Karen Chase's second volume of poems, Bear(CavanKerry Press; May 2008; $16.00, paperback), affirms the promise of her debut, Kazimierz Square, which former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins heralded as "incandescent." Again, Chase finds the cryptic beauty in the rawness of everyday life, in our fragile, sometimes menacing juxtaposition to nature, and in the tightrope of human relationships. The poems, some of which first appeared in such far-flung publications as The Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, and Poetry Ireland, teem with Chase's characteristic fearlessness and hopefulness, delivered with an unadorned, articulate fusion of language and ideas.
As its title suggests, the bear takes a central, recurring role in many of poems in the book, as the poet quite literally communes with this enigmatic woodland adversary of man. On reading Bear, John Haines commented, "Among other instructive pleasures in this new collection, Karen Chase's "Bear" poems are an innovation. I recommend them to the reader -- with caution, please!" In "Traveling in Bear Country," humor punctuates the discourse: "Are you listening, Bear?/I'm speaking to you!" And while there is an affinity between woman and beast - "You and I, Bear, we feel/sun warm the air." - ultimately the poet feels a smallness in the ursine presence. "Bear, I belong back in my yard, worrying/about words and money, acting human." The pas de deux continues, the poet seemingly at a loss for words, "Just because I can speak, Bear, don't/expect me to. It's not always human/to talk, in case you didn't know" ("The Hint"), until intimidation cedes to an empowerment that signals so much more - "Don't fool with me. I hear stories/from friends who know your kind."
Another recurring theme in the poems explores a more sensual, less threatening connection to nature. From the first poem in the book, "A Glistening," where "The fish gleams gold/hits the air - blink - /the gold's gone" recalls the romantic and erotic promise of Yeats's little silver trout, the primal act of fishing becomes a prelude to a union of body and spirit. It also serves as geographical connecting tissue that binds the poet to Mexico, to Italy, to Alaska, and to the transcendent moments of witness.
The past is near at hand in much of Chase's poetry, from the primordial incantation of "The Abandoned Briggs Marble Quarry," We are orphans to these stones, soft and impressioned by song, flawed by weather.
While you push outward, weighty creatures in stone, we write poems to attain mass.
to an elegiac tribute to her late mother: "You'd be amazed how small/The world has become." ("Frederico Fellini's Birthday"). "Grid" collapses the regrettable legacy of recent history into a deceptively quiet image: "Sides of building wear away and patterns begin./The start of the past?" And yet there is the sustenance of hope in the continuum of ideas and the power of the word, as the poet discards books and rearranges others on her shelves, placing the work of the dead alongside the work of others, also dead, who once gave them cause to wonder ("Arranging Books as Elegy," "Throwing Away Books").
Karen Chase "has a great way of illuminating experiences we can all relate to," says Another Chicago Magazine. "[T]hrough the singular emotions, a scent or touch can bring to life
For more than a decade, Karen Chase taught poetry writing to severely incapacitated patients at a large psychiatric hospital outside of New York City. During that time, she began working with Ben, a handsome, formerly popular and athletic young man who had given up speaking and had withdrawn from social interaction. Meeting on the locked ward every week for two years, Chase and Ben passed a pad of paper back and forth, taking turns writing one line of poetry each, ultimately producing 180 poems that responded to, diverged from, and built on each other's words. Land of Stone is Chase's account of writing with Ben, an experience that was deeply transformative for both poet and patient.
In Chase's engrossing narrative, readers will find inspiration in the power of writing to change and heal, as well as a compelling firsthand look at the relationship between poet and patient. As she tells of Ben's struggle to come out of silence, Chase also recounts the issues in her own life that she confronts by writing with Ben, including her mother's recent death and a childhood struggle with polio. Also, since poetry writing seems to reach Ben in a way that his clinical therapy cannot, Chase describes and analyzes Ben's writing in detail to investigate the changes that appeared to be taking place in him as their work progressed. A separate section presents twenty-two poems that Chase wrote with Ben, selected to show his linguistic development over time, and a final section offers Chase's thoughtful reflections on the creative process.
A collection of power and humor in earthy eroticism, invoking both the fever and hope in wakeful dreams. A bold work of the elegiac past and the visceral present converging in provocative imagery. There is often an undercurrent of longing in Chase's poems--the longing of hunger, of sex, of unfinished business with the dead. Central to the collection is the title poem, a spiraling nightmare that explores the messy and terrifying commingling of religion, death and history's unpardonable sins.