Thursday, June 24, 2010


I recently had the pleasure of reading Smoke and Thunder: Collected Poems by Jim Chandler. It's one of the best collections of contemporary poetry I've read in a long time, partly because it presents such a unified (but nonetheless complex) voice, vision, and perspective on experience.

Chandler is a son, so to speak, of both the South and the West, having spent some time in his youth in Pomona, California, and now making Tennessee his home. The book will remind many readers of Bukowski's work insofar as the world of the poems is populated by liquor, tobacco, coffee, hard luck, hard work, self-destruction, resilience, and defiance.

The poems themselves, however, speak from their own regional, personal, and existential space; this is not an imitation of Bukowski, by any means. Chandler's style is characterized by short-lined, explosive, pugnacious narrative poems that have great forward momentum but that can stop at any moment for a surprising reflection or a satisfying detour.

And several poems are expressly meditative, like "the anger of man," a poem about the poet's own relationship with rage but also about that emotion as something connected deeply to the male American's working-class experience. Such moments of self-reflection are not rare in the book, but they are often startling, as in "crazy dave," a poem concerning the almost automatic ways in which racism is passed along but also concerning how it can be defused by maturity and good old-fashioned intelligence; of course, Chandler doesn't say this in so many words. A poet, he lets the poem do the talking.

Many poems feature Chandler wrestling--sometimes violently, often genially--with a variety of demons most of us will recognize. In this way, the book functions as a whole, a narrative about persons and people whose first instinct, being an instinct, is to live impulsively, to keep moving and living hard--but whose complexity of character intrudes to suggest, "You know, you might want to slow down occasionally." This is never a self-indulgent book, however. The poems are too quick, firmly focused, rooted in imagery, and outward looking for that.

Chandler's "Western-ness" may come out most vividly when he expresses suspicions about the State, as in the poem about Elian Gonzalez. The poems asks us to focus on the almost Kafka-esque detail of federal agents swooping in to remove the child--and then giving him play-dough. Like many a good political poem, this one shifts the debate away from the debate, so to speak (should the the boy have been returned to his father or not?) and toward behavior: how the boy is removed, how he's treated. Details.

Chandler's "Southern-ness" comes through the poems in a variety of ways. --In places and situations many are set; in the poet's intimate knowledge of good-old-boy culture; in is dealing with God, religion, family, and history, for example.

By his own admission, Chandler has sometimes been a two-fisted drinker; he's also a two-fisted poet, full of surprises, including the ones he's experienced. Chandler has found a style that works well, suits his material, and wears extremely well over the course of a book. The book is published by 1st Books Library, and it includes an introduction by Carter Monroe.

Smoke and Thunder

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