“Wild Blackberries”: Claudia Chapline’s poems of transformation

12/07/2017

The prolific Claudia Chapline has given us a new book of poems, “Wild Blackberries: Love Poems,” recently published by San Francisco’s Norfork Press. It’s a small square volume that fits nicely in the hand; it is easy to carry and it’s illustrated with photos of paintings that are collaborations with her recently departed husband and lover, Harold Schwarm.  

Each of the book’s three sections—Honey, Pepper and Salt—represents a stage in their relationship. The longest and most intense is, of course, Honey: the sweet rapture of new love. These poems are mostly short, reminiscent of the haikus Chapline also writes. Like haikus, they are composed of a series of discrete images. The physical world reflects the process of relationship, and the meaning goes beyond the simple words. The collection uses the language of the natural world, as in Plyworks:

 

Foreplay of flowers

tangle dancing at the end

of the rope of everything

bees buzz at the twisting 

vine of our love

 

Through sensual images and natural symbols of love, the reader plunges into moments of ecstasy. The absence of commas, periods or any punctuation at all tells us that this love and the joy it yields cannot be defined or controlled. The poem Sweet Talk, a simple listing of pet names (“you call me honey, pinkie, I call you...”) is a charming demonstration of the playfulness of relationship. The tone in this section is both dreamy and intense, turning common occurrences like buying sunflowers, watching damsel flies and herons, or even a boy skateboarding into symbols of love. An example is the poem Digiridoo-You, which is self-consciously a poem of the aboriginal dream time, showing how the joy of new love emphasizes our connection with the natural world. The poem ends like this:  

 

tell me in the tongues of 

old women and food

speak to me

 

in the desert’s living language

the lizard’s tale 

the termites’ song

 

This elevated awareness is difficult to maintain even in the most perfect relationships, so the poems, with their delightfully plain and simple language, do not all reach the same metaphorical heights. 

We all know that early love does not last; we all have to wake from the trance. The second section starts with a poem called Parting: “Because I love you/I sent you away.” All the complexities of a lover’s separation are there, including the bittersweet feelings in “Love Letter” and “The Couple” (“an impossible match/who could love prickly pears”). There are also blaming and angry feelings in the powerful poem “Your forked tongue cleaves my heart.” The poem, which continues “like an axe splitting wood,” with the words placed in two vertical lines as if to reflect how the ego is shattered in the loss of a critical relationship. Yet after some self-reflection, there are hints of reconciliation in the poem “Bridge,” which ends with Chapline’s nature symbolism and the more subdued joy of an accepting love:

 

the birds are noisy this morning

they are telling each other

fish are jumping

a young blue heron lands on the roof 

 

In Salt, the third and final section that follows the lovers’ reconciliation, the poems look outward. The world has come back into focus and the poet has found her place in that world. The first poem is called Boxes, and acknowledges the modern freedom from restrictive social norms (“Young people climbed out and found love”). The next poem, “I am an American,” is a paean to the multiracial and multicultural heritage of America. After the wide scope of these poems, the focus again narrows. We read of Chapline’s grandmother, a pine tree in the yard, a large moth. These things are no longer symbols of human love or a relationship gone sour; rather, they are part of the world that is now the object of love. There is a description of Stinson Beach in Village: 

 

my village of courtship and marriage

where lovers stroll on the beach

make love down by the rocks

scent of white jasmine

 

Through some evocative and powerful images, Chapline has given us a book of love poems showing the process of an intense relationship that crashed and reconciled into a mature love. Not just a romantic love, but love of country, community, family, people, birds and bugs: an acceptance of the world and everything in it. 

 

Sandra Cross is a 20-year resident of Stinson Beach, where she coordinates the First Thursday Poets and serves on the water district board. Several of her poems have been published in the Marin Poetry Center
Anthology.