Karen Chase begins her preface by calling Land of Stone “a story of silence and kinship.” It is also a story about love, healing, and the redemptive power of poetry—and it is unlike anything you’ll ever read. In a time when hope is as hard to come by as affordable housing or a teenager without a cell phone, Land of Stone is singular in its power to inspire.
Also the author of Kazimierz Square: Poems, Chase served as poet in residence at Rosedale Hospital, outside New York City, during the late 1980s. There she worked in conjunction with the psychiatric staff, helping patients write poems as a means of helping them name their experiences in an alternative, more instinctual and engaged format. She formed a particularly meaningful bond with one patient, Ben, who was schizophrenic, violence-prone, and mostly noncommunicative. He was also tall, dark, handsome, and infinitely intriguing. Over time, a relationship evolved between the two that was reflected in verse. As esteemed critic Harold Bloom observes, “No miracle takes place, nor need ensue, but both are changed somewhat for the better.”
These days, art therapy is commonly seen as a useful component of treatment in many psychiatric institutions. Chase’s approach was unique in its collaborative potential: she and the patient would pass a notebook back and forth, alternating lines. The poems she wrote with Ben are included in the book, and, in mostly simple language, they evoke a complex world. Most use color, weather, and natural life as metaphors for a psyche changing like a temperate sky.
Chase was cautious with Ben, learning early that she must let him lead to gain his trust, and must remain deeply attentive to his linguistic choices and subjects. As Ben became more verbally expressive, his poetic diction became more elevated. He moved from first person to third, and his poems were more populated. Slowly, a gentle crack emerged in his mysterious shell, which touched and transformed Chase, as it does the reader.
There’s also a secondary relationship between Chase and her supervisor, Dennis. As the mentor-student relationship is explored and blurred between Karen and Ben, this bond also goes beyond their professional one. The narrative bravely explores the subtlety in relationships—between silence and word, patient and therapist, teacher and student. Chase possesses the poet’s fearlessness about looking inward, at her dreams, her childhood memories of polio (the physical limitations she experienced echo Ben’s psychological ones), and her feelings. In her efforts to chisel the narrative to its central dilemma, she leaves some loose strands. Her marriage is mentioned in broad strokes, and we sense it is stable and happy but don’t get to see how the romantic yearnings she openly expresses for Ben and Dennis affected that relationship.
However, the book is really Ben’s story, devoted to his slow progress toward the shared world as seen through the window of poetry, and Chase is enough of a writer to know where to steer her intense gaze and focus. It is a testament to her gift that a book that largely recounts quotidian meetings in a psychiatric facility reads with the invigorating suspense of a mystery or love story. Land of Stone is hard to put down. Its message lingers long after one regretfully returns it to the shelf: In a time when we are more isolated from one another than ever, language still has the capacity to make us less alone.