Friday, August 2, 2013

Mario Chard on "Round" and "Caballero"

In “Round” a man wakes to the sound of an avalanche cannon—one familiar, perhaps, to those who live in that part of the West where the Forest Service is allowed to fire howitzer shells into the mountainsides. The goal I believe is to trigger a small avalanche before larger, more dangerous avalanches can form. In the poem, the sound of the cannon sends snow barreling from the speaker’s roof, triggering the “smallest avalanche / it had not meant to,” so close to the paradox he then repeats: “We inoculate our son. In the needle, / the same virus we hope / his body will defeat.”

I took that image from an ordinary vaccination of my son, but for a moment in that small hospital room I also saw the needle as the man-made violence, the virus as nature’s violence; how we use both to pierce our children in order to prepare them for healing. I thought it a gift that we also use (or used to use) inoculate for vaccination: inoculate, meaning to engraft an eye (oculus) of one plant into another—eye, of course, the stand in for bud, the new leaf forming. Thus, through the act of inoculation we figuratively give sight to our children. We graft in the new eye.

If that’s true, then couldn’t it also, at least sometimes, mean the opposite, the inoculation a kind of blinding? The only way to graft in the new eye is to blind the other. For me, the less figurative example of this possibility is tied to a childhood based on religion and prayer: the old way of occlusion. We closed our eyes to pray. Some are taught to close their eyes to see no evil, no violence. And yet we are bound to commit acts of violence against ourselves and others almost every day.
“Round” is an expression of this paradox and fear. It gained its musical form from a personal obsession with cycles and repetition. For me the round is eternal: it begins with the parent inserting the needle; it always ends with the child finding the bomb, still unexploded, in the pine needles, running his own destruction back to those who put it in his hands.  


I was raised in a dual-cultural home of immigrants, my mother chief among them, but the house always seemed full of many kinds: relatives, friends, strangers, some of them Argentine like my mother, most from Mexico. And yet I still found it difficult to fully enter the world of “Caballero,” a poem I struggled to write from the moment I read the story of the crash that acts as its impetus.

I had great ambition for the poem and its political underpinnings, a naïve desire to speak despite my citizenship for those who die miserably trying to become citizens, and yet the poem kept floundering. It was then I found the article that mentioned the horse, how the driver lost control after swerving to miss it, how the surviving passengers saw only the driver’s attempt to fondle the female passenger and never saw the horse. It was then I tried to teach my son the word for horse in Spanish and remembered how I had often mistaken it for the word for hair. Almost immediately the poem lost what had been its documentary scaffolding and became instead a dialog of mistake and disagreement, of those who speak and those who are silenced, of a father and son speaking from their own dim borders of understanding.

Only near the end of writing “Caballero” did I remember that the horse was itself an immigrant, brought over by the Europeans in their age of conquest. Some records suggest that the natives were initially confused and thought the man and horse were a single body, that this confusion allowed the riders to establish dominion. For a moment the conquerors were caballeros: literal horsemen. But now the word has come to mean gentleman. The word has become one “we have learned / Not to look at” (after Oppen), stripped of its history of violence, speechless like the horse and the nameless, buried immigrant.   


  1. Thank you, Mario Chard, these two poems are transcendent. Perhaps the spirit horse in "Caballero" along with "the conquered" faced an inevitable doom in the desert, "retrocedemos, vamos hacia atrás, el animial pierde futuro a cada paso,..." – Octavio Paz in "Mutra" // Dave Steward

  2. Thank you for your kind comments on the poems and for giving me a new term—spirit horse—to carry with me when I think or speak of “Caballero.” And thanks also for the line from Paz, how the animal retreating, turning back, must lose its future with every step. But maybe the direction doesn’t matter in the end: for some the forward movement of a step is negated by the inevitable loss of future ahead. Maybe the desert, the plight of those who still try to cross it, is the right home for that paradox.

    The desert was actually what drew me to the story and record of the crash itself, so deliberate in its description of where the crash took place: “the Four Corners area,” of the West, going on to list each state by name. Something about that troubled me. At least the desert was the first image I had: the eight dead juxtaposed with the names of the states where they could have been headed, where they might have ended up.


