I met Jerri Chaplin fifteen years ago at a conference for the National Association of Poetry Therapy. I was struck at that time by her warmth and genuineness and impressed with her talent. Now she has published a volume of poems entitled Vertically Coastal (Planet Media Books, 2011) that exhibits the same qualities that caught my attention years ago---warmth, genuineness, and talent.
Vertically Coastal is a book about living two lives, each deeply satisfying in its own unique way, and is divided into three sections. The first section is titled Charleston, South Carolina; the middle section Here to There is a transitional (and the title) poem "Vertically Coastal," and section three is called Pittsfield, Massachusetts & The Birkshires. Chaplin and her husband of 25 years, Peter Herman, spend late fall to early spring in South Carolina and early spring to late fall in New England.
Traveling from Charleston, South Carolina, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts and back again, Chaplin and her poems dance up and down the Eastern seaboard with charm and grace, like the dancers she writes about such as Baryshnikov and Savion Glover. Dan Valenti, in his 15 page introduction to Vertically Coastal, observes that Chaplin writes about destinations, saying that Chaplin writes about "having arrived" rather than about "traveling hopefully."
Life is not just about travel and dance. There are also days of rest--a snowy spring Sunday in Manhattan-- when "The plane home folds its wings/ like origami/ under the weight of snow,/ crosses its chest in the stance of/ no negotiation." And there are slow Thursdays in the South: "Everything runs slow in the South;/ the snow due at five falls at eleven....We climb into bed at ten in the morning..." ("Slow Thursday")
Weather, somewhat more predictable in New England, can be problematic in the south. On Sunday mornings in Charleston the meteorologists say, "When you head out to church this Sunday morning, your weather will be...." Chaplin wonders "If I do not head out to church,/ will I have completely different weather?/ What if I am Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or,/ God forbid, an atheist?" Will she get "hailstones and lightning instead of cottony clouds and clear blue skies." More than simply weather is problematic, and not just in the south.
Like Gustav Flaubert, Chaplin looks for "le mot juste." She strives to find not just the right word but also, following the dictum of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "the best words in the best order." One delightful example of "le mot juste" is the use of the word "incontinent" in a poem about a book signing in Charleston. Chaplin writes that in the middle of a book signing her pen "went incontinent." What an appropriate image! I have often wondered what was happening to my pen. Now I know.
Chaplin's intimate and conversational poems are imbued with a powerful sense of place. One can almost taste the salty Charleston air and smell the apple crisp New England fall. Chaplin writes not only about the places that she loves, but the people, including her husband and her two sons, writers she admires such as Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and W. B. Yeats among others, as well as about her passion for poetry and dance. Dance is a central image in Chaplin's poetry, and it becomes a primary metaphor for her approach to life.
In an online interview with Juliana Baggott, Chaplin answered the following question about place and poetry.
Baggott:. "Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your characters?"
Chaplin: "Yes, because place shapes persona. Vertically Coastal is all about living seven months in Charleston, SC, and five in the Berkshire Mountains. of MA. The places differ and I am different in each one. Hawaii, my growing-up place, definitely impacted my character and personality. I’ve lived in Israel and Ireland, both of which I love. As a Jew, Israel is my spiritual home."
Fittingly, Vertically Coastal opens with a poem about a Carolina carriage horse and concludes with a poem about a Boston taxi driver. Wherever Chaplin is, she is home.
Jerri Chaplin is a certified poetry therapist and poet. She served as the first poet-in-residence at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston (1996). Her work has been widely published and anthologized, and her poems have won many awards, including honors from the Poetry Society of South Carolina. For two years, Chaplin served as vice president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, and in 1999 NAPT awarded her the Outstanding Achievement Award. You may read more about Chaplin on her web site or purchase her book Vertically Coastal on Amazon.
---Penne J. Laubenthal
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