Review: 'In My Unknowing' by Chard deNiord muses on knowing and not knowing - all at once

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WESTMINSTER WEST— When his sixth collection of poems was published earlier this year, Chard deNiord couldn't have anticipated how prescient its epigraph would prove to be.

Although not intended that way, the quote from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" presages the upending of life as we are accustomed to living it, due to the coronavirus: "What is known I strip away/I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown."

In this time of uncertainty, deNiord's new book, "In My Unknowing," takes the reader on an intimate and compelling spiritual journey that ultimately finds consolation not in having answers, but rather in accepting the paradox of knowing and not knowing at the same time. The poet, who recently finished his term as Vermont poet laureate, values that liminal place for what may reveal itself there.

The poems are gathered into seven somewhat thematic sections: poems of wondering and wandering between Heaven and Earth; elegiac poems about grief and loss; retellings of archetypal stories from Sumerian mythology; political poems; an exploration of the space between waking and sleeping; love poems; and poems about the beyond.

The opening prose poem, "In My Unknowing," with its epigraph from the Psalms, "O taste and see," sets the framework for all that follows:

I was driving through the fields of Heaven and I realized I was still on Earth,

because Earth was all I had ever known of Heaven and no other place would do

The speaker addresses someone who was absent during the moment being recalled:

If you had been there with me in the passenger seat

and speaks of loving the heavenly beings of the constellations:

the serpent, the lion, the/mosquito, the hawk, the antelope, the worm.

A clear demarcation exists between what the speaker knows and does not know:     

Each particular thing so mysterious in my unknowing, I knew I was living / forever. I knew the fields through which I was driving were the fields of Heaven/in which I was tasting and seeing, seeing and tasting.

The poems are gathered into seven somewhat thematic sections: poems of wondering and wandering between Heaven and Earth; elegiac poems about grief and loss; retellings of archetypal stories from Sumerian mythology; political poems; an exploration of the space between waking and sleeping; love poems; and poems about the beyond.

The fifth section, "At the Sleep Clinic," a meditation on states of mind and the capacity of language to express the ineffable, serves as the emotional and philosophical center of the collection. As the poem opens, the speaker sits in a car in the parking lot of the sleep clinic until the time of his appointment:

staring out at the mountains in the distance

that appeared as gorgeous bodies in both

prone and supine positions inhaling the sky—

The important

thing was that I was there on a couple

of plains at once with an eye that was blind

to itself in its socket of sky, but sharp

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in its vision of a hazelnut.

In the clarity of the vision of the hazelnut, we have echoes of Canto Five of "Leaves of Grass," in which Whitman moves from the loftiness of the heavens to the closely examined, equally awe-inspiring, details of nature: "And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed."

Our speaker continues:                    

I opened

my eyes and went on dreaming

Which I called a symptom of my sleeplessness.

Returning to the view of the mountains, our speaker sees a goddess, it's Isis, descending from the clouds. The parking lot transforms into the Nile. Isis becomes the Mother of Time, the speaker becomes the Father. Who is to say what is true and real about this experience, the speaker asks, and then quotes from Canto VIII of "The Auroras of Autumn" by Wallace Stevens: like a book at evening, beautiful but untrue, like a book on rising, beautiful and true.

The speaker's exhaustion is a blessing, in that he is attuned to

the blue

beyond the clouds that transported me

in a high, oneiric fugue in which I could hear

the sounds that David heard in the hills

which had no words or speech but only

the silence that loves the company of a mind

fused to sky.

Listening with a "third invisible ear," the speaker experiences being "suspended between the dash and the heaven within me" and meditates on images of death and birth, only to be wrenched to consciousness by the noontime whistle, in time for his appointment in the sleep clinic, where the doctor says the REM machine will measure the patient's heart and dreams.

After living this vicarious experience, the reader can only laugh at the doctor's certainty.

Another of the several pleasures of these pages is following a repeating image through the poems, for example, birds. The hermit thrush reports the dusk in "Weatherman," and yodels in the lingo of dusk in "Night Walk," the next poem. A sparrow teaches someone a tune in "Poet." Oh, for a drop of dragon's blood on the tongue, that their language might be revealed.

In "The Beavers," deNiord's homage to Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," the speaker meets a neighbor "at the property line/that divides his field from mine" and the two exchange very different views of the animal in question.

These poems, rich in allusions to other traditions and authors, offer the reader the opportunity to read on multiple levels, echoes which enhance the reader's experience but are not essential to enjoying the poet's work.

By accepting that we are forever in a dual relationship with knowledge—as detailed as our knowing becomes, our unknowing continues to be infinite—and by retaining a sense of awe about this paradox, we remain open to mystery. In this way, deNiord implies, we learn.

"In My Unknowing" gives us poems that, by showing us how to be human, speak to our challenging times.

I opened

my eyes and went on dreaming

Which I called a symptom of my sleeplessness.

Returning to the view of the mountains, our speaker sees a goddess, it's Isis, descending from the clouds. The parking lot transforms into the Nile. Isis becomes the Mother of Time, the speaker becomes the Father. Who is to say what is true and real about this experience, the speaker asks, and then quotes from Canto VIII of "The Auroras of Autumn" by Wallace Stevens: like a book at evening, beautiful but untrue, like a book on rising, beautiful and true.

The speaker's exhaustion is a blessing, in that he is attuned to

the blue

beyond the clouds that transported me

in a high, oneiric fugue in which I could hear

the sounds that David heard in the hills

which had no words or speech but only

the silence that loves the company of a mind

fused to sky.

Listening with a "third invisible ear," the speaker experiences being "suspended between the dash and the heaven within me" and meditates on images of death and birth, only to be wrenched to consciousness by the noontime whistle, in time for his appointment in the sleep clinic, where the doctor says the REM machine will measure the patient's heart and dreams.

After living this vicarious experience, the reader can only laugh at the doctor's certainty.

Another of the several pleasures of these pages is following a repeating image through the poems, for example, birds. The hermit thrush reports the dusk in "Weatherman," and yodels in the lingo of dusk in "Night Walk," the next poem. A sparrow teaches someone a tune in "Poet." Oh, for a drop of dragon's blood on the tongue, that their language might be revealed.

In "The Beavers," deNiord's homage to Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," the speaker meets a neighbor "at the property line/that divides his field from mine" and the two exchange very different views of the animal in question.

These poems, rich in allusions to other traditions and authors, offer the reader the opportunity to read on multiple levels, echoes which enhance the reader's experience but are not essential to enjoying the poet's work.

By accepting that we are forever in a dual relationship with knowledge—as detailed as our knowing becomes, our unknowing continues to be infinite—and by retaining a sense of awe about this paradox, we remain open to mystery. In this way, deNiord implies, we learn.

"In My Unknowing" gives us poems that, by showing us how to be human, speak to our challenging times.


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