Intelligent Design: On the Poetry of Catherine Chandler

Chandler’s work exemplifies a Catholic literature at once devout without being of merely devotional interest and profound in its concern for the created order of things without lapsing into the existential anguish and crises of faith that have become the stock-in-trade of modern religious writers.


Early in Catherine Chandler’s first book, Lines of Flight, she writes of “a six-mile stretch of road” along the historic Route 66, where “two towns align,” one bearing an old friend’s family name and another hers. “A geographic fluke?” she asks.

                     Perhaps. But I,
far-flung, uprooted, off the track, embrace
this synchronicity, this table scrap
of happenstance

The author of three volumes of ingeniously formed, tightly measured, and smartly rhymed poetry, Chandler entertains this inquiry into topographic trivia as a humble analogy to one of the great questions posed by the fine arts in the modern age. Works of art represent (or “imitate,” as Aristotle phrased it) some aspect of the world, and they do so only by manifesting an intentional and formal order. But what is the relationship, if any, between the world represented and the work thus ordered? The classical answer holds that the work is in some sense a mirror held up to nature and its beautiful order constitutes a similitude to the mysterious and total order of the cosmos, the world God has made. In the modern age, a distinctly romantic theory proposed something else; the world itself is formless and unintelligible, and therefore the forming work of a poem or a painting is an artifice and an imposition. It may express the interior, subjective order of the artist’s mind, it may even be a psychological necessity for us, but such an artificial order will still falsify by apparently enriching the world. When Robert Frost spoke of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion,” for instance, he was suggesting that art made the world appear more coherent than it really was.

Catherine Chandler (Image: author page)

If this sounds as if questions of the fine arts impinge upon the larger question of the nature of the world itself and its relationship to God as intended and as created, that is no coincidence. Ancient writers were much concerned with the manner in which poetry revealed or concealed truth; while most poets offered a mere hollow image of rhetoric, the best poets, they maintained, could be inspired by the gods to reveal truth and being. Romantic thinking was largely provoked by questions of Scriptural interpretation that arose in an age increasingly doubtful that reason could know anything but the crude causal relations wrought by historical and physical forces. The great poet Rhina P. Espaillat concludes her introduction to Lines by referring to Chandler’s “use of formal patterns,” and suggests them as “a loving pursuit of created order and maybe even a belief—or a desire to believe—in its existence outside of art.” Espaillat places Chandler at the fork in the epistemological road between classicism and romanticism.

Espaillat’s phrasing captures the modest voice of Chandler’s poems, but it probably leaves the poet’s work sounding more tentative and tenuous than is really the case. For, Chandler is not just a distinguished American metrical poet writing at a time when many poets are rediscovering the intelligence and necessity of traditional practices. Like Espaillat and many others who are often tied to the New Formalist movement in American poetry of three decades ago, Chandler has cultivated a vernacular plain style in her writing that consistently demonstrates that the most quotidian events and most familiar of voices are well fitted to expression in poetic meter.

But Chandler also possesses one of the finest Catholic sensibilities among contemporary writers, one which routinely captures the drama of everyday life in its religious depths. Her work exemplifies a Catholic literature at once devout without being of merely devotional interest and profound in its concern for the created order of things without lapsing into the existential anguish and crises of faith that have become the stock-in-trade of modern religious writers. At one point, for instance, Chandler refers to her “fragile faith,” but only in the context of a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where everyone faces a certain spiritual challenge of attaining what she calls a “beatific . . . day or so” amid the “cheap / boutiques” filled with “plastic, Made-in-China Bernadettes.”

Chandler’s Lines appeared in 2011, when she was sixty, and she has published two more short collections in the five years since. That is too brief a period for substantial artistic development to occur, but one does find a deepening of subject matter, an increasingly daring use of poetic form, and also an elevation of voice, so that the familiar or vernacular plain style so common in contemporary metrical poetry is leavened by a more ornate or high style.

As Espaillat’s observation quoted above hints, Lines is very much a first book that frequently takes the nature of artistic form for subject matter. In “Oneironaut,” for instance, Chandler writes of lucid dreaming as a technique to tame “recurring nightmares.” “What the bleep,” she writes, “it’s worth a try, like counting sheep.” This sophisticated sort of sheep-counting is tentatively held up as an analogue to the counting of syllable and stress in the writing of the (iambic) poetic line. It may be “merely a device,” therapeutic for us but useless for our living in the world:

                   The bear,
the bug, bamboozled, may revive.
Sniff out the ruse. Eat you alive.

But, no. The life of art and the imagination is more than a diversion, the next poem, “Lines,” indicates. Just as Plato tells us the philosopher risks looking like a fool, beggar, and madman in his longing for wisdom, so the poet can appear pretty useless on the factory floor precisely because the mysteries found in art can so entrance. The “Hunger” for the reality art reveals, a poem of that name tells us, may force us to “pay for desire with blood and bones and hair.” When Chandler attends to the world around us, she consistently discerns pattern, even when the pattern is violent and savage. “Delineations,” about a flock of Canadian geese, concludes,

Patterns of exuberant design,
cadenza, cadence, wavelength, arrow,
slant or straight and narrow—
theirs, mine.

