SF State poet imagines a world 'without'

What if the world had no beauty? No sound? No truth, pain or enchantment? Maxine Chernoff explored such a place and wrote about what she found in her latest collection of poems, "Without" (Exeter, England: Shearsman, 2012).

The cover of the book

Each of the 64 poems in Chernoff's book imagines a world in which a specific idea or term has been removed. "In other words, to posit an alternate universe, a universe where that term is not contained or is transformed," said Chernoff, a critically acclaimed poet, translator, fiction writer and chair of SF State's Creative Writing Department. "'Without nature' becomes a reflection on nature. ‘Without sympathy' a reflection on sympathy."

The first seeds for "Without" were sown five years ago when Chernoff's son, then an SF State undergraduate, came home and described a drawing class assignment in which he was asked to draw the negative space around a chair. She brought the concept to her poetry, and the theme evolved from "ghost of …" to "minus …" to, finally, "without."

"A lot of poetry isolates a figure or theme or concept," Chernoff said. "The book confronts worlds missing crucial elements. Let's make naked space and see how the writing fills it."

In some cases, concrete events or ideas filled that naked space. "Without intention" meditates on the aftermath of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Chernoff said, "because of course a natural disaster at a nuclear plant, with its devastating consequences, is not anyone's intention."


gone the chaff

gone the half-

offered prayer

the men in

their white relief

are bathed and punished


Other poems explore more abstract concepts, such as "without sympathy," which Chernoff calls an apology to all the poems she has not yet written:

Photo of brown colored fire ants fighting off an ant from a larger species (the rough harvester ant), set against a backdrop of the letters that make up the genetic code of the fire ant genome.

Maxine Chernoff.

who was I

in my presumptuous

smallness to ignore

the many dead

whose hands reached

as mine pale

and asking

rich and figured




The writing style in "Without" -- short, unpunctuated sentences -- is one Chernoff used in her previous collection, "To Be Read in the Dark" (Omnidawn, 2011) and one she believes more fully engages her readers. "It asks the reader to get more involved in how to read a poem by offering fewer clues and cues. A book with standard punctuation produces less engagement with the text," she said.

Still, Chernoff has tried to make the poems accessible to readers and hopes they will see them as "an opportunity to use their eyes and ears and think, to enjoy and appreciate."

-- Jonathan Morales