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Eunice de Chazeau

The following, in lieu of a literary bio, which we do not have, is a perspective on the work of Eunice de Chazeau by Tom Merrill:

In a review of Sara Teasdale's final book, Strange Victory, that appeared in the 1933 autumn issue of The Lyric, Lizette Woodworth Reese, herself a fine lyric poet, sums up her appraisal of the slim valedictory volume by dubbing it “A distinctive and lovely handful.”  It contained only twenty-two poems, some of them only a few lines long.

In Born Permeable, Eunice de Chazeau’s second published poetry collection but her first intended for adult readers, I’ve counted fifty-six. While a larger handful than Sara’s, I suspect it's likely also to be the only handful, at least to represent her poetic powers at their fullest—a surmise I reach by noting the distance in time between its arrival on the scene (l992) and her own (1905). Yet this probable single handful is no less remarkable, it seems to me, for comprising a smaller garden of delights than other poets have created. And considering when it came out, in a time far less hospitable to verse meticulously and lovingly crafted than were the days of Teasdale’s literary prominence, one might even regard its appearance as verging on the miraculous.

Among her poetry’s consistent rare features are elegant syntax, crisp evocativeness and a knack for turning the commonplace into the memorable. A yard party one night, with live music and dancing, yields

            Morning I found
            the ivy torn,
            the gutter littered
            with broken glass.
            A revel of heels
            had scarred the ground
            and ravaged the grass.

As one reads on, one increasingly is struck by howcontrary to the familiar apothegmshe seems able to turn any sow’s ear into a silk purse. Visits to Sicily seem to have occasioned several of her poems, and evidently on one of them, the igniting spark was nothing more supramundane than a donkey’s braying. In the luminous result, "Apostrophe to a Sicilian Donkey," she addresses the inspiring beast of burden who caught her ear in lines of free verse that, as well as revealing deep empathy, are full of beauty and poignancy:

            Noons on the switch-back we have met:
            You, saddled with bulging bales that brushed the rock
            and protruded over the precipice;

            and on the interminable stairs,
            you, bearing double, rider and brick, your ankles  
            quivering as if to snap

            but steadying as you made the step.

Speaking as handsomely as she does here, and throughout the poem, for one of our fellow creatures, she might have won the admiration of as substantial a poet as Elinor Wylie, one of whose several poems on the same theme comes to mind: “Man the egregious egotist/(In mystery the twig is bent)/Imagines, by some mental twist/That he alone is sentient/Of the intolerable load/Which on all living creatures lies/Nor stoops to pity in the toad/The speechless sorrow of its eyes….” But wonderful as Wylie’s poems are, they do not seem to me more remarkable than Chazeau’s stunning free verse address to the humble donkey, who gains a deeper place in our affections by the grace of her moving representation.

And did I mention verbal virtuosity? In “Ode to a Jukebox” she pulls all the stops, building to the linguistic equivalent of a riveting pyrotechnic climax:

            Percussion pummeling monotone
                      stifles the tune,
                      stifles the tune,
            stifles the tune and twangs the bone.
            Alex and Tassie, soft of foot,
                      try the floor with half a shuffle and put
                      hands to shoulders, listening
            while a havoc of brasses splits the string
            of a cello.  They leap, they poise and wring
                     themselves in the act of flight:
                      divine contortion torn from the trite
                      pant of color and groove-trapped sting:
                                   Two leopards in a dappled light.

            Then like an unprovoked assault
            The coin-consuming rhythms halt.
            Bodies freeze in a fierce gestalt
                     that melts into mediocrity,
                     blank-eyed as it was before
            while the reek of stale intensity
            and the dust of silence settle to the floor.   

Chazeau was no ordinary poet, and when she begged the goddess, in her beautiful "Plea to Mnemosyne," to

            grant me a shred of your powers
            that I may compel
            the years to be with me while I spell
            the wonder and the strangeness of my hours…..

one may conclude, with total conviction, that her prayer was answered.

Amen! Here's another review, this one by Leslie Mellichamp:

What a joy to discover poems like these in our time! Consider the last stanza of "Communion":

            Shaped and quickened clod,
                    troubled with a head;
            take and eat his body.
                    Be thankful it is bread.

How could the human condition be better epitomized than in those first two lines? How could resolution be put more pithily than in the last two? Consider "Accumulations," in which the poet in her late years pokes around in an attic where "whispers in yellowing envelopes...tingle my ears and tighten my throat."  "Am I the attic, cobweb calm," she asks,

            My childhood bisque face down in a trunk
            at rest beside velvet, high-button shoes?