There is a fundamental identity between the order of geese, the patterns of the created world, and those of the poet.

Chandler follows Robert Frost in her attention to the natural landscape, but hers are slightly more varied than the great New England poet’s. She writes extensively about Canada, where she has lived for the last forty years, about the harsh mining country of northern Pennsylvania, where she was raised, and also about Latin America, which she visits annually for extended periods. As in Frost, design in nature frequently appears dark and violent. In springtime, for instance, Chandler echoes King Lear to concede, “there’s a God and we’re its sport, / that winter is so long, and life so short!” And, on Frost’s farm, she recalls the old poet “speaking to God about the world’s despair.” But, just as poetic meter lies submerged within, and gives order to, the familiar idiom of her lines, so Chandler typically finds order and meaning in the slovenly down-at-the-heel disarray of ordinary life. The meaning of the world is not up to us; it rather lies there, no matter how we modern minds may wish to dismiss it as our own subjective projections. Such is the painful lesson of “Mother’s Day,” Chandler’s powerful sonnet on the grief caused by abortion, spoken by the aborted child. “But you and I know, Mother,” what her husband cannot:

your April foolishness; how bit by bit
they snipped me out of you, “took care of it”;
how through the years I’ve been your confidante,
the reason for this night’s unraveling—
the garnet missing from the mother’s ring.

If the order of God’s creation often appears as terrible this is chiefly because we seek to deny and defy it by force of will. This is why, Pascal once wrote, men hate religion; they fear it is true. Chandler’s volume concludes with a well-earned assent to that order as one of God’s creative love. Speaking of the end of time, she writes,

And then there is The End, when all dimensions
may drop away into a hole as dark
as nought; when truth will nullify inventions,
consuming every quark and antiquark;
when present, past and future coalesce
in One who loves. I live for nothing less.

“Inventions” such as poetic meter and artistic form are necessary for us, in part, because they serve as similitudes for the deep, often invisible, order of things. They allow us to express and perceive with clarity what we now only half-discern with the ear of faith. If that is the case, then they will in some sense be “nullified” when that truth appears in its finality and fullness once and for all. The lines of flight of poetry are our extended and partial ascent toward truth.

Chandler’s first book justifies art to God; in the next two, poetry becomes a confident medium for the exploration of the world’s significance and the trials and grief of love. Glad and Sorry Seasons begins with a sonnet on the latter—sorrow in the wake of a miscarriage. Its final note describes the kind of patient exploration of the depths of human experience that characterizes the volume as a whole. Chandler

               scour[s] the universe
in search of you. And God. And go[es] about
my business as my crooked smile displays
the artful look of ordinary days.

That perfect final line gives as an epigram what the volume as a whole achieves. By means of an intricate and elegant art, Chandler captures the meaning of the ordinary. What is ordinary to our life in time? For Chandler, everyday life contains a great deal. We find poems in Seasons on the Canadian and Pennsylvania landscape, translations of the poets of Quebec and South America, witty sonnets on the seven deadly sins, as well as some lighter epigrammatic verse that elicits “mirth and laughter.”

What most impresses in the collection as a whole is Chandler’s cultivation of a higher style at once more sophisticated in rhetoric and more intense in emotional expression than the poems of Lines. “The Crag,” one of several poems reflecting on the loss of her parents, is exemplary in this regard:

The hours buckle, folding into pleats,
and meet like valley synclines, while the moon
is waning on Mom’s alabaster sheets.
Days collapse in pure duration. Noon.
Then six. Saint Nicholas’s church bells chime
the Angelus. A spatial instant, long
in coming, blinks in geologic time.
I hum her favorite Frank Sinatra song.

Gone is the golden mountain of our youth;
gone is its rarified reality.
Still, there lies an element of truth
amid this crushing verticality.
Down. Down in history we go;
past anthracite, the colour of all woe.

The lines of the octave open upon a bleak scene, as a daughter looks over the effects left in her mother’s house. She hears the church bells ring their noon call to prayer in the place of her northern Pennsylvania childhood, before replying with a familiar hymn of her own. In the sestet that concludes this sonnet, the language takes a powerful turn, with the adjective “gone” repeated twice in sequential phrases, and the glowering repetition of “down” in the penultimate line. All of this draws our attention to a brilliant conceit. The time after her mother’s death opens like a great, horizontal emptiness—“pure duration.” Memory, in contrast, is “vertical,” all the past contained in the depths of a single instant and bearing down upon it until it becomes “crushing.” To recall her mother is therefore to burrow into the past as if she were drilling into the earth of the anthracite coal region of her hometown.

