Under the Music
is cause for celebration, as it gathers over forty years of Maxine Chernoff’s brilliant exploration of a single form: the prose poem. Chernoff, also a writer of fiction, is a marvelous storyteller with impeccable comedic timing. Her pieces abound in witty dialogue, absurdist jokes, sage advice, and a gallery of eccentric characters like “The Man Struck Twenty Times by Lightning,” or “The Woman Who Straddled the Globe.” There is even a poignant conversation between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Brief as these poems are, there is a vastness to the project. By acquiescing to the modest confines of this form, Chernoff discovers a seemingly endless reservoir of curiosity, invention, and delight.
In one of these wonderfully inventive, witty prose poems, a child says “words are the finest toys.” For Maxine Chernoff they are that, certainly, playthings that are moved—seem often to move themselves—into fields of imaginative possibility. The results are brief narratives, capricious and unexpected, fables, though with more in common with Borges and Buñuel than La Fontaine. Chernoff has written and published prose poems for 40 years, reinventing the form into a space where the agile, speculative mind holds sway. Words and the things clutch at, verbal gesturings, implicit characters, all reckoned with in a remarkably clear, direct prose style that leaves, as the best of play always does, their magics in place.
It is time to acknowledge that Maxine Chernoff is a national treasure. And we need her now more than ever. Who has a voice like hers, able to penetrate so deep into the roots of life’s pain and awkwardness and sometime beauty? I could quote any one of these aching, uproarious and, above all, humane pieces and you’d see what I mean. “The Duke of Bavaria was an asshole.” “Do you have sex in Massachusetts?” “Rumors were he was a tuba player, a lumberjack, a rabbi.” “And the woman, because she is sentimental but cautious with her emotions, will say without conviction, I hear they were a family who summered at the beach, who lost their mother, who thought many things and then forgot them.…” You see? And there is more, so much more, verve and sadness and guts and comedy and truth. To read this book is to plunge headlong into life itself.
Publisher: Madhat, Inc. (2019)