March 27th, 2015
It is said the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer died today. It is said, but how can I be sure the news is true? To me, it seemed he was always dead. His poetry embodied the posthumous knowledge at times of another world in words forever arriving like fog from a graveyard. Fog is best understood to be itself when lit from behind. Coming towards, you see its smoked outline, its diffused shapeshift. Transtromer’s words could operate correspondingly.
The funerals keep coming
more and more of them
like the traffic signs
as we approach a city.
Thousands of people gazing
in the land of long shadows.
A bridge builds itself
straight out in space.
- “Snow is Falling (2004)”
I think of these words as backlight. A backlight infers shape with its highlight from behind, separating object from the background in which its apart of. It creates a silhouette, and backlight language - that is, language attempting to describe death – can only ever create a silhouette. Death’s true face will remain unknown, but we need words like these to prepare us for the problem we share in common.
Dan Chelotti’s “Death” stimulates this problem by filling the void with lifeflashes. He writes, “Let’s dance on the horizon line and at the same time watch ourselves/ dancing from down the hill.” Calling up another famous Swede, we see the final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The “danse macabre” was an allegorical artistic genre fashionable in the Middle Ages. Death personified to remind of the fragility of life and how vain earth’s glories were. By simultaneously performing the danse and witnessing it from the hillbottom, Chelotti ridicules what it actually is to write about death.
Ultimately to write about death is a test to see what kind of “bridge out in space” the poet can build. Chelotti’s bridge is a carnival of souls jiveshucking and buckling under regrets and out of shape funereal fantastias. In acting these out, he finds what benefits remain in the danse's purpose but also knows the dance of death is also a dance. As such, the poem passes through time/space in a tumbledown way. A mother’s death in a dream is followed by another of “the funerals of nine friends.” As death can only be known by an individual in a fantasy, dreams are horrible. But on these, the poem does not dwell. It moves, sub-speeding and turnslowing to a music of its own multilateral rhythmic pangs.
What does it want us to know then? It wants to know about Kafka.
Kafka says you can’t be an artist unless until you imagine your own death.
I read this in the introduction to The Metamorphosis on my mom’s couch
After getting home from a midnight walk on a bridge over a swamp.
Cloudless night with crickets and fireflies and what we thought was a deer
Turned out to be the roots of a fallen tree. Fallen trees are terrifying!
Every day I slink down the river trail and the mossy rotters sink with half-stoned
Entropic slowness. We all sink, no, the earth is always moving up,
We see the poet accepting the challenge Kafka presents. In confusing something living for a dead swamp-entity, out of startle he rejects the diffused energy of a slow-rotthing thing (“fallen trees are terrifying!”). We all need to be startled. It cuts things into motion. This is the reason we see the poem change thinking midline from sinking to swallowing. If you are sinking, you cannot dance. And to the poem, to not move in the world is the ultimate betrayal of life. Thus the poem commands us to drink and get down, but clearly knows the dance has already been begun.
Since one cannot jive forever, the poem absurd anxiousness becomes a performance of the entropy it so fears. To counter that fear, Chelotti knocks a “fuck art, let’s dance” poetics, a revelrous disorder similar to what one imagines how a brain might strike out upon the moment its sparks begin to fade. It is wild, weird, and hilarious. The images and associations are strung fast and loose. Ron “from the mall” appears. Sexual inhibitions are nixed. Someone jumps from a building. AC/DC is blasted. Freud's funeral dreamwish is performed. To fuck and romp become the order until the distance between the crest and bottom of the hill is once again remembered.
The poem continually falls back into echolocations of memory. Chelotti acknowledges our existential blueprints (“Embrace. Drop. Roll. Run.” or “You sleep. Wake up. Roll over. Drape your arm over Ron.”) that mimics a Sisyphean struggle. We see this struggle also in the expansion of life-knowledge that the poem tracks through events reflected upon. The “you” has freedom in a new town, tries Greek yogurt, learns new words (“gnawshing”). At each point where the self described is expanding consciousness, it slows to satiric reflection.
…gnawshing. That’s the word he uses,
Gnawshing. He uses that word. Yeah, that’s what happens when you imagine
some woman named Nightingale. Nightingale. No shit.
Pace reflects reflection where an entropy of language is performed. This is "the bridge" Transtomer refers to. In these moments one gets the sense the poem once believed in surprise and power of these words, but they’ve since lost their gas. One feels the foot of the dance macabre to be presently tapping. One can feel raw fragility of life's disappointments substantiated in the way “Chrystie Mitchell” says “Guava”. Such specifics are the receipts of our experience. They build bridges to prepare some end. It is no wonder the poem tries to talk itself back from such thinking (“Nope. Don’t do it. Ah, you are doing it.”). To rhapsodize in nostalgia is to sink. Memories are vainglories, earthly beauties and defeats, the top and the bottom of the hill.
Chelotti's poem knows this and tries to dance himself free maniacally running up a hill with language, but finally admits, as we all will have to admit death cannot be outrun. The poem ends backlit with shadowshape. He writes: “the blackness/ Takes you and makes you one with the silhouette you so always wanted to become”. One feels entropy has been fulfilled. Yet with such filling language taking up space in an outline, one has a sense that the life of the imagination, our one great agent and wall we will against death, has outperformed a Sisyphean task. As death is ultimately humiliating, Chelotti has humiliated death.
Brian Foley is the author of The Constitution (Black Ocean, 2014) & Puritan Landfill (Black Cake, 2015). Poems have appeared in Boston Review, Verse Daily,The Volta, Denver Quarterly, The Fanzine, Everyday Genius and elsewhere. He lives in Denver and attends the University of Denver Creative Writing PhD Program.