Review of Chorus by Daniela Naomi Molnar

Cover of Chorus: on a white field, an assortment of colorful rock-like shapes are clustered and recede into the background, each connected to one another.

Chorus by Daniela Naomi Molnar

University of Chicago Press, 2022

110 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Allison Cobb

In Chorus, Daniela Naomi Molnar enacts, questions, argues with, weeps over, delights in, deserts, and returns to a multiple and various self, a self joined by a chorus of other voices as well as the living and nonliving entities—stars, trees, mountains, ghosts—that inhabit these poems. 

The origin of the Greek word khoros lies obscured by time, but it may come from the root for “to enclose” (as in the circular group of singers in Greek tragedy) or from the root for “to want.” Both senses tap currents within these poems, which at moments arrive at an expansive, all-encompassing self and at others ache with mourning for that state. 

The poems render the “conviviality and complexity”1 of being through diverse formal strategies. These include threading the italicized words of other writers into the poems (the most direct embodiment of the “chorus” of the title); as well as foregrounding fragmentation, white space, ellipses, repetition, and the use of visual forms to create what the book description calls a “messy braid.”2

This multiplicity reaches toward the “helpless hope”3 of bridging isolation, “To feel the me / and the not-me align,” to understand the self as what we actually are—“co-metabolic mammals,”4 constituted by entities of all kinds, “maps of contact.”5 The alienation obscuring that reality is not only existential of course but also political, an effect of the capitalist organization of social relations, in which we become “the person constructed by … [the] predation” of markets.6 The poems are constantly “trying a new thing” to overcome this condition in a way that offers true contact, not the technologically mediated and commodified touch proffered by “the hopeless form of the phone.”7

The constantly trying something new, the diverse, formal strategies of these poems, enact an ethics, the kind of ethics Molnar ascribes to experimental writing in her recent review in Tinderbox. She seeks a “disruption and re-visioning”8 of the belief in a unitary self, that “simplifying violence” of a “stable seer and seen.”9 The effort to contain paradoxical realities—that of a unitary self, and that of a multiple self—is rigorous, disciplined work. It requires rowing against strong tides, gagged by “belief debris.” It requires depaving neural networks—roads that once were wandering paths “smoothed by speed, become belief.”10 In place of the speed of simple conviction, the poems seek openness, the unknown: “These bright portals through. Permission slip.”11

Describing this book as a “messy braid” belies the fact that its craft is as rigorous as its ethics. These are beautifully constructed poems, and part of their work is their beauty. In moments of gorgeous lyric description, “pressurized perception,”12 they bring the reader to a halt, asking us to pay attention to what exceeds us and yet is also ourselves, to remember “the need for a soul.”13 In a world where “the bright pliancy of human sentience—attention itself” is “the world’s most prized commodity,” this attending to, this care is, as Molnar writes, “political too.”14

One of my favorite moments of lyric attention, the experience of knowing something and yet knowing it exceeds all knowing, occurs in Molnar’s description of the juniper tree in Chorus 13/Ojito Canyon/Seam: “Juniper/ parched and seeking, a waterghost, a slow-writhing thing.” Instantly I see in my mind the juniper trees of my youth, with their contorted, grey-barked trunks. And later in Chorus 20/Ojito Canyon/Matter: 

The shroud of my mouth
tries to contain the juniper
that ancient, edgeless being
will not still inside its name.

Much of this book was written in my native New Mexico, in the Jemez Mountains. In the high desert, amidst volcanic mountains and cliffs laying bare eons of geological change, Molnar finds that “time pleats,” and so does space: in the thin mountain air, perceptions seem sharper, producing a kind of sensory “concentrate.”15 This setting enables juxtaposition of the present with memories, thoughts, and fleeting impressions; the poems travel time and place. These leaps enact the multiple self that Molnar seeks. Paradoxically, though, Molnar does this work alone. Water, stone, stars, ghosts, and non-human animals populate these poems, but other humans are physicall absent — existing only as memories of past loves, a friend who has died, another present but behind a door, a mother from far away on the phone. 

Also mostly absent is the history of the Jemez Mountains, either their natural or their human history as the ancestral homeland of the Jemez and Zia Pueblo people, and the impact of centuries of colonization. While glancingly referencing this history (Chorus 24/Ojito Canyon), the poems engage personal and specific human violence within a larger sweep of oppression across many times and places, such as in Chorus 26/Ojito Canyon. Rather than dwelling in the specific history of a place, the poems offer entry into larger considerations of human entanglements, often through moments of close observation and lyric beauty. One of my favorite, for the way it yokes the quotidian and the vast:

I fixate on
the roof’s rivets, each an arced galaxy, each a silver dome
holding a circle of captive sun.16

Such moments offer glimpses of sublimity, of joy, but the dominant mode of this work is grief, which is, as Molnar writes, “a type of love.”17 The poems suggest that it may be our pain, our woundedness, that is the prerequisite for interconnection: “I split along the seam of my own perfect damage.”18

Chorus is a companion for grief-filled times. It does not offer salve or resolution. It offers recognition. It bears witness to pain, and to beauty. It reminds us that the two are as entangled as everything else. It suggests that within that entanglement, from a recognition of all beings’ intertwined fates, we might find survival. The poems end where they started, in “helpless hope,”19 with the words of William Carlos Williams: “Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also ‘you.’ And / so, together, as one, we shall begin”20

1From the book description in the front matter.
2Ibid.
3Chorus 2
4Chorus 14/Ojito Canyon/Not Self
5Chorus 13/Ojito Canyon/Seam
6Chorus 29/Ojito Canyon
7Chorus 2
8Daniela Naomi Molnar, “Review of The Lyric Essay as Resistance edited by Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4, December 2023: https://tinderboxpoetry.com/review-of-the-lyric-essay-as-resistance-edited-by-zoe-bossiere-and-erica-trabold
9Chorus 20/Ojito Canyon/Matter
10Chorus 16/Ojito Canyon/Election
11Chorus 12/Ojito Canyon
12Ojito Canyon 19/Home
13Chorus 20/Ojito Canyon/Matter
14Ojito Canyon 19/Home. Italicized words are quoted in the Epigraph from Ayah Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel.
15Chorus 23/Ojito Canyon/Afterimage
16Chorus 14/Ojito Canyon/Not-Self
17Chorus 15/Ojito Canyon/Home
18Chorus 13/Ojito Canyon/Seam
19Chorus 2
20Chorus 38/Afterword/Chronology
Allison Cobb, a white woman wearing a long sleeve black shirt and short brown hair, stands in front of a fence and smiles into the camera.

Allison Cobb (pronouns she/her) is the author of four books: Plastic: an Autobiography (winner of the Oregon Book Award and the Firecracker Award); Green-Wood; After We All Died; and Born2.

Cobb’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, and many other journals. She has been a resident artist at Djerassi and Playa and received fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

A native of Los Alamos, NM, where the first atomic bombs were made, Allison collaborated in Suspended Moment performances with Hiroshima native and visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, Butoh dancer Meshi Chavez, and sound artist Lisa DeGrace.

Allison sits on the board of Fonograf Editions, and contributes to environmental and climate justice efforts at Environmental Defense Fund. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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