Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Chance by Daniel Becker
(H_NGM_N Chapbook Series #2, Natchitoches, Louisiana, 2005)

It may be unfair or unfounded to use the biographical knowledge of Daniel Becker's career as a physician on which to base a review of Chance. Yet Becker's career does factor into his work directly, and any reviewer should thus be allowed to reference it--as long as she restrains herself from comments such as "Becker peels open the human experience with the slow, precise scalpel-drag of language."

The truth is, the aspects of his career that Becker seems to use in his work are more broad and suggestive than a surgery metaphor could cover. Becker's poems engage guilt, responsibility, and chance--three things that certainly factor into any human life, and perhaps a physician's most acutely. You'd think that Becker's poems would explore the limits of responsibility, mourning, perhaps, the emotional distance his role demands. Becker, instead, explores the strange joy that comes from this professional necessity, and the larger implications of opting out of guilt.

If you think about it, guilt is a very limiting, ego-driven emotion. People who feel guilty spend their time communing with their conscience, and believe themselves instrumental enough to have created a wrong (a somewhat solipsistic assumption). The downward cast, inward looking that guilt necessitates surely limits one's field of vision. Becker seems to imagine a different mode of being where chance replaces human agency and guilt is traded for an intense observation of fate rather than a self-torturing belief in one's part in it. In "The Expert Witness Gets Deposed," Becker's description of the river seems to describe this languid approach to fortune and mistakes:

like a citation bass but triple spaced and lifted up
out of the water, the river lazily correcting itself,
unconcerned with loss, moving out to sea.

"Lazily correcting itself" is particularly compelling image, because it is such a perfectly apt contrast to the human response to mistakes. A river, should it splash or sway off route one moment, settles back into its groove the next. There's no need for self-reflection or regret. The river is also "unconcerned with loss," but in a whistling-with-your-hands-in-your-pockets kind of way. The good way.

Becker's poems, however, aren't recommending we make like a river and move out to the sea of amorality. Rather, Becker is most interested in the brief moments we free ourselves from guilt. Not because this is a preferred mode, but because it is so rare an occurrence that it begs study. Becker's funeral poems are best, because of the narrator's liberation from guilt and self-reflection. Becker's "In Memoriam" seems to be about briefly stopping by a former patient's funeral before dashing off to more pressing responsibilities. The premise alone seems calibrated for maximum guilt--how can the speaker treat a funeral like just another part of a harried day? But Becker's narrator has no qualms. As he gazes around during his brief, obligatory stay, he notices the stained-glass saints, who seem as much apart from the nitty-gritty of saint hood as he is from death:

The windows are too kind--
saints in post-beatitude poses
as if their share of suffering

is over, blame placed, sins forgiven,
and all they have to do now
is exemplify faith and endurance

The narrator's distraction--he counts these "panes of stained glass" rather than dwelling on the deceased--could be read on as a comment on the poetic mode itself. To be a poet may be nothing more than living in the blind spot--blocking out the essential to tease out the implications of the details. Both the saints and Becker's narrators exist as if everything has happened, and they are merely left to survey the damage or erect themselves in memoriam to it. They are at once both irrevocably removed and inextricably involved--a paradox perhaps common to both doctors and poets.


Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She also trains dressage horses and teaches humanities. She moderates, a forum dedicated to tracking the state of both visual art and literature.


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