Saturday, October 27, 2018

Reading T.S. Eliot to a Bird by David Chorlton

Reviewed by Cynthia Anderson

What would a bird think of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”? My guess would be, not much—which David Chorlton confirms in the title poem of his latest collection. The bird in question, a tame starling, pecks at the words on the printed page, then proceeds to go about his business with no concern for the words read aloud—“as creatures do / for whom the present moment / is the only unit of time.”

The real question is, what do we humans think of birds? In these poems, Chorlton shares his love of the “chattering, whispering world,” letting the stories of animals bring us to a fuller appreciation of this fragile planet. From jaguars and moths to ocelots and trojons, these poems are fully inhabited by non-humans—and filled with the sense of time immemorial they emanate. We meet “ants in columns leading back all the way to creation”; we are told “the wind cannot be known” as it provides “no information about its place of origin”; we learn about a river that cannot be known either—“it kept changing course and defied the mapmakers, who grew desperate.”

Chorlton is a careful observer, using spare, vivid language to convey the tragic losses and degradations of other species that are mounting around us. In “Jaguar Variations,” an extended meditation on that elusive hunter, he writes, “Nobody knows / how it feels to break out / from mythology and tear a piece / from the world to satisfy an appetite / the feeding of which requires / all the space civilization left unused.” The jaguar, managing to find a place where he can still relish his solitude, has “no way to know / in the moon’s stony light / how close he is to being / the last one of his kind.”

In “A Black Witch Suite,” the black witch moth assumes mythic proportions, a sign whose presence transcends time—“In the Aztec twilight / many souls turned into / moths. To this day / they have endured. / Whenever an empire burns, / flakes of the ash / float through the centuries / on the breath of immortals.”

The story behind haboobs, those towering walls of dust bearing down ever-more-frequently upon Phoenix, comes to life in “Dust”—the earth itself flailing at a city that has co-opted everything that came before. Chorlton writes, “not a bargain in sight at the mall, / no progress to believe in, no / history to deny; only the land the white man stole / reassembling itself as a cloud / and moving back to take the city / built where the Hohokam / had once / been neighbors to the sun.”

While Reading T. S. Eliot to a Bird confirms that the waste land is indeed upon us, these poems are studded with moments of quiet, immortal beauty. A flower, the night-blooming cereus, has the last word—“they break open for a night / in which perfume overpowers / the form, the promise / takes the place / of the promised land.” In the tradition of great nature poets like W. S. Merwin, Chorlton uses his mastery of language to help deepen our relationship to the natural world—just when we need it most.
David Chorlton was born in Austria and grew up in Manchester, England. He moved to Phoenix in 1978 with his wife, Roberta, an Arizona native. He is an artist, photographer, teacher of creative writing, and author of nine collections of poetry. To learn more, visit

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Cynthia Anderson's most recent collection of poetry is Waking Life. You can read about all her books at her website Cynthia Anderson, Poet

1 comment:

  1. David sounds very interesting to me.
    As always Cynthia gets to the marrow of the subject with her concise writing.


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