Jonathan Minton

A Review of Joel Chace's Threnodies

Joel Chace
available as a downloadable pdf
from Moria ebooks

                And all that day, another day:
                Thin husks I had known as men,
                Dry casques
                of departed locusts
                speaking a shell of speech….
                —Ezra Pound, Canto VII

For Pound, the crisis of modernity, with its attendant loss of faith and tradition, and the paralyzing prioritization of the individual over the social, can be felt in the sterility of a new cultural discourse more concerned with the banalities of urban, industrialized life than the ancient values and pleasures of truth and aesthetics. Joel Chace’s remarkable book Threnodies offers a similar diagnosis of the current American cultural crisis. Through the lens of both the modernist movement as well as classical myths and forms, Chace’s lament (“threnody” is the Greek word for a lament or elegy) offers a cogent and important critique of an American culture that has profoundly lost its way.

In the modernist collapse of the early twentieth century, Yeats famously envisioned the “rough beast,” a grotesque and nightmarish parody of revelation, whose “slow thighs” move it across the desert. In Threnodies, the sphinx has come around again, but its menace is less a matter of ambiguity, and more a matter of startling and disruptive incoherence:

                A new Sphinx claws its way over the walls of the city
                of speech. This time the beast is male.
                                                                                           Each day sickness spreads.

                                                             Ramparts would weep if
                                                             they understood.
                                                             To u-
                                                             nriddle the riddling
                                                             double-beast’s singing
                                                             whose music is n-
                                                             ot music at all, da-
                                                             nce that knows no music.

This “new Sphinx” does not slouch its way from a Yeatsian spiritus mundi, but from a particular and entirely political use of language. Its incoherence is willful if not strategic:

                This time it gives us the answer first: catastrophic; and,
                to extripate the curse, we must say, in exact
                words, the riddle.
                                                             But our sentences slur.

                                                             The wo-
                                                             rd of truth
                                                             is si-
                                                             ngular in
                                                             ure, and no fl-
                                                             ying dream.

In other words, our truth bends and warps back into the creature’s maw in a cheapened game-show version of the Sphinx’s riddle. The result is indeed catastrophic, but not one resulting from the rapid and bloody dislocations of war and its technologies at onset of the twentieth century. Here, our words warp towards a singular purpose, one devoid of history or context. The catastrophe is our inability to speak, and the inability to be in the world through meaningful language.

Of course, the sphinx is Donald Trump, or an apt distillation of the odd mixture of narcissism, superficiality, and incoherence that characterizes his American presidency. The first section of Threnodies is a powerful character study of a modern, would-be tyrant. This section’s main character, the “Blond li-/ttle n-/ubber,” is a dark parody of a classical Greek hero. He is not burdened with the terrible weight of fate, as with Achilles or Oedipus, or with the establishment of the polis, as with Theseus, but with the vast weight of his own superficiality and duplicity:

                His parents thought him wise beyond his years. “Of course,” he
                said, “I’d throw my swine and other animals, my
                clothes and bed and desk, my friends, my relatives, before I’d
                and toss a single pearl.”

While he lacks any insight beyond a petty and greedy impulse, he does exhibit an instinct for violent theatricality:

                He wants to hide his feebleness; hence, his cane. And, though
                immaterial, it’s become weapon, mutilating
                those who study him too closely….

                Trembling puddle: he’s on that path though he’s made his cane

The symbolic cane is both weapon and prop, and signals the kind of imbalance or lack of equilibrium that makes isonomia, or equality, impossible. Described by Heroditus as the opposite of oligarchy, isonomia is possible only through dialogue or discourse — with each other, and with ourselves. Equilibrium gives way to the violence and confusion of these stunted and superficial theatrics.

In studying Heroditus, Hannah Arendt likewise concludes that without dialogue or discourse, without a language that recognizes our complex plurality, we cannot be ethically in ourselves or in the world. Threnodies explores how such a stunted and lonely megalomania disrupts any potential for either self-awareness or an awareness of others:

                If the marble steps in the palace, the browning
                fronds, the tall window curtains are sentient, how
                can we say he isn’t? Yet we say it – he isn’t

                                                                            And the fire with-
                                                                            in him is-
                                                                            n’t ele-
                                                                            mental, isn’-
                                                                            t alive.

