Crumb-sized, by Marlena Chertock
Unnamed Press, 2017, 80 pages, $11.99
In the final lines of “Sonnet,” poet Alice Oswald addresses Spacecraft Voyager 1:
swivel cameras still registering events…in that increasing sphere
of tiny runaway stars notched in the year
now you can look closely at massless light
that is said to travel freely but is probably in full flight.
In other words, between the record and the lived experience, present and past, between the sky and how we read it when it reaches us, a stunning gap, full of energy. Poet Marlena Chertock’s second collection, Crumb-sized: poems, is a powerful invitation into spaces of this kind—those which forgo binary models, definitive measurement, and any understanding of life within the body as the sum total of life itself.
The 29 poems in this book travel fearlessly and embrace widely; Chertock takes up with, among other attentions, pain, outer space, ritual, plants, genocide, dancing, disability, womanhood, personhood, pleasure, and NASA. Her writing is eloquent and the speaker (whether sleeping in a cave or reworking DNA) is wise, generous, even whimsical. She observes of an alien visitor in the book’s opening poem:
American airplanes are where the martian
feels most at home. She doesn’t love
having someone else pilot,
but at least the turbulence
of flight is back in her body.
And from “You magnify the universe:”
You’ll never get to space
without a science degree, hours of
test pilot training, actually exercising,
But in your dreams you’re floating
in black, planets and asteroids
spread around you.
The intelligence of the speaker in these poems, intimate with astronomy in all the best ways, never serves to mask or assuage the solitude and physical struggle she clearly voices, often by aligning herself with the natural world.
In “I am rotting log of wood,” she writes:
I don’t need another tree
to feel like me.
I breathe out
my own amount of oxygen,
carve my message in my trunk.
And in “Ode to my physical therapist”:
After monthly twice a week visits
she can’t say
my pain will go away.
It will always be there,
a woodpecker forever
jabbing my lower left back.
His beak sending
along my trunk.
In an interview with Noble/Gas Quarterly, Chertock discussed the book’s title, which came from the words of a bully who once called her “crumb-sized.” Due to a bone disorder, Chertock’s skeletal dysplasia impacted her height, and as the speaker recalls in “Smaller than a crumb:”
she felt ant-sized then, looked down at the
cracked asphalt, wanted to follow the line of
ants she spotted.
Still, the speaker reclaims the cruel epithet, remakes it.
I’m 4’6, a bit bigger than a crumb, actually.
I may be short but good things come in small
Her condition produces chronic pain, the incommunicable nature of which her writing speaks to. From “1 to 10:”
What if it fluctuates from flickering
fireflies in my back to a herd
of elephants sitting on my chest.
Does the pain scale have a number for that?
Though Chertock’s poems are honest about discomfort, her speakers refuse to relent. This is formidable verse, full of grace and insight. It led me to question how I (mis)understand the “physical.” What is the body, a body, a celestial body? How do we measure it, against what, and to what purpose?
If the measurement system of others is no longer the ultimate measure, what resources must we bring to task of self-assessment, with the intention of care? To the task of understanding our experience? One vital answer, it seems for Chertock, is the expansive universe of language, which she deftly maneuvers to beautiful, evocative end. Language as life, language as perseverance, language as hope, language as light.
Chertock’s work recalls for me Heather Christle’s “Elegy for Neil Armstrong,” an erasure poem made from a transcript of communications during the first moon landing, in which Christle writes:
mankind is fine
and powdery, I can pick it up
loosely with my toe
here – here I
the descent…I’m standing directly in the
is sufficiently bright,
everything is very clearly