Or in a different mood and tempo:

            Very thin.
            I'll slice the April moon
            very thin
            and taste its wafers one by one
            as if they were the body of a god.

Clearly we have a poet with an unusual gift for metaphor and an excellent ear for language.  We hear the "mumble of windows" in the wind, the "sleek scratching of thorn against glass"; we hear a "sky ... cracked by the cry of swallows" and meet "children bright as balloons"; we hear the dark "pierced ... by stiletto cries" and see and hear the "pounce of dropping nuts." No false notes; all ring true.

Variety of theme and form characterize this volume. Form ranges from tight quatrains to free (but musical) verse. Themes range from an apostrophe to a burdened Sicilian donkey ("It's no surprise that you protest the rising sun with a yodel") to an ode to the automobile ("We must ... be hithered and thithered"). And she can tell a good tale as in "Passing the Arch of Ch'i," a narrative of several pages.

Born in 1905, Eunice de Chazeau speaks intimately but without self-pity of age and death.  In "Weight of Years" she observes

            A figure of speech it seemed
            when young sleep was a vanishing,
            but days deposit stone
            in the metaphor.

and in "Preparation for Death"

            Children and friends I see
            as through a telescope,
            distant and fine, their motions
            all symmetry and grace,
            their flaws invisible.

How far all this is removed from our shrill and narcissistic literary epoch!  And how engagingly sane. The notion that poets must be at least half-mad is a dubious gift of some of the great Romanticsthe power of most great poets from Chaucer to Frost comes from their penetrating sanity. Eunice de Chazeau's poems have this quality, abundantly leavened with imagination, sure imagery, and precision of language.

Memory of My Father

Standing ankle deep in this black river
silted with death, I feel the rush of it
like chains and the cold of it like a collar
of locked iron. I look to the mid-stream lit
only by the pallor of your face that flows
most terribly away; but no lament
is uttered across the water that will close
secretly over you when you are spent.

You, who were always a strong swimmer, would dive,
abhorring the gradual, and skim below
the ripple, while I gasped for fear you would never
come up. Then, like a seal, you would break above
the surface and I would breathe. Sinking now
will you be able to hold your breath forever?

Man of Many Clocks

He chose them for a chime
or possibly a face.
Once a whispering chain
won him. He loved their gears
and the intricate brass
of their interiors.

He had a leaning toward
the elaborate, often
approving one that wore
a porcelain festoon
of fruits and flowers or took
an interest in the moon.

He never asked the hour,
it being always there;
a syncopated shower
of tickings, whirrs and tocks
to be amonga small
eternity of clocks.


At your peril try
      to reason on your pain
or make God answer why
      the bystander is slain.

Shaped and quickened clod
      troubled with a head;
take and eat his body.
      Be thankful it is bread.

Memory of My Mother

She saw him, knew, and waited for a year
that he should ask; then gave her perishable body
without vanity. Leaving the rectangular
town and reassurance of deep sod, she
followed him where crag and glacier
stab the sun, and rivers plunging flay
their stones. She lay beside him on sand, her
dreams unsheltered from the Milky Way.

Had she known how quickly days would spill
their splendor, only dregs of time be left
had she known how at last, and by his will,
her ashes and bones would be strewn to drift
with his in troughs of ocean, nevertheless,
eyes wide with fear, she would have answered yes.

Young Musician

Orpheus pouts because the lyre
but half provokes the answering air.
Orpheus frowns that only he
is perfectly aware.

Below, the patient listeners
watch the crystal fall of sound
and touch the flowers that spring and melt
on music-inundated ground.

Orpheus pleads with every string
for life and death and full delight.
The seven voices, glistening,
gush and break in prismed flight,
then echo to the hushed as they
bemused with wonder, move away.

For them there is not yet to be
heaven and hell and Eurydice.

Fourth of July Ode to the Automobile

Marvel of manifold shapes and enamels,
         under the sun in parking lots, a jewel,
         mystery geared and gadgeted to be moved
         by a thumbed button, plaything forever
                              serve and be near us,
                                   Idle and hear us!

On this festival hasten to claim your due:
         six hundred at random we scatter before you.
         Even the latest born we will not withhold.
         Our gift is more blood of young than bone of old.
                             Be appeased by this measure
                                    We trade for pleasure.

Though the mainspring of time be snapped and unraveled,
         the land laced with asphalt, the eye of the city withered,
         mind, we must nevertheless be hithered and thithered.
         We must be traveled.
                             So purr for us on our last day
                                     as you trundle us smoothly away.

I, Gardener,

am the god of this small earth.
My will prevails within its boundary.
My whim determines worth.

