I met Jerah Chadwick in Fairbanks in early 1992, for the premiere of the multi-composer, multi-lyricist Mass for Winter Solstice. I particularly enjoyed hearing him read his poetry at a reading during the concert weekend. We go to talk a little bit at dinner at a downtown Fairbanks Thai restaurant later that evening.
I've thought about setting a couple of his poems as lyrics over the years, but other projects have always won out, with no good reason for that.
Chadwick is leaving Alaska for Duluth Minnesota. He's calling it a "trial separation." He's lived in Unalaska since the 1980s, and is one of the most highly regarded Alaska poets, here and elsewhere. Poet Tom Sexton described Chadwick's work for Salmon Publishing in Ireland:
"Chadwick, who has lived on Unalaska Island for many years, has a keen interest in history and myth, two things that are missing from most contemporary poetry. Chadwick's language is terse and for the most part devoid of ornament. He uses simile and metaphor sparingly but to great effect. His world is one where water is 'fractured slat'' and falling snow is 'like static.' It is a harsh world with a brutal history. This collection includes several powerful poems about the Russian conquest of the Aleutians and their near decimation of the Aleut population. One of the book's strongest poems is based on the diary of Nebu Tatuguchi a Japanese physician who was killed during the battle for Attu during the Second World War. Tatuguchi's diary was found and translated by Army Intelligence after the battle, but it is too lengthy to quote here.
"While his world is often comprised of, all the shades of grey, the local incantatory color, Chadwick believes in the redemptive power of story or myth. For Chadwick, a story is the everyday and ancient rewoven.' It redeems the world."
after the Irish
Whether for seal or shark oil,
or tallow, the lamp, too,
a hungry mouth. How its wick
cast the room through
winter nights: faces gleaming, bodies
leaning from the shadows as if
from just below the surface.
Outside, wind, the restlessness
of water, breaking
or raging storm. Think
of the table's patient stance,
something to chew
off little bits of winter,
dark held like a wafer
at the centre of the flame.
Who would taste
the light's portion took blindness
on his tongue. Who starving would eat
grasped as the drowning do,
danger to whatever could be.
And our bowls' emptiness,
the way imagining sets
land legs of a possible world.
(© Copyright Jerah Chadwick 1999)
image courtesy of Lake Forest College