Once by Robin Chapman (Juniper Press, 2005) is a single poem in seven parts. Each part consists of five three-line stanzas, except for the final part, which is three three-line stanzas plus a single line. You would call it a long-lined poem; fourteen syllables to the line is not uncommon. Here and there for emphasis, however, we find the short line: "big as a platter" or "passed her by." Every line is end-stopped, either by punctuation or syntax. Chapman's strict adherence to her chosen structure for this poem serves her well, given the content of the poem; its litany-like materials, which could have been sprawling, are kept in firm control.
The first word of the poem is "once," and "once" occurs often. In essence the poem is a re-counting of this once and this once, and that one – all these moments of amazing particularity and clarity – first love; thousands of horseshoe crabs coupling "as though all the world were lovers;" "earth stars somersaulting in the sandblow;" taking shelter in a hailstorm with her first-born son; seeing the second-born's face in a mirror as he emerged from her "and I knew him then for who he was;" a winter ice storm; the June shallows alive with new frogs; and other such instances.
As I say, the poem is essentially a litany of these moments of wonder, a collage of such surprises, a coat of many colors, every brightness brighter than the other. "Once" piles upon "once;" they accrue, each line another brush stroke. Does the poem fly to pieces or does the center hold?
Happily, Once builds in tension and tempo, in language and image, to crescendo and release, the way good poetry must. "Each time I thought I had entered the ordinary world," the poet says in the concluding part, she found
"... something new
emerging – this day, your face,
this once, each glimpse, every moment
luminous; oh, how can we not kneel down,
and bless the ground."
This luminous recognition, this luscious moment when we fall to our knees and bless the ground – this, folks, is poetry; this is where the heart of poetry beats, and it is where we live too. Let us bless Robin Chapman for recognizing the truth of what she has seen and for holding it up so we can see it as well. A life stuffed with the moment of such moments is what we must aspire to.
At first glance, the illustrations by Lynne Burgess which accompany the text may seem simply-rendered and too literal; yet as with the particularities in Chapman's poem, the simple gestures of Burgess's drawings may become luminous for us, as if something resides at the edge of black line where it meets the white field, if only we could see what's there. And likewise the full-color illustrations on the front and back covers of the book are exactly not too much, almost just about enough.
*Once by Robin Chapman, with illustrations by Lynne Burgess, is available from Juniper Press, PO Box 8037, St. Paul, MN 55108-0037 for $6.95. Add a couple dollars to help with shipping and handling.