“All these Words” follows Richard Wilbur in celebrating the pleasing artificiality of verse even if “the metrician / may be a dying breed, / a dodo bird. Agreed . . .” What most impresses in Seasons, however, is to see Chandler’s facility with verse combined with a precise eye for human feeling and folly. Her account of a hedonistic and ambitious young professional, in “Acedia,” is exemplary in this regard:

You’ve seen him at the gym, the puffed-up puppy
on the treadmill, going nowhere fast;
the Volvo-driving, Twitter-texting yuppie,
the DINK, the wine and cheese enthusiast.

In any substantial collection of poetry there will be what T.S. Eliot called “five-finger exercises,” poems that seem to exist purely for the practice of formal ingenuity, and Chandler’s books are no exception. But the metaphysical claims on which she has founded her work justifies them—if, that is, they require any justification. Her delight in versification is no mere pleasure, but a testing of metrical order as a means of capturing and conveying the order of that which is.

Seasons’ concluding poem connects Chandler’s joining of sophisticated art and the depths of the quotidian with one of its great antecedents, the painting of Edward Hopper, which combined so distinctly the self-conscious stylization of modernist art with the familiar, appealing, if often melancholy, scenes of American life. Chandler’s “Edward Hopper’s Automat” reveals how much the poet has learned from the painter and is probably her finest single poem.

What Chandler learns from Hopper serves her to good purpose in her Richard Wilbur award-winning volume, The Frangible Hour. There, the specter of her parents’ death, which is only subtly limned in Seasons, becomes the subject of extended narrative sequences. During the same short period between 2011 and 2012 in which first her mother and then her father passed away, Chandler’s daughter Caitlin nearly died from a brain aneurysm. Chandler’s poems convey grief, suffering, and loss, but with a restrained dignity that puts these things into the context of gratitude for the love and sacrifice of her parents and a Christian acceptance of all worldly trials as redemptive. On the loss of her father, for instance, she reflects in one poem, “Yet Monday morning none shall ever guess / my Sygian grief at waking fatherless.” In the next, she affirms,

                I set aside the need to grieve,

the bitter and the sweet of Aaron’s rod,
and search for solace in the will of God.

In “Four Songs of Parting” she conveys more fully the love of her mother, which is finely expressed by the synecdoche of an old trunk:

From underneath
a roll of batting and a bolt of chintz
I pull a faded ribbon-festooned box.
Inside, my fairy-stolen baby teeth
and first-shorn locks
acknowledge, in an elegant goodbye,
that I was once the apple of your eye.

“Almost” records the vigil a mother keeps over her daughter and demonstrates why Chandler’s mastery of verse and rhetoric are so essential to her poetry. They enable her to convey the immediacy of her worry with an artlessness that is in the best sense artful:

June. July. My fourth novena starts.
In counting off the decades on your hands,
I meditate on Joyful number five:
to find my child as Mary found her son—
alive and well.

Though Caitlin’s fate is in doubt through much of the sequence, her recovery allows Chandler a moment to affirm the redemptive power of prayer and prosody:

I’ve chronicled her unaccounted hours,
for days are things one can’t afford to lose:
the words tell how, with nothing left but prayer,
I trusted in a surgeon’s hands. And God’s.

The little notebook, thorough, stark, exact,
recounts procedures, numbers on a chart;
and since the point-by-point is based on fact,
she’ll never read of daggers to the heart
or how—amid disaster—the mundane
and blessed act of writing kept me sane.

At a time when many American poets are writing skillful metrical poems in a plain vernacular, Chandler stands out for both her particular elegance and fluency of style and for the profundity of her vision. It no longer surprises anyone to find idiomatic English in a well-made sonnet, but it is rare for a poet to capture the quotidian in its fullness as a creation of God. Chandler’s first book does this by following St. Augustine in probing the sacramental or revelatory character of number—especially metrical numbers—to reveal the intelligible order of the world as an intelligible expression of the divine love. Her second and third volumes employ verse to enter more deeply into the life of meditation and devotion occasioned by the everyday yet extraordinary events of love and grief. She has given us a poetry at once intricate and restrained, familiar and profound, and provides a model for what a flourishing Catholic literature should look like in our day.

Catherine Chandler
Lines of Flight
Able Muse Press, 2011
77 pages

Glad and Sorry Seasons
Biblioasis, 2014
79 pages

The Frangible Hour
The University of Evansville Press, 2016
72 pages

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About James Matthew Wilson 20 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

1 Comment

  1. Wilson describes Chandler philosophically, “In the modern age, a distinctly romantic theory proposed something else; the world itself is formless and unintelligible”. Though it’s unclear whether that take is out of Chandler or his own interpretation of Art. Either way it is on target with the devolution from Art described by Aristotle as consistent with the order of nature to the psychedelic. The arts more evident in painting and poetry due to their more creative nature mirror what the mindset of a culture is. We all must retain our correspondence to reality. Even if like Frost we speak of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion”. Otherwise it’s chaos. The tragedy of the modern world is precisely that doubt of a natural order. Chandler like other Christian poets and writers retains that much needed coherence. Her poetry artistically conveys vision into a meaningful life.

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