  3. I’d like to say something about Mario Chard’s “Caballero” that links back to what I tried to say about the relationship between “Theology” and “Skillet Flinging” in the previous thread.

    I love Mario Chard’s horse-man – I could read him over and over and never get bored. As I could never get bored at the Palio in Siena either, however many times I got to be there, or at the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. And why among the most influential experiences of my life was as a 14 year old boy at the World Championship Steer-Roping Contest in Pinedale Wyoming in 1954.

    The humble housekeeper becomes both Grendel’s Mother and Gaia when she flings her skillet in the contest, and we’re down on our knees in the green kitchen and terrified too. Ditto the lumberjack in those country games that involve tossing huge baulks of timber, or the modern-day black-smith swinging a 16 pound hammer round his head as if he were Vulcan.

    Things are never what they seem, but if you want to know the truth of the human condition you’re more likely to find it in the games we play than in the lives we lead. Harvest Festivals are still the heart and soul of the year in rural communities all over the world, and exhibitions like flinging the skillet or seizing the goat on horseback make the mundane for a moment as fearsome and transcendent as what rises from the sea in Wordsworth’s sonnet.

    A good poet’s Phaeton has real hands on the reins and her Saturn real guts down on the farm like Maggie Schwed’s cannibal pullet. That's what a good poet’s ‘theology’ does – it’s the reality of a good poet’s faith in the ritual details that enables divine ‘figures’ to rise from the sea, or from the desert like Mario Chard’s.

    ”They listened. The horses
    never spoke.”

    And by so doing they did.


    1. Christopher,

      My primary agon as a poet is not a very unique one: what role can poetry play, what purpose does it serve, in the face of great violence? I think of the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia who stopped writing poetry after his son was murdered by gang members in Mexico, another senseless tally in their seven-year drug war. What could it matter then--the white space, the ordered lines--the morning he found his son? Sicilia still calls himself a poet, but now he leads marches and protests, the spectacle of ten thousand men and women marching, activists. Now he does something with his anger.

      But isn't poetry itself an action? At least that's what I tell my students, half-believing. We are doing something about it. If the goal of metaphor--the mechanism behind its movement or capacity to move--is to slow time itself, then isn't that the heart (the central action) of poetry as well? And not just because we have to physically stop to read a poem, grow still. It's that the great poems stay age as well as confusion.

      So I've been thinking about "the games we play" in your very kind comment, remembering how strange it was the first time I read the Iliad, after all its grandeur, gore, and machismo, to come so close to the end of that poem, to have Hector still tied and bloody behind the chariot, Patroclus stripped of his armor, and come to the long chapter on funeral games; or to read of Odysseus after twenty years gone, finally in the presence of the Phaiakians who would bear him home, as he was made to watch and later perform in their contest. Maybe that's the nature of the epic: to allow time for that unraveling and exposition (and maybe that's what makes Alice Oswald's recent translation Memorial so unique in its power, stripped of everything but the names and similes). But I know there are thousands of examples beyond these: games, spectacles, songs. Poems to memorialize the dead, to act in the face of a certain tragedy or violence.

      I don't know if I'm convinced, but I foolishly keep with the ritual of it, the little ceremonies, regardless. Thank you for your comment and its act of faith.


  4. Thanks for that good reply, Mario -- for the shock of it in particular. Because of course you're right in what you ask in your first sentence: "what role can poetry play, what purpose does it serve, in the face of great violence? " Who asks that sort of question? Because only if we can recognize the awfulness of the human condition can we know where poetry that matters has to be positioned, i.e. "in the face of great violence." And that's the first step in knowing what to do about it as well as being happy.

    The truth is that what rises from the real sea in poetry as in real life is not all nice and sweet smelling what is more consistent or politically correct, any more than good sex is. By the same token God isn't the source of love and justice, it's human beings that realize those qualities as they struggle to make sense out of divine cruelty, injustice and death. And I don't mean that as a theological statement either -- which is why I used the word 'Theology' in the first place, for it's shock value. Us as would-be gods, in other words. Because poets can really be what Shelley says they are. "At least that's what I tell my students, half-believing,” says Mario Chard – and it’s the “half-believing” part where the poetry comes in as well as the great teaching.

