Yesterday and Today Arrive in Chalk Song

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Chalk SongChalk Song (Lily Poetry Review Books) is the first book of poetry that I have encountered with a triumvirate of authors – Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans. It’s quite a feat to compose poems with three minds swirling together, especially when I consider all the times I tried to write something by committee and that almost always led to over-simplification, compromises, and confusing text. These authors, however, have succeeded in following the advice of Robert Creeley, “Our approach was guided by Robert Creeley’s collaborations with visual artists, of which he said, ‘if collaboration is to be at all successful, it must be the result of different individuals . . . working together to make something that is larger than sensibility’” (ix). These three authors found a voice who speaks of and to the Paleolithic era, its art and artists, and to today’s eight-plus billion humans.

The concept of this collection of poems was inspired by Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is documentary that explores the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France that contains some of the oldest known cave paintings in the world, dating back to over 30,000 years ago and maybe even 50,000 years ago. In the documentary, Herzog used 3D cameras to capture stunning images of paintings and sculptures. In doing so, he muses on the nature of human creativity and humanity’s connection to the past.

As I entered Chalk Song, I expected, based on the above information, investigations similar to Clayton Eshleman’s many poetry books on Paleolithic art which often through dream imagery examine the Paleolithic art and artists and the roots of human consciousness, or my collection of poems on Paleolithic art and culture that examines paleolithic art and artists to not only understand them but to better understand ourselves today. The poems in Chalk Song achieve both those ends, but they don’t feel obligated to remain situated in the Paleolithic era. It’s as if their book is a wormhole that not only connects today to the Paleolithic era, but it allows information to move back and forth For instance, there are references to x-rays, shepherds, cameras, cities, a Swiss Army knife, GPS, fortune cookies, etc. More specifically, here are the opening the second and third stanzas and closing stanza of “Codex Collapse Syndrome” (19):

Everything is early, spry with milt, the delicate climate

of arrival, draughts of air so narrow our ears fold back

their sounds. Comb over psalms smelt muzzles

from the overlap of horse heads. Music can’t

caress itself by these long-playing lassoes


Contour before line, overtones before the molten bell

of an opening. We are sphinx-cubs in our hiding places.

The sky on our skin still unhewn,

our scribbled brochures of lighting.


. . .


Anyone can draw a blue bead

on the G.P.S.  forking river for the vector

home, or carve a new nipple


Here, the speaker is navigating in and between two times and comparing methods of mapping. Or later in “Confetti Score” (25), where the speaker is talking to and asking a Paleolithic artist questions like, “If you hands had drawn me, would I have been marooned?” While still in the past, “Someone sneezes” and her (the speaker’s) “heather is cloned.” Then all of the sudden, she see “glyph structures . . . on the Internet.” The past has not only travelled through time, but it has been cloned and digitized and reality becomes blended like “computer strings [hanging] from elms.”

Throughout the collection, the poems, stanzas, and even lines at times behave like the paintings on a Paleolithic cave wall. The paintings in the same cave or even on the same cave wall do not appear to be related or have a narrative flow between them, but they are connected by artists’ visions and by a viewer trying to make meaning of and from them, much like Herzog’s documentary. When combined into the figurative cave of Chalk Song, the poems of three individuals create questions and meanings of our origins and where we are today, which is a place still deeply connected to 50,000 years ago. In essence, the poets indicate that the past is an echo of today.





Batchelder, Gale, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans. Chalk Song. Lily Poetry Review Books, 2022.




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