Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The origin of language, deep in our past, as a species, or before we evolved into this species, some simian memory gradually transformed, through community and technology—fire, the roasting of some small creature, the sharing of crisped, protein-rich food—into a word, a chain of words, a narrative. “Something about / longing. About loss,” writes Charlotte Pence, in this chapbook, an exploration of such issues, a fantastic re-imagining of, say, the simian mind as it swings through the canopy: “A warbled line—a branch—a feeling / of one limb leading to another.” But of course the poet cannot know “the knowledge lost / before the mind / conceived of language.”
Still, Pence speculates on the origins of myth, the taming of fire, all the while looping back to our present and the present of a specific character (dealing with her own loss, the loss of her father, her own memories beyond language: “She keeps returning to the case of this one large maple that reminds her of a tree she sat under with her father years ago.”) This recognizable present—which we all share—is also framed in evolutionary terms, our moment held against a sort of cosmic scale. While we might know “How to wave / a finger through flame / on Saturday night while drinking PBR. / This, even this, / makes us more / advanced than the dog who / sniffs / the same candle flame and whines.”
I hear echoes, in these pages, of William Carlos Williams, specifically that bit in Patterson where language, poetry, is presented as making particulars general “by defective means,” compared to “Sniffing the tress, / just another dog / among a lot of dogs. What / else is there? And to do?” Pence, perhaps, offers an answer, an alternative origin story of language to that she began with: “We don’t know / that first word, that first word / that spiked a whole new species,” but perhaps it was “Take. / As in: I give this to you.” Thus we go, in the course of twenty-seven beautiful pages, from imagining the origin of human language as rooted in loss to rooted in generosity, communal lament to community formation through gift, through the offering of food and warmth, a place in the circle. Evolution of the species hinging on “A feeling closer to: warmth” and developing, via advances in diet and technology, the sterilization of water, the prying open of mussels, to the point around a fire “where someone eventually / thought to ask: how was your day?” This is a profoundly intelligent and profoundly human little book.
Official Charlotte Pence Web Site
Official Black Lawrence Press Web Site