    I think the most important thing Mario Chard says, and demonstrates in both these poems, is that "the great poems stay age as well as confusion" -- "the mechanism behind its movement or capacity to move--is to slow time itself." Ritual slows and perfects time, and gives us a chance to catch up.


  5. I’ve been thinking about “Round” too in relation to what Mario Chard says about time.

    Where I live in Southeast Asia a reclining Buddha is often the largest image in the temple. Part of the reason for this is that the massive weight of gypsum and clay is easier to support if it’s constructed horizontally, just as it’s easier for an individual to explore a sacred place horizontally because you can walk the full length of it and don’t have to stop and kneel down. The reclining image is the Buddha in the linear dimension, so to speak -- not filling the universe but crawling through it like the linear epic crawls through sacred history from the beginning of things to the end.

    But the irony is that the Reclining Buddha also represents the tiny, non-dimensional point at which everything begins and ends at the same instant – the reclining Buddha wakes and dies at the same instant, which is what the great sprawling figure intends.

    Mario Chard does a lot with the same conundrum in “Round,” I think, spinning out the same space over and over again like the Buddha lying down at the moment of becoming and of not-becoming at the same instant. Because it’s always the same stuff even if it’s every time in a different combination.

    It's a fine, delicate poem -- worth reading over and over.


  6. A bit more on “Round,” which like all good poems is worth living with.

    Let's treat the reversals in life not with prophylactics, antibiotics and chemicals but with more of the same in tiny small doses. Jab us in the arm with a tiny bit of the disaster itself while we’re still unaware of what’s to come in real life including aging and death. Then we’ll be not only more ready for the onslaught itself but ready to understand that many of the good things that come to us are reversals like getting hit by a car or divorced.

    That without them we might never have recovered what is more made our peace.

    I don’t know how big the howitzer shell was that pricked the flank of the mountain to release the avalanche in Mario Chard’s poem, but it was obviously as tiny as the eye of a blackbird in relation to the mountains behind it.

    But it was enough – indeed it was better than more.

    Perhaps the shell even hit a rescue team or backcountry skier by accident, or the vaccinated child in the poem suffered a high fever with disastrous results.

    Which does happen on occasion, but so do wars and epidemics.

    So take the risk and write poetry that tries to say something more than just how it's written. Take the risk and you may produce something of inestimable value to humanity even if nobody hears anything more than the snow dropping off the edge of your roof, or your ditch.


    1. Thanks again for your comments, Christopher, and also for the time you spend on many of the poems here.

      I think you're right about risk in general. It's a word that appeared late for me in the writing of "Round" as well. The boy knew the "risk" of the shell he found by its "weight alone," but by then it was too late.

      Often I know I've done something right in a poem when I can sense its risk before its meaning. The same goes for when I'm reading. Sometimes the risk is enough. Sometimes the risk, the weight, is the only thing I can talk about when I try to teach or share a poem. Often it's the only thing I remember.


  7. Dear Mario,
    I wondered why it took me so long to relate to your kind response, almost as if you were not saying anything to me specifically. And then I realized I hadn't "got" the poem at all, at least on the narrative level, I hadn't -- the poem had always moved me on the level of its structure and imagery, as a round in the musical sense, and I did get the shot in the medical sense. But it never occurred to me that anyone had actually picked up the shell in real life, or that the bodies were actually mutilated as well. And I think that's partly because I so abhor such violence in real life that I'm just plain naive. I've lived everywhere, and have been around such violence too, or at least not very far away from it, but I've never had it lie on the ground by my house, or blow apart my family.

    And then I stumbled on the other meaning of the word "round!"

    It grows and grows, "Round," and the irony for the editor/critic is that if it's a good poem it doesn't really matter whether a particular reader gets it all or not. Indeed, in some ways my first, more aesthetic, architectonic, musical-round take on it was more elevating than the explosion that took place after I got my mind around the violence.

    Many thanks for helping me realize that, Mario -- a very fine poem indeed.

    And if anybody else has had a similar experience with this poem I'd love to hear about it.



Select Open ID from the draw-down menu unless you want to connect with another account. Then type your name; you don't need a URL. Your comment will temporarily disappear, but will reappear after you type in your profile and click on "Continue."