Pointing Home

Review by Alexandra Oliver

Pointing Home, by Catherine Chandler. Kelsay Books, 2019, paper, 101 pages.

orn in the U.S. and based in both Quebec and Uruguay, Catherine Chandler has written poems that are distinguished by their formal virtuosity coupled with (and satisfyingly countered by) a crystalline sense of clarity and precision. In the United States, she is a celebrated member of the formalist poetry circle that includes Allison Joseph, A.E. Stallings, Anna Lena Philips Bell, Catherine Tufariello, and X.J. Kennedy. Here, in Canada, she is, like other poets who privilege the use of formal models over “freer” or more experimental structures, not accorded the attention she deserves. Would that this were different, for there is much to be gleaned from what Chandler has offered up in collections such as Glad and Sorry Seasons (Biblioasis 2014) and The Frangible Hour (University of Evansville Press 2016, winner of the Richard Wilbur Award). In addition to being a proficient craftsperson of the poetic line and the poem-space in general, Chandler’s uniqueness lies in her ability to weave a golden thread of compassion through her narratives that (for the most part) steer clear of the obvious or the mawkish. Chandler is a consummate observer using form not to ornament or to sanitize but to execute an active investigation into how the individual manoeuvres within constraint and suffering.

In Pointing Home, the poet turns her eye to memory and places and people lost, documenting human struggle, identifying evil within the ordinary, and reaching out to understand the unfamiliar. Divided into six sections, the book balances the observational, the political, and the autobiographical. In the fourth section of the book (“Other Folk”), Chandler enacts a reaching outwards to encompass a range of unexamined lives: supermarket cashiers, migrants at the US Canadian border, and (in the enclosed series “Shakespeare’s Sisters”) a trio of women suspended between the obligations of the everyday and creative/fantastical impulses. In “Nines” (whose title refers to the nine millimetre weapons used by the shooters at Columbine High School, West Nickel Mines School, and Sandy Hook Elementary), the poet calmly moves through three nine-line stanzas, detailing the fire drills and duck-and-cover bomb drills of her youth, followed by those regarding the lockdown drills of present day. The lines of the poem are varied in length and have, threaded through them, the names of the victims in the three aforementioned shootings. Chandler’s variations speak to us with plainspoken urgency: how are we to contain such horrifying loss within a manipulated universe of numbers? By the time we come to the final stanza, the chaos is offered, if not a solution, then (through a play on words) a means through which to begin to process the unimaginable:

Now they have lockdown drills
—Ana, Anna, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel—
Color-codes, metal detectors
—Madeleine, Marian, Mary, Matthew, James, John—
designated hiding places
closets, corners
Where active shooters
Can never, ever, find you
—Noah, Rachel, Benjamin, Jesse, Naomi, Isaiah,

Chandler’s own perspective as a Catholic does not overwhelm the delicacy of her form or narrative with iconography or pat prescriptives. Rather, as in the work of the late Timothy Murphy (whom Chandler remembers in “For Tim, On the Eve of Battle”) and Jennifer Reeser, her faith is a means of grappling with unknowable outcomes that cannot be ordered or predicted. In the poet’s “Edward Hopper Triptych”, Chandler dares not to impose a reality upon the subjects of the American artist’s paintings, but rather, to think with them, noticing herself as a sense-maker. “Love it while you can”, the poet exhorts the solitary figure in “Pennsylvania Coal Town (1947)”. All we can do is observe, absorb and try to find that elusive thing, grace, in the most obscure or incomprehensible of moments.

Such moments occur in the book’s third section, “(Madison Street”) which arguably exerts the strongest gravitational pull in the collection. In this cycle of modified sonnets, the poet reflects upon her upbringing in late 1950’s/early 1960’s Pennsylvania, a time in which presupposed innocence unrolled against (and sometimes dovetailed with) a backdrop of anxiety, the marked fear of the unknown and The Other (embodied here by such disparate elements as unease around the entrance of an unmarried mother and the ascension of the Soviet satellite Sputnik) that characterized the Cold War. In contrast with the promoted values of neatness and order celebrated by the era, we see in action the breathless transgressions of innocents (the boy in “Sputnik” who longs to “soar! soar!”), the simmer of feminine desire and agency (“Boots”, “Retail Therapy”, “Bully”, “Kitty Kramer”), as well as the lurking of the horrible unknown. Sonnet cycles can, in the wrong hands, transform into overly indulgent traditionalist meditations on the same topic or disjointed musings; however, the poems in “Madison Street” line up like a neat row of houses or apartment windows, full of imperfect happenings and unpredictable futures. Chandler works well with such tensions and uses the iconography of the period to devastating effect. “Skip”, which refers to a family dog, begins with the bounding wholesomeness of an episode of Father Knows Best:

The misnamed Grayces own a mutt called Skip,
who chases every bike and car and truck
that makes it down our street. This caper drives
the neighbours nuts. With every yap and yip
we cross our fingers Skip runs out of luck. (1-5)

This is where the containment of the sonnet turns in on itself. At the volta, we learn of the climate of tyranny and abuse that haunts the Grayce home. The errant dog’s role is now to love and long for the third child:

[…] who bought a hunting knife—
an H.H. Buck—with babysitting wages,
and for some unknown reason took her life.

The plainspoken neatness of the sonnet’s ending underlines the certainty that nothing is certain, even and especially in a time and place where ordering mechanisms of society and religion—and even of love —cannot stave off disaster.

Chandler’s translations of works by lesser-known poets writing in Spanish are skillful and sensitive (the most remarkable of these, for the reviewer, were of Idea Villariño’s “Midday” and Delmira Agostini’s “The Split”); however, they seemed somewhat misplaced in this collection, drawing the reader’s attention away from the body of Chandler’s own work, the delicate energies that move between the state of observing and the state of being. A dedicated collection of these—or a series of chapbooks—would have been optimal. This observation is but a technicality; Pointing Home, is a fine and haunting addition to the oeuvre of a wry and sensitive poet whose work offers much to a world that threatens to override grace at every turn.


Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, Canada. She is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Biblioasis, 2013) which received the 2014 Pat Lowther Memorial Award and Let the Empire Down (ibid., 2016) as well as the chapbook On the Oven Sits a Maiden (Frog Hollow Press, 2018). Oliver is the co-editor (with Annie Finch) of Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters (Everyman's Pocket Poet Series, 2015) and, together with Pino Coluccio, curated Canadian formalist poetry review The Rotary Dial from 2013 to 2017. She holds an M.A. in Drama from the University of Toronto and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at The University of Southern Maine and is currently a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

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