By my command these rocks shall be
laid up to silhouette the morning sun
and shade the anemone.

This pool shall clarify its cup
of sand, enlarge the motion of these fish
and bear the lily up.

My cedar, narrow sentinel,
shall exclaim against the pallor of the sky
with prim, funereal quill.

Never will I begrudge the sum
required to enrich the peony or rose,
phlox or delphinium

but what I cherish must obey
and live within the limits of my law
or be pulled and cast away.

I deem the proper fate of grass
is to be sheared and decree that all first buds
be pinched. I will harass

chicory and goldenrod
exposing their root, and banish dock, thistle
and garlic from my sod.

I will set poison for the mole,
dust to death the aphid, never ask
has the severed worm a soul.

Yet I will tolerate the moth and bee,
welcome the warbler and the wren, and catbird
if he chirp no irony.

Apostrophe to a Sicilian Donkey

It's no surprise that you protest
the rising sun with a yodel to erode
surrounding hills and end my sleep.

The day, staggering to its feet,
lifting its load of cloud just high enough
to let through streaks of green and gold,

bodes nothing but burdens hauled up hill,
search for footing on cold cobblestones
and the tongue-flick of an adder whip.

It's no surprise that after fodder
and before the work begins you have your say:
lusty self-pity's broken voice.

Mornings I have seen you clopping
mildly up a narrow street, hitched
to a cart of artichokes. Your driver

stopped at every laundry line
to cry his vegetables. You hung your head,
lowered your red-gloved ears and slept.

Noons on the switch-back we have met:
you, saddled with bulging bales that brushed the rock
and protruded over the precipice;

and on the interminable stairs,
you, bearing double, rider and brick, your ankles
quivering as if to snap

but steadying as you made the step.
Your breath came hard but quietly. The man
astride you shouted his conscience out.

And I have seen you coming home
the long miles from the field up to the town,
you and the laborer together

with faggots and sweet bag of hay
the two of you and all the load you bore
swaddled in a wordless, slow content.

Nodding to your walk you time
the gradual infolding of the day
gathered from such distances.

And finally, unburdened, free
and fed, you raise once more your jointed voice
until the aching hillsides bray.

Plea to Mnemosyne
Goddess of Memory)

Mother of things precious
things thunderous and still;
grandchild of Chaos,
who lurks in the spill
of waters and the smallest grass;
daughter of earth, begotten
by incest among planets; keeper of 'then,'
'once,' and 'tomorrow;' binder of men,
grant me a shred of your powers
that I may compel
the years to be with me while I spell
the wonder and the strangeness of my hours.

Mysteriously you hide
in a voice's timbre, whiff of dill, a gray-eyed
infant's glance. You glide
through my hair, wind from a sea-washed place;
and with a brush of kissing you erase
the tasteless "now." You give what's gone
another life.

You hand me and I climb escarpments
gazing back and down
on distance clarified. Mnemosyne,
I beg you, don't disown
or leave me,
spitted on one pinnacle of time.

Grandmother's Garden

Guarding the arched entrance
fiercely, densely, the rose,
a rambler cluster-pink,
reached out to grab my hair.

I ducked under and paused
where cinder paths had been.
Tall, weedy survivors
spreading, preempted them:
foxglove, day lilies, vetch
blooming to remind me
of the fragile and the lost.
Brash, they had forgotten
what order she once kept.

I rummaged the tall grass
for vines I knew and found
a strawberry, sun-red.
Sucking my fruit I sat
on the marble bench and wept.

Ode to a Jukebox

On Saturday, the day of no demand,
         Alex fondled in one hand
                     a second beer,
                     feeling a mere
hint of what evening might portend.

In nearby booths were one or two
like him, uncertain what they wished to do...
          sipping, seeking, something new.
                     Opposite Alex, Tassie sat
                      slant-eyed as a sleepy cat
                      subliminally animate.

The juke box waiting a customer's prod
                      riffled its red,
                      riffled its red
           silent but gorgeous as a god.

           Somewhere a coin clicked in.
           Mechanically clutched, the platter
           settled with plastic clatter.
           The velvet wheel began to spin
           the diamond point to mutter.

                      Love is a lonesome urge
                      and music its melancholy purge.
                      In tumid monotone they merge.
            The listening ear by yearning bent
            gives gender to the voice ambivalent,
            baritone or alto swung supine
between the banal cadence and relentless rhyme.

            Drop a coin!  A dream is there
                      that they who crave
                      that they who crave
            the iterate moan may sit and stare.

