Chord Box by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
In Chord Box, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers's first book and a 2013 finalist for the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, Rogers displays an exceptional ear. Music and the evocative sounds of words announce themselves everywhere, starting with the opening stanza of the collection:
The blue ridge is a breve
for vowels sung in mountain,
the highway's long da capo
like a ballad you tried
to teach me.
While Rogers's language is subtle and lovely, it serves a greater goal: to reveal the complexities of a young woman's coming to artistic consciousness. If this were prose, we'd think of it as a Bildungsroman. The first section of the collection, "String Fugue with Stretto," is, as the title suggests, a nuanced overlapping of themes -- in this case, the musical and emotional education of a teacher and her student, the former born in 1964, the latter in 1985 (the year of Rogers's birth). Each poem of the Fugue is dated, which helps to guide us through the circling narrative sung by the student to her teacher. In "Dirge: Autumn 1974," the ten-year-old future teacher plays taps at her father's funeral. The setting is the crabbed mountains of Appalachia, and as her grandfather prepares her for the service, the scene takes a creepy turn:
you his tarnished star,
spelled American Legion,
pinned it to your budding
chest. When he lingers
here, you flinch. His hand
glosses your newest, doubled
sting, the pucker beneath
your jacket, as if a black widow's
This suggestion of abuse plays out in other poems which are juxtaposed against an adolescent awakening to the sensual, suggestive allure of music, replete with body images of its own:
On your trumpet,
bell full as Loretta's big skirt,
you pucker for a gold
nipple, make a sound like
your body, but bigger.
The beauty of the Fugue, in addition to its amazing language, is that it refuses to simplify. These are poems about the complexity of desire that withhold judgment in favor of forgiveness.
Interwoven with the poems about the teacher's own coming-of-age is a clear-eyed exploration of the relationship that she later develops with a younger student, the singer of these songs. The theme of an intellectual guide who opens the eyes of a student to the limitless possibilities of the world beyond childhood, who earns absolute devotion, and who then betrays that trust, is played out on a daily basis in classrooms and studios throughout the world. Rogers treats the relationship with delicacy. First this:
I called you
and asked, is it possible for you to love
two at once, and your yes was like your arm
when it conducted the ensemble -- a clear
source of authority.
but then this:
I never said I love
you said. Your face wet salt.
My voice raised,
my first threat:
I could tell.
And there it is: a complicated love -- inevitable and inevitably doomed:
When you're young, you said, the fall from grace
goes quickly, so you can stand up again
without losing much time.
As a reader, you hope that's right. If you've been around a while, you know it's not always true.
The third section of the collection uses language -- in this case Chinese -- in lieu of music to convey the sense of difference, even alienation. After finishing college, Rogers taught English and dance in the Shanxi province of China where these poems are set. Many of them incorporate Chinese characters, not to show off but to convey the ambiguity of being an outsider by way of language. Rogers does not pretend to be fluent in Chinese -- a life-long project, not a four-year one -- but she has absorbed much that is essential about the culture and has recognized, as expatriates inevitably must, that there is a lot that she does not fully understand. These poems are revealing because of this modesty coupled with a questing intelligence. In a poem, "At the Bathhouse," which will resonate with any Westerner who has entered an Asian public bath, Rogers is confronted by the physical fact of her body distancing her from the women there:
Learn shame: bare your American ass
to a room of Chinese women. "So big!" My friends giggle
when it nudges them without permission.
Body as metaphor: different despite our best intentions. And that is what makes Chord Box so impressive. It looks at the world with a loving eye despite what it sees. That's a wise book, not a first book.
Chord Box by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
University of Arkansas Press