Reviewed in this essay: Chaser by Erin Knight, House of Anansi Press, 2012.
Without experiencing the discomfits of illness, we cannot benefit from the advancement of knowledge and understanding that accompanies diagnosis and healing. Erin Knight’s second book of poems, Chaser, released last spring, explores this fascinating contradiction, as well as the pathologies that affect society, the body politic of the nation-state, and dysfunctional economies. Knight uses the encompassing trope of illness to investigate what it means to be in one’s “right mind”, to be well, to know oneself. “If you feel unwell, identity yourself,” she writes.
Each of Chaser’s three sections considers a different aspect of diagnosis, a word that has its origin from the Greek stem diagignōskein, from dia, “apart”, and gignōskein, “recognize, know.” Knight’s book is not only about identifying the nature of an illness, but also about how we recognize our desires and ourselves as discrete. The book’s first section is a travelogue of sorts, where contagion, and the fear of contagion are multinational subjects. The poems scrutinize the feelings of paranoia that surround a global pandemic, and how such fears suffuse the detention of immigrants and refugees, actions compromised by gaps in information. Meanwhile, those responsible are not forthcoming: “My travel companions are coyly silent on the bankruptcies,/ scans, fears and dust they impose.”
In the following section, the speaker is a scientist, and procedures, hypotheses, and the methods by which we attain knowledge are the focus of many of the poems. Chaser’s third and last section address the “contagion of wishful thinking,” the “hyperbolic” tendencies that led to the current global world market crisis. Knight is particularly interested in the urges, the delusions, and the tricks the mind uses to convince itself of the rationality of financial schemes and overinflated values.
How might poetry address this sense of bewilderment at this “fictitious capital”? In the book’s opening poem, “Prediagnosis”, Knight hints at the tone the poems will take: “I am asked to publish a concise,/ unemotional, factual summation of all atrocities.” Yet far from a summation, the poems make us aware of the gaps in our understanding. Knight favours couplets and an aphoristic tone, yet the seemingly tidy conclusions are undermined by the lack of end-stopped punctuation, which give the lines a feeling of lift, as if they’re floating off without anchors of certainty. Readers might be put off by the difficulty in determining the perspective of the speaker, and the dream-like, oblique quality of the poems. But clarity is not Knight’s aim. This is uncomfortable writing, because you always feel worse before you get better.