Daphnis & Ratboy
Daphnis & Ratboy (2009) is the first and long-overdue book-length collection of poems by Jim Chapson. From start to finish, he presents a stunning body of work that deftly moves between razor sharp satire and passionate spiritual concern. While terms like "clarity" and "truth" may be out of vogue in today's poetry world, Chapson avoids obfuscation or trendy syntactical [End Page 312] tomfoolery with a writing style that blends arresting Roman precision with Zen-like calm—one thinks of Reznikoff. Daphnis & Ratboy is not altogether detached (or "objective"), but the author successfully avoids any vain theatrics that might disrupt the flow of his language.
Consider "Idyll 1," a poetic dialogue between two characters, Daphnis and Erik, beneath a willow tree, ". . . where the Milwaukee river gurgles / against the bank exposing the tangled roots."The seven-part serial poem is a tranquil meditation on lost love, aging, and gay sexual longing. For Chapson, it follows that such feelings bring us back to our souls and remind us of the beauty within suffering, ". . . At last he appears. Dark moons under his eyes. / He's met a girl; a pubic rash / all that remains of their sweaty fucking." Though sometimes seemingly rude in their bluntness, the poems convey an invisible message—something about humility, love, and God. While clearly influenced by Japanese and Chinese verse, the poetry contains an overtly Christian worldview that does not shy away from Western philosophical questions. Oddly, Chapson employs the American coot (a midsize water bird) as a metaphor for such concerns in a series of poems, ". . . coots /paddle oblivious / to their own / insignificance." While the reader must guess at his identification with the bird (perhaps venturing a trip to Lake Michigan) it is clear that, for Chapson, coots holds the key to understanding life. ". . . Given the state / of our country—divided / depressed / governed by the venal, / delusional men—/ rule by a flock / of coots / could only be welcomed." Various other subjects are considered—Baby Showers, Chickens, Billy Collins—all managed with nimble wit and careful attention to narrative rhythm. In "Donkey," the lone animal watches from a grassy patch as soldiers crucify Jesus, ". . . lifting him up above the others, with a servant / at either side, in recognition of his qualities, / whatever they might be." In "The Birthday of Ignatius of Antioch," a spectator in the Roman coliseum provides the description, ". . . While the slaves dragged the carcass off, / the crowd started booing, / so the trumpeters jumped up to herald the main event, / and the muscled gladiators marched in, glistening / with oil."
Versed in Christian mythology and history, Chapson is also well grounded in the present. In "To Do Today" he asks us to ". . . consider nursing homes / and the moral arguments against suicide."There is sarcasm in his tone, but also a determination to live in the world received. ". . . Perform the evening ritual purification by water. / Renounce success. Solicit sleep." For him, every day possesses holiness worth considering. Chapson is also quite capable of balancing sentiment with irony—In "Enewetok" (a reference to his Hawaiian childhood) a strange uncle speaking Pidgin English [End Page 313] visits with sea shells brought from the nuclear proving grounds. "My father let us keep the shells in the garage / where I held the speckled cowries and cones, / the flesh-pink conches, uneasily aware / they might hold invisible poisons that could kill us all."
All of the poet's memories contain significant details that remind readers of the ghosts surrounding them. The spirit of Michael Hartnett is conjured up in "The Poet Hartnett" along with John Jordan in "A Wasted Life." Chapson came to know these men through his forty-year partnership with recently departed poet James Liddy—all are unmistakable influences. Along with Ireland, the remembered paradises of San Francisco and New Orleans contain scenes of drunken revelry and love affairs (". . . we rocked and rolled / in tropic heat / until worn out / we fell asleep.") However, one gets the sense such ephemeral pleasures no longer satisfy. In "Oh Heart" the poet watches an old woman hold her magnifying glass over a prayer book, ". . . I see / two words / fill up / that lens: / Sweet Jesus. / O heart / of mine / be like / that glass." So much is felt through such sparse language. By this, Chapson serves as an excellent example of a poet who strives to remain simultaneously complex and highly readable. There is also an affinity with major satirists like Pope, Rochester, and Pound—models for a kind of poetry that is always as sharp as it is entertaining.
That said, Chapson will most appeal to those with both a sense of humor and a belief in the transformative power of Christian love. My one complaint regarding this book is its length; at fewer than one hundred pages, there is much to be desired. It is clear that the author has presented what he considers to be his best work so far. However, given the confident and fluid pace of the poems as a whole, I expect there is more work to discover. Owning this collection is all the more essential because, like Li Po or C. P. Cavafy, Chapson feels no need for public display—though one might catch a glimpse of him at student-sponsored readings around Milwaukee. Poet-prankster Kent Johnson has remarked of him, "He is completely unknown." I hope this collection will change that.