I knew that I wanted to read Chessy Normile’s first book of poetry, Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, when I learned this story: she gave the completed manuscript to her partner to read and waited for laughs to emit from the next room that never came. Instead, he told her how sad the book made him. Ever think you’re being hilarious and wonder why the people you love respond with a sigh? This collection of forty clever, poignant poems just might be speaking your language.
Listening to people’s dreams can be dull yet Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party welcomes you into whatever dream world the poet conjures up, and that’s another thing entirely. Normile uses informal language to great effect, pulling you along with a searing question or joke before pushing you gently in front of the mirror to regard yourself. In “Some Thoughts,” the narrator imagines having “the kind of pretty/that makes people use it as a qualifier. /When, of course, I know what they say/You know Chessy, you met her last fall, she slapped that guy and choked on some ice?”
Sporadic references to religious practice indicate a somewhat game believer, albeit with an asterisk. Normile offers grace notes here and there but no more solace or answers than found in her deliberately randomized listing of phyla and factoids in “Moon Captured”: “Then comes the Visible Life Era/ Which, p.s., we’re still in/ according to the way people treat me.” The poems move in the world of devotion, priests, and ritual, but also in a world where an erection at half-mast is casually referred to as the New Testament.
It’s not hard to see why Normile thought her (now) husband might be amused by this collection, but the smiles it brought me weren’t the reason it lives in my memory. Short pieces still held their punch upon re-reading, while longer poems offered up both turbulent patches and graceful landings. Her poems explode with humor and heart, delivered in a conversational tone that you’d welcome across any table. Normile isn’t afraid to talk about God, talk about assault, talk until she runs out of visions to share. Near the end of the collection comes this poem, smaller than an outstretched hand:
I went into the woods alone alone
And came out wet and aware
Of the blight that’s killing the Aspens.
You could write things down just as they are,
Just as you see them. You could try that.
Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party is a propulsive, dark, and wonderfully weird collection I’ll return to whenever life is getting a little too mundane. The poems traipse through a singular field onto a universal highway and back again, blending the poet’s lines and our lives, tossing it all together with a smile.
“It is all for the horror film I’m making/ about finding peace,” Normile writes, and I can’t help but think that’s all of us, right? Aren’t we all on that movie set?