What astonished Arendt in her study of how certain individuals could galvanize such widespread evil and hatred is the seeming banality of it all. In other words, it didn’t require a depth of resources or planning or ingenuity, but a restless, depthless, superficiality that can spread, to use her metaphor, like mold. In fact, it results, much like a sandstorm, to use her other metaphor, when there is a lack of depth or rootedness to prevent it. The would-be god of Threnodies shares the same radical lack of depth, which is as much a general cultural failure as it is a personal defect: “would he be broader, deeper than / tissue, would we all be living in lesser darkness?” As with the mythic Fisher King, the implication is that the lack of depth or soul or elemental fire is connected to a general cultural malaise or darkness. The superficiality, however, is a reflection, more so than the source, of a culture without depth, and instead saturated with television and twitter:

                                                                            y birds
                                                                            iver his me-

In addition to pointing to these cultural defects, Threnodies offers alternative examples of a discourse aware of its history, and aware of its role in contributing to both aesthetics and ethics:

                Early 17th century: “It is obvious
                that his art is infinite, but it is full of
                attitudes, and moves in an extraordinary way.”

This kind of public discourse is not sustainable through a stubborn and exclusive insistence on social media. The truncated form of the messages delivered with “tiny birds,” with their radical enjambment, mirror the cramped superficiality of twitter in which the words threaten to scatter or break at any moment into incoherence.

This is perhaps the central idea of the book: Our culture cannot produce a good society without long-form thinking and dialogue. Our failure to cultivate the arts, and to root ourselves in an ethical discourse are evident in the fact that we have produced a public figure with such shallow appetites and a shocking lack of an introspective self. As Pound laments in “Hugh Selwen Mauberly,” the “sale of half-hose has / Long since superseded the cultivation / Of Pierian roses.” A cheap commerce, in other words, has replaced deeper concerns for what might be true or beautiful. Of course, aesthetics alone are not enough to guarantee an ethical society, as Pound’s own life so sadly demonstrates, and as Threnodies also makes clear:

                                                                            bled a man out with
                                                                            a stab to the groin;
                                                                            Gesualdo slashed
                                                                            his wife’s neck…

These laments insist, however, that through, or in spite of, the violence and truncated speech, a social dialogue will inevitably emerge:

                                                                            ood has a
                                                                            xicon, spi-
                                                                            lled blood, i-
                                                                            its own.

Language can be stripped of its context and warped into a narcissistic orbit, but it still bears witness to, and traces of, its dislocations. This is especially evident in the last sections of Threnodies in which discourses from ancient Rome, the private thoughts of someone navigating the intrigues of the contemporary business world, and a family tragedy involving the death of a child:

                Dreaded all day telling Jule about her operation

                               knew he had never before so vividly

                                              voluble and fierce of speech. And what others call

                               experience these neighborhoods passing by.

These fragments do not shore against a ruin, but press back towards their source like a kind of scar tissue, or witnesses asking for either resolution or reckoning, if not equilibrium. The disparate voices grow increasingly intermixed until they form a kind of chorus, and a resounding lament for the way in which various subjectivities are consumed by vast, oppressive forces.

                               confusion, and under the disasters of his      presumably faculty or
                               staff. Jule nearly had the croup last night. I had    His
                               impression was that they all    to use steam,    and she country to
                               conceal his private dishonor.    was ok. Close call….

In doing so, they form a powerful verbal collage, and a linguistic public space where these laments gain a resonance that extends far beyond the reach of tyrannies both ancient and modern.

In this way, Threnodies is a timeless book whose scope arcs back to ancient concerns, but it presses hard on the now. American culture is at a crisis, with the fragmentation of reason across increasingly isolated and isolating forms of media, the devaluing of higher education, and especially the liberal arts, a festering racism, and a divisive cult of personality in its politics. The revolution may be coming. But, for now, Threnodies offers a lament and a diagnosis of what has been lost, what we are losing now, and how our language might help us recover it.

Jonathan Minton lives in central West Virginia, where he is an Associate Professor of English at Glenville State College. He is the author of the book Technical Notes for Bird Government (Telemetry Press, 2018), and the chapbooks In Gesture (Dyad Press, 2009) and Lost Languages (Long Leaf Press, 1999). His poetry has appeared in the journals Ecolinguistics, Connotation Press, Asheville Poetry Review, Coconut, E*ratio, Columbia Poetry Review, Reconfigurations, Free Verse, Trillium, and elsewhere. His poetry has also been included in the anthologies Poems for Peace (Dyad Press, 2006), Oh One Arrow (Flim Forum Press, 2007), and Crazed by the Sun (Cyberwit Press, 2008). He edits the journal Word For/Word (www.wordforword.info), and co-curates the Little Kanawha Reading Series.
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