By Michael Chitwood
Tupelo Press, 72 pp.
Michael Chitwood’s Spill grapples with the spiritual, finding it in uncommon places, especially in the commonplace and everyday. For Chitwood, it is spirituality that unifies his diversity of subjects, from the small life of a tick on a bat to the large faith of a man in his hospital bedand while the collection is diverse, there is careful stitching throughout. The “spill” of platelets from the man’s hospital IV into his body mirrors the spill of water in the collection’s first poem: “The creek sang because of the rocks, the spill around them.”
Spill is Chitwood’s eighth collection of poetry, and was published more than a year ago. When I finally got to it, I found it’s a wonderful read that local poetry lovers should seek out. There’s often a haiku quality in Chitwood’s shorter poems, almost naturally arising from the search for spirituality in nature. The poem about the tick on the bat ends: “like a wind-borne/ seed, settling lightly// in the leaf litter/ cushioned// by the fat/ of flight and blood.” The reader is left to ruminate upon the image rather than led to any conclusion. But it is also the striking natural imagery that we might appreciate as haiku-like, as in the poem “To Be Saved You Must Be Spent”: “the dogwood is dropping pieces/ of a letter it’s shredded,/ white scraps with just a dab/ of ink staining each one./ The words might have proclaimed love/ or been an official notice of death.”
The spiritual lens also enables Chitwood to make his subjects larger than themselves. The act of moving from a house in “The Promised Land” becomes a kind of Exodus in which the movers carry chairs on their backs “like false idols.” Or a snow angel in the poem “The Annunciation” becomes a symbol for the spiritual dimension within the material world: “I watched it become/ not something to be praised or feared/ but creature, gritty, rimed in places glinting.” But the grappling with what is spiritual inevitably leads to a critique of what we think of as spiritual. The poem “On Being Asked to Pray for a Van” concerns a church newsletter that presumes in modern times the spreading of the gospel requires an automobile. With lines like “Their brakes cry out to you. Hear them, O Lord” and “Holy Maker of the Universe,/ give them gas,” we can see Chitwood’s irreverence on display.
This sort of subtle humor is one of Chitwood’s great strengths. The poem “The Seagulls of Wal-Mart” begins, “It’s always low tide here, two hundred miles from the sea,” as Chitwood fashions the birds that gravitate to Wal-Mart parking lots as “little Satans” cast out from the coastlines. Even in small phrases in the poem “Spanish Needles, Beggar’s Lice, Cockleburrs” we can delight in “the bushes’ ambush” or “the thistles’ little missiles.” Another poem, “Walking,” describes a woman walking her large dog: “She seems like someone fighting a big wind.”
There are, by the way, many dog poems in this book, even one about “Dog’s God,” a being who is “all-smelling,” another eruption of Chitwood’s wandering spiritual eye. From childhood to maturity, from death and sadness to absurdity, Chitwood transforms even the soul into a type of canine, beholden to a higher master it can hardly contemplate. In “The Soul on its Leash, The Body on its Leash,” Chitwood captures perhaps the essence of poetry: “The soul even loves the word drenching/ because it hears “dread” and “wretch”/ and “inching” and it delights/ in those hidden meanings/ riding like ticks on the body/ of the bigger world.”