TAMAS PANITZ Reviews
The Red Dress by Billie Chernicoff
(Dr. Cicero Books, New York / Rio de Janeiro / Paris, 2015)
To define music by Chernicoff’s book: clarity of expression deftly imaged and felt as if feeling were a study of its own. The result is masterful, and like all masterful works we for some reason want to discover that it was written to a system instead of acknowledging the capacity for genius. “Man is marvelous!” says Pico della Mirandola, but concerning our fellow’s achievements, oddly faithless. When we find the most generous works the question is inevitably: “how did you make this?”
Kimberly Lyons calls The Red Dress, “a kind of tarot, shifting[…]” and rightly so, because like tarot we don’t know where meaning begins (Egypt?) until it means us. Chernicoff’s tarot-like poems attend that place closest to us: the imageless heart, the generative core, where things start to happen; and Chernicoff views these happenings because they are her influence, the in-flow of perception kept to its highest register.
Hold that color in mind
till thought gathers in the lungs
and lips shape the instant
as you are able
make visible all your animals.
It is precisely here, where “thought gathers in the lungs,” the poet suddenly finds herself observed, by language, by the poem, by the sky:
Do you see her skip
out, red dress, aleph
fire escape, zed?
Music marries the heart to its perceptions: marries inward and outward, or as the poet says in her ars poetica, About:
the poem is about you
if anyone, it’s because music
makes words want to say something
a hum in the ear
a thrum you know where.
Don’t think I wouldn’t rather write about
something other than the sky again.
But it’s the sky that comes to me
in the morning like it’s my responsibility.
A piece of marginalia recently made its way to me, depicting a small frame wherein a man was stabbing a lion. It became clear to me this lion was generated by the man, and represented some aspect of him more real than its apparency. “[w]ho is the witness of all this seeming?” [p.68]. Its apparency was in fact a ruse, put on briefly so the man could become aware of it, and symbolically do away with it (what else is a symbol?) to inhabit that essential, unseeable part of himself. So Billie does it. But what then? Billie does that too, in the poem Ever she finds herself on the other side of Language. Other side of her book:
Some say Marco Polo invented Hangzhou and some that
he invented Venice, and rumors distill themselves over time
into lagoons and mirrors, poets and courtesans, our tercets
under the pines.
In one dream books fall from shelves and I shelve them
differently, according to color of binding, ornamentation of
font, date of publication, ciphers encoded in the marbled
Italian endpapers, sheen of the gilded edge.
She can indeed read the ciphers. But how? Chernicoff’s initial “Do you see her skip/out, red dress, aleph/ fire escape, zed?” presents us with just such a cipher. Existence on the perceptive side of language, where red dresses can be seen in all their seeming, occludes our realization of the other side, where the ciphers are made, and the world is arranged, or rearranged. “Occludes,” however, is an injustice to what Billie has given us. Her red dress is a portal, the magic garment that is our token for transport to the other side of the sky.
Let’s finally admit there is no difference between the inner and outer world. What I am calling Chernicoff’s other side is that same “imageless heart” she unstintingly attends, and to where all things tend: is Egypt, and each perception is baptized in it, struts out from its waters fully grown. Or as she writes in Nocturne:
Night has a body
confusable with stone
and with bread.
Or here, in The Desire of Language
Waking with this lingo
not in my head exactly
the words & I born together
into the day
& the words feel
like my real body, made of
cool air, bird song
& crow talk,
an old cotton sheet.
Chernicoff lets jive all modes of perception. Every modality of reading I am aware of is discoverable in this book (rather, Chernicoff reminds us of so many, it feels like surely all of them): and if there’s one thing I could ask of readers it’s to read front to back; although each poem glories in entity, Chernicoff is one of those rare poets who can be said to write not just poems, but books.
Tamas Panitz is a poet, currently living in Hudson NY. He is the author of Blue Sun (Inpatient Press); and two chapbooks found at Metambesen.org. His work is forthcoming most imminently in the journal Open Space.