 One couple scarcely dancingspent
            by the trumpet's breathlessness
sways to the trombone's bloated discontent.
            Alex and Tassie, seated yet, digress
                       from boredom they invent
            to melodrama: syncopated stress.
            Low-lashed their eyes accuse;
            Wordless, their parting lips abuse.
They play at love rejected and rehearse the blues.
They take to drink, gulping their alcohol.
                       They coax their fall
as Eve and Adam did by clothing their desire
                       with numbness over erotic fire.

             Drop a coin, ignite the flare
                       The neon night
                       the neon night,
             the neon night will twist the glare.

Quivering like a switch-blade bared
             the snare-drum threatens; the oboe paired
             with the double bass ties knots in the beat,
             stops the box's breath. Its bosom heat
turns blue and red to a purple strangle
                       with arteried green,
                       a varicose tangle,
a jungle that little by little ingests a spleen.

Alex leaps to his feet alert
              like an animal in alarm
Tassie can feel from his fingers the hurt
              as he holds her arm,
but the pain is only a mute on the thin
              agitation of the violin.

A cymbal releases the knot, red flows
through the saxophone and the jukebox glows
              like coal by a bellows invisibly fed.
                         Alex and Tassie pose,
                                        then tread
                         they come together, insinuate
              a moment of mating, but brush-rattle fate
 slurs and deters them.  They separate.

Percussion pummeling monotone 
              stifles the tune,
              stifles the tune, 
stifles the tune and twangs the bone.
Alex and Tassie, soft of foot,
              try the floor with half a shuffle and put
hands to shoulders, listening
              while a havoc of brasses splits the string
              of a cello. They leap, they poise and wring
themselves in the act of flight:
              divine contortion torn from the trite
              pant of color and groove-trapped sting:
                          Two leopards in a dappled light.

Then like an unprovoked assault
the coin-consuming rhythms halt.
Bodies freeze in a fierce gestalt
              that melts into mediocrity,
              blank-eyed as it was before
while the reek of stale intensity
and the dust of silence settle to the floor.

Alex and Tassie breathe and wait
the command of another brush-rattle fate
              while the box, the unmoved mover,
              sits multiple-hued and chromed,
              smug as the beloved lover,
resplendent as the absolute, enthroned.

Passing The Arch of Ch'i
(With Amah Tai-Tai-San)

At dusk we pass the arch of Ch'i,
     Tai-Tai-San and I.
"Close your eyes and turn away
     lest you meet dead eyes and die."

As we hasten by it, tiptoeing,
     I hear a chisel tap,
A hiss of breath through sharp old teeth
     and hard hands clap.

After the clap, a small soft sigh
     and after the sigh a moan.
"The slave girl weeps," whispers Tai-Tai-San,
     "as she polishes the stone.

"All three, they come to the arch of Ch'i,
     the slave and the artisan
and the general's proud old mother,
      They come," says Tai-Tai-San;

the slave to wipe the marble clean
     of droppings by birds and flies,
and her lover to chisel more perfectly
     the dragon's marble eyes.

"The general's mother with gilded nails
     and jewels around her skull
returns to gloat that the arch is hers
     and none more beautiful.

"The tale is this," says Tai-Tai-San.
     "When the general's mother's slave
let slip and break a precious urn,
     the old woman clapped for her stave,

"commanding the girl be drubbed to death;
     but the artisan bowed and pled:
"Let her live and I'll build for you
     the finest of arches," he said.

"The cunning dowager held her wrath
     in her dry old heart. 'Maybe
I'll forgive the girl if you promise to build
     the arch of all arches for me.'

"Whitest of marble the artisan chose
     for beam and shaft and base,
pink for dragon claw and tongue,
     turquoise and jade for a lace

"of inlaid flowers and insect wings.
     He conceived his work to be
a dream of delicacy and love,
     of power and serenity.

"Two years he chiseled, persuading the stone. 
     At last the arch was done.
The general's mother slyly smiled.
     "True, it's the finest one!"

"Then she clapped for her executioner,
     'Behead this artisan
and the slave also.  I no longer need
     the girl or the clever man,

" 'for now it is mine, the perfect arch
    as all the world may see.
The artisan never will carve another
     more grand than he carved for me!'

"Years later, the general's mother died
     and her soul flew up to perch
like a bird of prey on the pure white span
     of her perfect marble arch."

At dusk as we pass the arch of Ch'i, 
     I shiver while Tai-Tai-San
tells of the general's cruel mother,
     the slave and the artisan.

I hear a moan and I hear a sigh,
     a chisel's tap, tap, tap,
a hiss of breath through sharp old teeth,
     and dry old hands clap.

The HyperTexts