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It’s hard to believe Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press) is the debut collection of poems from Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers. Not only is the voice mature, incisive, and wise, the narrative structure of the book is seamless and congruent, from the first to last poem. Foundations are only stable if the math is planned and executed with precision and concentration. Rogers gives us bedrock. And for poems so infused with chaos, the reader is grateful for a utility that can carry us across tumultuous currents: first love and first sex, trust and violations, family and community.
Chord Box is comprised of three parts, the poems in each unfurling a frenzied coming-of-age story. We first meet the speaker as a teenager tangled in a complicated, romantic relationship with her music teacher: “your hand / drifts across my throat, / shoulder, and thigh.” The teacher, whom we are never persuaded to understand two-dimensionally, nor to judge or condemn, asks “Why is it / that you are trembling?”
So much of musical terminology, especially the parts of an instrument, is anatomical: the neck of the guitar, a woodwind’s mouthpiece, the head of a drum, a horn’s valve. Even the words “tremble,” “bow,” and “play” translate to both music and person. It’s a simple yet rich revelation that Rogers gives us—the body as an instrument. The speaker responds to her teacher’s question:
be still. Nothing here
will hold. I’m quaking down
beneath the bone, where
my marrow, darkly
contralto, is humming.
The book’s title, Chord Box, evokes both the musicality and (the highly sensual) aestheticism of the body, but also texture, boundary, and limitation: “margins of skin.” The poems reflect a desire to contain the energy of our body and its voice. Because if we can contain it, then we have a chance at giving it language and music, thereby transforming it. It is not only the aspiration of the poet to express such urgency of emotion and experience; it is the basic desire of the human. “That vowel / comes at me— / undiluted, almost / human.” We revel in the temporary music of the body, and also wish for its permanence. From the speaker’s illicit relationship with her music teacher to religion’s dependable disappointments, from new romances to familial disorder, the imagery and lexicon of music informs every one of these poems. “Lungs lift / against the chord / box, stir its twin folds.” And in another poem: “dark Capricorn evenings, almost // sinister, could split a soundboard / in a single, seismic instant.”
The last third of the book furthers this idea of music’s kinetic, bonding energy. The poems in this section explore the confines, extrapolations, and landscapes of language. The speaker, now a young adult, is in China and confronted by that which can be simultaneously alienating and liberating: the lack of a common tongue. In such a moment and context, she is compelled to find other methods of communication—music serves as shared ground and the body takes on new tasks. Brilliantly, Rogers incorporates Chinese symbols into these poems, which introduces welcome ambiguity while broadening interpretative possibilities. The symbol for bing, Rogers explains in the notes, might mean “ice,” “cake,” or “illness,” depending on the intonation of the voice. The lesson is we may get it wrong, but at least sound—evocation—is passing between us, for nothing is as despairing as “tombs, emptied hives, / no sound.”
Chord Box is a collection of poems that are at once sexy, intimate, intelligent, and resonant, “resonant” meaning these poems rise out of their bodies like notes from an instrument, echoing forth. “An echo is just / a voice, just the bones, // your own.” This may be cloaked in humility, but our echo is our body in the world, where we cannot tend to it. We send it faithfully, and perhaps in the form of couplets, or as a thrumming melody. I will be humming these poems for a long time to come.
by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
University of Arkansas Press
Paperback, 9781557289988, 108 pp.