A Mutual Vying Toward Understanding
The poet Sharon Olds once exclaimed, “we are blessed by our obsessions!” Chord Box by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is a product of this blessing. It artfully weaves several select but disparate themes that seem to obsess the poet, the most prominent of which are music and language, and the resulting tapestry serves as a road map for this ink-and-paper navigation through the world that the speaker inhabits.
Rogers’s book is divided into three sections. The first and second, though different in structure, seem somehow similar in spirit compared to the third section. The first goes back and forth between the story of the speaker’s adolescence, and that of the adolescence of the speaker’s object of affection: her teacher. In the first section’s final poem, “Coda: 2003,” the teacher and her lover present our speaker with a necklace strung from their favorite earrings as she departs them for a distant state. This moment seems a vital shift to launch us into the second section, in which the voice seems more independent, more certain of itself. It still carries around those experiences and people like the necklace, but has had more time to hammer out what they mean, where they end, and where she herself begins.
Especially in these first two sections, the outer world takes on the inner emotions of its characters (and I say characters and not speakers because, while the book jumps around both in time or space, there remains only one true voice that speaks for each person in the book). In “Belt: 1975,” an eleven year old stuck in the car with her child molesting grandfather “watch[es] smokestacks spew / sinister questions;” in “A Road in the Sky,” two lovers yearning to truly connect with each other pass a “park that pushed / its own banks, spilled vines / over the lookout.”
Reading this collection is like looking around a room of funhouse mirrors: each image is a distortion of some sentiment working in another way elsewhere in the poem. But this multidimensional approach to exploring human feeling does not stop with the physical environment. True to the title, music takes on a vital role in this collection. On a drive through the mountains, the landscape rises in “perpetual modulation, a practiced scale” (“Coda: 2003”). Music also functions as a means for divulging hard-to-get-at truths, both out of the characters’ volitions and against them. In “Psalm: 1976,” a poem in which a child is shunned by her mother for telling the truth about her grandfather, Rogers writes, ”You start the song / with the door left / open, so that / she, in some other / room, can hear.” And when the speaker’s nervous body revolts against her, she explains “I’m quaking down / beneath the bone, where / my marrow, darkly / contralto, is humming (“Vibrato: 2001”). Music is treated as not just a force, or a tool, but also as a lowest common denominator between people. Music functions as the most primal and pure means of communication, something uncomplicated by language.
Because language often betrays us—a notion that is key in this collection. In the first two sections, Rogers is unafraid to throw musical notation our way (and almost always generously defines these symbols for us) or small symbols that depict the object that the speaker is looking at or thinking of. In “Nodes,” Rogers discusses Ernst Chladni’s 1787 experiment in which he discovered sound’s visual patterns, part of which process was drawing “a navel, encircled.” Directly after those words she includes an ancient symbol, the circumpunct, a dot inside a circle, which is most commonly used to represent the sun, but whose meanings also range from protection against the evil eye to a Scouting symbol meant to indicate the end of a trail and suggest the hiker return home.
Rogers’s willingness to use whatever visual and lingual tools are at her disposal is just another of the book’s characteristics that sets it apart. And this method takes on a different life in the third section, which is born mostly out of Rogers’s experiences living and teaching in China, a country with a language that works in a way entirely different from the poet’s native English. These poems swoop the Chinese language under their wings and incorporate them into their own vocabulary unapologetically, but sometimes not entirely confidently. While sometimes a definition is provided within the poem for you, other times the words or characters are placed there without translation, though a glossary is provided on the last pages.
Rogers manages to do this in a way that isn’t isolating to the reader. It is more like a friendly gesture of a mutual vying toward understanding. We are allowed to see the painstaking process behind a non-native speaker attempting to communicate in a language that doesn’t come naturally to her. In “gŭ láng yŭ,” she writes “Zhŭ! From their teacher, / the only syllable / I can register. I think it is the zhŭ / that means concentrate; join together. / Or was it the other one: god; master?” By giving us enough vulnerability that we can imagine the speaker as a real person who is learning herself as she tries to teach us, we are on board to make these daring lingual leaps with her.
Chord Box is a book that has an intricate and somewhat complicated approach toward language because it recognizes that life is intricate and somewhat complicated. In one of my favorite moments in the book, our speaker is in China and wonders why she sees her neighbors’ parrots in cages all along the road, but she lacks the language to ask someone. But by writing it, Rogers has found the language to at least express that frustration, releasing some of its burden. And that, too, is a blessing that poetry gives us.
Amanda McConnon is an intern for Late Night Library. She lives in New Jersey, right between the woods and the ocean, and is pursuing her MFA in poetry at New York University. Her poetry has appeared in decomP magazinE, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and others.