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Carol Muske-Dukes

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A Necessary Poet

Posted: 08/08/10 10:02 PM ET

W.H. Auden, in his wonderful book of essays, The Dyer's Hand, imagined a "College for Bards", a cheerfully eccentric institution offering a refreshing take on what is deemed necessary to educate a poet.

Poets "matriculating" at this Bardic College, would find that curriculum requirements included raising and caring for a domestic pet, cultivating a garden - and, best of all, the College library eschewed books of "literary criticism".

Ironic or not, Auden's point was that a true poet should be in touch with the earth, connected to other living beings, expressive of the particular rather than the theoretical.

Here is a new book of poems that seem "necessary" - reminiscent of the way Auden's College refreshed our vision of the essential - what is bottom-line necessary to make a poet a poet.

I'm not keen on the title of Chase Twichell's New & Selected book of poems, HORSES WHERE THE ANSWERS SHOULD HAVE BEEN - but the poems in the book are remarkable - and essential. In these poems, Chase Twichell looks Death right in the eye and has it out with the darkness on her own "premises". In her poem "Work Libido" she instructs her readers, "Rules: Tell the Truth./No decoration. Remember death."

Twichell's poems have always been interested in the powerful transparency of language - and here, her new poems take further risks, move insight into even more vertiginous territory in the confrontation with mortality. In "The Dark Ride" - she says, "There are lessons she learned and unlearned/Ten thousand lives, caught in the drag/of one pole or another, the need to know/the wordless truth of what she is."

The acceptance of Buddhist principles twinned with recognition of the world's indifferent violence, combined with recovery from life-threatening illness brings her to this particular and devastating insight about poetry: "I think of poems as a series/of small harsh rebirths."

Everyone knows, she tells us, that there is more than one kind of consciousness. Her own consciousness acknowledges in sorrow the suffering of all animals - packaged meat resembling "body parts" in the supermarket. She notes (without naming him) the brutal savagery against dogs, the "war" waged by Michael Vick against canines - though he is not named. "Who buys the right to drown a dog?"

She gardens, talks to her dogs, considers the nature of consciousness and how the earth is dying. Auden was no Buddhist and his notes on the education of poets half-serious - yet the dark time in which we live re-heightens the urgency of his earnest satire. Chase Twichell's unsparing eloquence deserves a summa cum laude from Auden. The poems in this new book are unsettling and profound in their fierce embrace of the world:

"We should speak only of urgent things./The earth was heaven once and now it's hell.... Oh fuck, I'm going to have to take it in my arms again./I'm going to have to/love it again/dear corpse of earth."

-- Carol Muske-Dukes