Here is a review of Caught between Coasts on Goodreads:
From Eric Chandler’s blog “Schmotown”:
My wife told me about the dialogue a few years back.
My daughter said, “Mama, someday, I want to marry somebody like Papa.”
My wife asked why.
“Because he’s silly. But he’s also very serious.”
This is probably the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
And somehow it’s what I think of when I think of Jan Chronister’s book Caught Between Coasts (Collected Poems 1989-2018). When I went to hear Jan read at her book release, she struck me the way a stand-up comedian does. She’s funny. I laughed a lot as she made some commentary in between poems. But when I sat and listened to the poems, I was moved on a deeper level.
It got me thinking that she uses humor to deliver the message. Both with her personality and with some hooks in the poems themselves. I read somewhere once that laughter is just a vocal expression of surprise. It’s the unexpected, maybe even the unexpected truth, that makes us laugh. Or on a more subtle level, makes us pay attention. This is the impression I was left with when I read her book. When I went back, I struggled to find the hooks. But they’re there. Maybe they felt like laugh-out-loud twists because I was quietly reading in a chair.
At the end of “Lu-Ray Love” she describes how she was the middle-child, but got the last laugh when it came to her mother’s precious wedding china:
Always the black sheep
climbing out windows
never filling parents’ wishes.
But I am the one with the dishes.
There are so many that get you right at the end in just the right way. I’ve already spoiled one ending so far, so I’ll just say that “Bible Lesson” about a dead cat has a stunning, perfect ending. The last line of “First Grade” gets you about three different ways in the last few words. “In the Doorway” let’s you know how smart the bartender is as he watches a man and woman meet.
The book is broken up into five sections that essentially move from past to future. “Golden Delicious” describes how deer come at night for the apples:
Stretch high like dancers
eat warm sun
buried deep within
This passage reminds me of how my father, a forester who heated our home with wood, called the flames rising from the logs “solar energy.” I guess it’s nearly all solar energy when you think about it. Maybe some of the same deer appear in “Friday Night” and I chuckled at how they knew what month it was.
“Dry Spell” discusses frustration with gardening and ends this way:
I want to dig up the entire yard,
let aspen shoots and daisies
write a better poem.
The aspens will if you let them. Just get out of the way. The apples. The poems about temperature (minus 45) and the ice (gray scab pulling away from shore). The plants. Poems about nature. Poems about family.
And poems about death. “Amnicon Confession” ends suddenly, in the fashion of the others. You wish there was more, but you realize it was just right as you read yourself off the cliff. “Miscarriage” is somehow a comedy about winter being a pain in the ass and then a tragedy in just a few lines. Remarkable. “Hanging On” is one of the best expressions of wanting to stay alive that I’ve read. Clearly written by someone who’s paid attention to the outdoors and the passage of time.
I listened to a podcast once by people that sounded pretty fancy as they talked about poetry. The poet being interviewed dismissed poetry that dealt with politics or current events. She claimed that poetry should be about two things: love and death. Maybe she’s right. I read Jan’s poems and I chuckle at the same time that I feel sad. It’s subtle and wonderful. The cycles of nature and the seasons, which are bound up with human love and human death, in my opinion.
Jan read my book and said to me once, “You write about the same things that I do.” I sure as hell hope so.
Reviewed by Estella Lauter
The target in the title poem of this book about living in northern Wisconsin is the full bloom of summer growth, and the arrows are zinnia seeds, which take the poet by surprise, wounding her poet’s heart long before they hit their intended mark. This first book is as full of such surprises—some delightful, others gut-wrenching—as it is full of strong images, character sketches, family stories and Lake Superior landscapes, sometimes all in the same poem.
Many of the characters are farm women whose husbands have left them through death or divorce—their lives “sucked into the vacuum cleaner/ with lost buttons, stray pins, single earrings” (15). One woman has to be reminded to buy the milk that her husband had always brought home free from the dairy, and the poet wonders why another didn’t know that the thin glass panes of her marriage would turn to dust, or why Aunt Martha didn’t know about “uncle’s Standard Oil stock/under the peeling [wall]paper” (16). The women who survive in this landscape often do so by wearing their steel hearts on their ears as talismans to ward off the cold (12), or by preserving their hidden thoughts like fossils in the limestone steps (26) of “stoic farmhouses” (22). The poet is an archeologist, peeling back the layers and then “backfilling” to preserve the finds “for future digs” (30).
Women also survive in Wisconsin by driving a lot. Farm women who have been displaced by corporate farms drive to work in factories “past brown city snowbanks/ like crumbs on grandma’s white cloth” (24), and the poet goes to North Dakota for “tales of floods and buffalo” (25). In two especially memorable poems, a bird’s wings cracking against the windshield evoke a “quiet universal gasp” (36), and the amaryllis as she passes through Georgia reveal their burning cross. It is while driving in a Wisconsin blizzard, however, that the poet and her husband discover “The Effect of Sleeping Children” on their consciousness.
Family stories enlarge the world of this book. Mailboxes read like a map of Finland (18), and conversation at the poet’s grandmother’s table connects her to Wales (24). Her Montana aunt gives her access to Cheyenne history at Lame Deer. Her grandfather accepts her orphaned mother into his insulin-scarred arms before he is asked. Her father keeps the marbles from her playground games, “discarded planets of a lost universe,/pearls of a forgotten peace” (10). And in the most hair-raising story, a WWI soldier sits down unawares to eat under a tree that holds a decaying Prussian; his helmet falls on the soldier and comes home as a souvenir.
These stoical poems about making one’s way support Chronister’s most ambitious political poem, “French Lilacs,” about the Holocaust in the tradition of Whitman’s elegy for the veterans of our Civil War. It begins with the waiting blossoms and steam rising from a warm road while the poet studies the world’s reluctant reaction to news of the camps during the War and learns of diaries that recorded daily diets of 220 calories. Even in the spring of 1945, children were poisoned and babies were burned. The lilacs finally bloomed when the Allies liberated Auschwitz, and the poet seems certain that they will open again in other years for those who wait.
Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008.
Copyright ©2010 Verse Wisconsin
Comments on Casualties:
Perhaps this small book of poems could be called Survivors because, for every casualty, there is (hopefully) someone to remember and tell the story. Chronister’s poems are short, but there is strength in their brevity. These are poems of the Holocaust and war, of families, survival, and the human spirit’s desire to live. These poems take sharp jabs at history. They simmer with memory and who is responsible. How could this happen? Maybe when the lilacs bloom, there is hope.
Karla Huston, Wisconsin Poet Laureate 2017-2018, author of A Theory of Lipstick (Main Street Rag Publications: 2013) and Grief Bone (Five Oaks Press: 2017).
Review of Casualties:
Jan Chronister’s slim chapbook Casualties contains the strength and power of the people whose experiences she recounts. From soldiers to starving children and dogs in the park, Jan writes with nothing holding her back in order to remind the readers of her poetry that there was nothing casual about the Holocaust. The poignancy and depth of these poems is found in unforgettable verses written in her poem French Lilacs: “Somewhere in Warsaw lies a buried cache of diaries recounting hardships: a daily diet of 220 calories, one egg a month. It’s Spring 1945.” In her poem “If . . .” Jan writes succinctly about wondering how things could have been different had Hitler made a different choice when he was younger. “Would all the WWII memorials in the world be gardens, schools or farms?” I highly recommend this collection be shared, especially in the Creative Writing classroom.
-June Paul, Portage, Wisconsin