A psychedelic, verse picaresque in the vein of Carlos Castañeda.
Chiaia’s (Ten Poems and Ampersands, 2011) novella in verse commences in a fever state, his narrator racked by dengue fever—a fitting start for poetry that may best be described as feverish. Readers might suspect that Chiaia’s economy of language has less to do with literary austerity than with the need to write quickly and sparely to keep up with an ambitious, demanding muse. In vigorous and angular verse, Chiaia unspools the journey of his weakened narrator, suspended between two destinies as he makes his way from life with his fiancee in Mexico to a search for a shaman-teacher amid the Mayan pyramids of Guatemala. Neither path is without complications—“she just called / mind spinning with / pause on the phone / & / regret // I’m not coming back, I told her. / She told me she was late”—and Chiaia animates the narrator’s disquiet with powerfully visceral vignettes: The bus “stops in a small town called Zunil / I get off. The bus shakes to a stop / like a wet dog / I don’t stray too far. / I am scared. / I have that feeling like an uncooked potato / in the gut.” Driven by a linguistic curiosity awakened in a chance moment during his adolescence, the narrator has quit his job and leaves behind his pregnant fiancee in hopes of becoming a Mayan daykeeper, an “aj q’ij / devoter of self / to time / day / & sun.” Doing so requires a somewhat indulgent psychedelic peyote and ayahuasca trip as well as a sobering confrontation with the late 20th-century massacre of the Mayans. The cycle of illness comes round—“My hands are / bound. My elbows are sore. Like / dengue all over again”—but the narrator, now more enlightened, understands that “[w]hen the past goes wrong / without hope / the future needs something, it / will come back now until // the ticks will get tocked / the spins will get spun / the tocks will get ticked.” An experience both entrancing and frustrating, Chiaia’s verse novella is both liberating and, at times, oppressively patriarchal. His verse is lightning fast, clear and unencumbered, but the story can be murky and tangled, not sure if it wants to be an encomium for an ancient people, a philosophical treatise on the nature of time, an exposé of the Guatemalan genocide, or just a swaggering, self-absorbed adventure.
A wild trip that gets lost—but it wants to.