Monday, November 30, 2015



The Red Dress by Billie Chernicoff
(Dr. Cicero Books, New York / Rio de Janeiro / Paris, 2015)

To define music by Chernicoffs book: clarity of expression deftly imaged and felt as if feeling were a study of its own. The result is masterful, and like all masterful works we for some reason want to discover that it was written to a system instead of acknowledging the capacity for genius. Man is marvelous! says Pico della Mirandola, but concerning our fellows achievements, oddly faithless. When we find the most generous works the question is inevitably: how did you make this?

Kimberly Lyons calls The Red Dress, a kind of tarot, shifting[] and rightly so, because like tarot we dont know where meaning begins (Egypt?) until it means us. Chernicoffs tarot-like poems attend that place closest to us: the imageless heart, the generative core, where things start to happen; and Chernicoff views these happenings because they are her influence, the in-flow of perception kept to its highest register.

            Hold that color in mind
            till thought gathers in the lungs
            and lips shape the instant
            as you are able
            make visible all your animals.

            [p. 37]

It is precisely here, where thought gathers in the lungs, the poet suddenly finds herself observed, by language, by the poem, by the sky:

            Do you see her skip
            out, red dress, aleph
            fire escape, zed?

            [p. 3]

Music marries the heart to its perceptions: marries inward and outward, or as the poet says in her ars poetica, About:

            the poem is about you
            if anyone, its because music
            makes words want to say something
            a hum in the ear
            a thrum you know where.
            Dont think I wouldnt rather write about
            something other than the sky again.
            But its the sky that comes to me
            in the morning like its my responsibility.


A piece of marginalia recently made its way to me, depicting a small frame wherein a man was stabbing a lion. It became clear to me this lion was generated by the man, and represented some aspect of him more real than its apparency. [w]ho is the witness of all this seeming? [p.68]. Its apparency was in fact a ruse, put on briefly so the man could become aware of it, and symbolically do away with it (what else is a symbol?) to inhabit that essential, unseeable part of himself. So Billie does it. But what then? Billie does that too, in the poem Ever she finds herself on the other side of Language. Other side of her book:

            Some say Marco Polo invented Hangzhou and some that
            he invented Venice, and rumors distill themselves over time
            into lagoons and mirrors, poets and courtesans, our tercets
            under the pines.
            In one dream books fall from shelves and I shelve them
            differently, according to color of binding, ornamentation of
            font, date of publication, ciphers encoded in the marbled
            Italian endpapers, sheen of the gilded edge.


She can indeed read the ciphers. But how? Chernicoffs initial Do you see her skip/out, red dress, aleph/ fire escape, zed? presents us with just such a cipher. Existence on the perceptive side of language, where red dresses can be seen in all their seeming, occludes our realization of the other side, where the ciphers are made, and the world is arranged, or rearranged. Occludes, however, is an injustice to what Billie has given us. Her red dress is a portal, the magic garment that is our token for transport to the other side of the sky.

Lets finally admit there is no difference between the inner and outer world. What I am calling Chernicoffs other side is that same imageless heart she unstintingly attends, and to where all things tend: is Egypt, and each perception is baptized in it, struts out from its waters fully grown. Or as she writes in Nocturne:

            Night has a body
            confusable with stone
            and with bread.


Or here, in The Desire of Language

            Waking with this lingo
            not in my head exactly
            the words & I born together
            into the day

                        & the words feel
            like my real body, made of
            cool air, bird song
            & crow talk,
            an old cotton sheet.


Chernicoff lets jive all modes of perception. Every modality of reading I am aware of is discoverable in this book (rather, Chernicoff reminds us of so many, it feels like surely all of them): and if theres one thing I could ask of readers its to read front to back; although each poem glories in entity, Chernicoff is one of those rare poets who can be said to write not just poems, but books.


Tamas Panitz is a poet, currently living in Hudson NY. He is the author of Blue Sun (Inpatient Press); and two chapbooks found at His work is forthcoming most imminently in the journal Open Space.

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