘we’ is repeated in line eight, where ‘we’ are equally culpable in the movement of prisoners into this place which effectively exiles as well as imprisons, in this ‘land of / prisons without doors’; similar, then, to the British sending their prisoners to Australia. In part, the trajectory of the poem is both slowed and quickened with the repetitions of ‘Land of light/prisons/fire’; quickened because the parallel repetitions are just that repetitions, and repetition tends to emphasise. Because of the different noun phrases which follow the ‘land of…’, there is a weight with these phrases. Interpolated here, is the comment on the fall of the angels. One interpretation of this might be that we, too, as the fallen in a post-lapsarian world take out our fall on those around us, as Chard suggests in the second third of the poem.
Chard’s emphasis on the loss of sight in the second third of the poem operates, again, on a number of levels: firstly, ‘we’ actively avoid the light in that lovely image of using ‘our palms to blot the sun’; next, that sense of our ‘agency’ leads to a further avoidance of viewing the prisoners as having names, and without names we cannot ‘see’ them as individuals, as humans; and then, ‘The young [lose] / their sight’; the loss held mimetically in the elision on the verse break. And, these treatments of other humans might be the reason why, finally, when the sun dies, the land of fire will not be cold.
These strategies are, perhaps, Chard’s way of showing anger. Elsewhere, ‘Once’, for example, begins ‘They put the terrorist’s face on each urinal cake / in the fourteen-screen cineplex / men’s room. Someone cross out Men, wrote Target Practice’. And the next poem, ‘Mar’ begins, ‘After the way disfigured / they gave men effigies of their faces / cast by sculptors’. But what then happens is, as in ‘Austral’, this anger becomes more complex, sometimes turned back on itself. In ‘Once’ the poem ends as the emotion of the terrorist attack overwhelms those who piss in the urinal cake. In ‘Mar’, the poem ends ‘Soldiers they taught first to mar /effigies of men / were given sculptors.’ We are all clearly fallen angels. The iconographies which we create to demonise or to celebrate, simply deepen the ironies of the original situations.
Matching the complexity of human affairs is the complex place which God and religion also have in the world: this is the whole of the second part of Chard’s poem, ‘Pilgrimage’
When I reached the chapel
in a house of God
empty of its smoke,
when I passed the rooms
around it, the doors
that opened into
the dark, the hallways straight,
I still recoiled.
I thought the heart was safe;
that the cages
meant to keep it safe
could still amaze.
Here, the trajectory of the poem moves from something relatively straightforward, although Chard is careful to delimit this place as ‘a house of God’. In line eight, though, we move into a place which is physically darker, but where the language of the poem becomes slightly archaicised with the placing of the adjective ‘straight’ after the noun ‘hallways’. Yet, when the narrator has moved through that stage, what then occurs is the inner being, ‘the heart’, is threatened and not merely threatened but loses, in part, the rationale within which it lives, i.e., the sense that religion not only gives rules but also elevates and, in doing so, may transcend those rules.
Chard takes immigrant experience, recent history in Argentina, and a heady, but never unalloyed, religious sensibility and forges from those elements an immediate, striking poetry. What he seems to be aiming at is a kind of consolation. This is not consolation simply in an easy sense that in the Christian God, there is a place of rest and warmth, or that the sacramental can be present in the devastating discriminations meted out on the immigrant. But there is a sense that the cage can actually still amaze. That within our experience as fallen and falling, we need to maintain our gaze even when the world seems alien, even when we hold up our palms to shield that gaze from the sun.
by Ian Pople