By Carl Dennis
112 pages, $18
By R.D. Pohl
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Since the death of William Stafford, there’s been no other single voice quite like that of Carl Dennis in American poetry: a direct, plainspoken, almost intimately familiar register that speaks as much to our common homiletic tradition as it does to any specific lineage through American poetics.
A typical Dennis poem begins with a speaker making a grounded, quotidian observation about the world immediately around him, sometimes even addressing the reader directly in the second person, as if the speaker eschews not only the grand rhetorical statement, but mistrusts even the temptation to self-conscious lyricism as well.
No sooner has his narrative voice incrementally gained your trust then Dennis shifts from the particular to the hypothetical – projecting himself into the inner lives of the people who populate his poems. He invents rich pasts and unfettered futures for them, but doesn’t limit his speculations to anything tethered to the real world. Instead, he moves as a novelist might into imaginary worlds, contingent worlds, worlds in which one person’s altered fate, or everyone’s altered history, simmers with new ways to employ the poet’s empathy.
The opening lines of “Habitat,” the first poem in Dennis’ new collection, are these: “It’s a lost cause, the effort to make heaven and hell/ Eternal, undone by the very creatures/ The two establishments are meant to house,/ Whose natural habitat is the stream of time.”
The speaker in the poem continues on in a quietly insistent voice to point out that the divine order imposed on our secular thinking by the likes of Dante and Milton is forever collapsing. It is weighed down by our everyday idea of mercy: not the “mercy” theologians might argue over, but the sense of goodness and fairness even strangers and partisans yield to in a world of constant variation and change.
“So hell, as imagination construes it, is doomed/ To dwindle away, and then heaven as well,/ As the saints return to earth to help the sinners/ Learn what damage they can undo,” writes Dennis, “If they give themselves to the effort,/ And what damage they’ll have to leave as is.”
The 47 poems in “Another Reason” – Dennis’ 12th full-length collection – are divided into four sections that limn a trajectory familiar to those readers familiar with his best-known volumes, “Signs and Wonders” (1979), “The Outskirts of Troy” (1988), “Ranking the Wishes” (1997), and especially, “Practical Gods” (2002), his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, in which he probed the differences between secular and religious thinking, not with the stridency of a true believer or nonbeliever, but with deep speculative and meditative projections of the moral imagination, coupled with a firm parsing of its limits.
“Another Reason” is a book that continues that project, not only in questioning the familiar “consolations of philosophy,” but also whether the voice of moral suasion Dennis championed as his prototype in his 2001 essay collection “Poetry as Persuasion,” is not, in some sense, if not an unreliable narrator, then increasingly at odds with itself.
Now 75, and a longtime (now emeritus) professor of English at the University at Buffalo and the recipient of the 2000 Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement in American poetry from The Poetry Foundation, Dennis is perhaps our foremost practitioner of a kind of conjectural poetics in which ordinary speech and commonplace observation give rise to a cosmologist’s dream of possible worlds of intention and outcome. Taken in this way, poetry is not only linguistic construct of plausibly voiced speech, but also an art of empathic and moral possibility that attempts to transcend the particularity of its occasion.
In “Another Reason,” the voice Dennis employs is less eager to please than in any of his earlier collections. The Middle American “book of manners that I rely on,” as he writes in “Silent Manners,” is one he finds more and more limiting, particularly when assailing injustices and misapprehensions he knows his poems cannot redress. So in the poem “My Noah,” the self-righteous narrator admits to “what I can’t say openly,” namely, that he finds his neighbor’s political lawn signs so repugnant that he wishes the fellow “suffer a little” even though he is in every other way an exemplary neighbor. He wishes on him, in fact, the predicament of Noah, hoping perhaps to teach the neighbor the lesson that small government does not trump the welfare state by invoking a biblical flood to test his own preconceptions about the afflicted.
Another poem that refers to Noah, “Animal Husbandry,” is an indictment of a careless Yahweh for depopulating the planet of animals in Genesis by striking out blindly in all directions “as if the world were to blame for his failure/ To plan on the sixth day of creation,/ The last two creatures as carefully/ as he planned the others.”
In the even more pre-emptory, “Job: A New Edition,” his narrator takes the editor’s pencil to the “Book of Job” in order to eliminate its moral and theological inconsistencies, and then suggests adding a passage to serve as an apologia for God’s boorishness.
Taken together, these poems suggest more than an armchair approach to omnipotence and narrative chutzpah; they also hint at Dennis’ inclination to move away from a voice the reader finds generally trustworthy and agreeable to a kind of antipathetic voice that is not unprecedented in his work, but is surely not his stock-in-trade.
Another poem that goes to considerable length to make this point is “Virtue,” in which the narrator argues with the second-person (“you”) of the poem that he should be more admired for his virtue in pursuing generosity when it goes against his nature than the person to whom the poem is addressed, who is generous without complication or effort. Even if you accept the reasoning behind his argument, asking to be admired after you’ve already proclaimed your superiority is a stern test for even a generous reader’s esteem.
Though many of the poems in “Another Reason” read like soaring set pieces in Dennis’ now considerable body of contemplative monologues – the poems “First Words,” “A Blessing” and “Meaning” will surely find their way into compendiums of his best work – the poems that intrigue this reader most in this volume are the ones that are less invested in their own artfulness, more open to the idea of failure, self-doubt and despair.
In “Basement” the narrator in effect congratulates himself for not “yielding in a weak moment/ To a voice that really wasn’t my own/ But that of somebody far more sociable/ Convinced I’d prove an eager recruit.” In the whimsical “Letters Not Written,” he pleads for public credit for private sentiments withheld, and in “Not The End,” he broaches the end of a relationship, noting: “What you need now isn’t the work/ Of regret but the work of gratitude./ And all it takes to be grateful is to feel grateful.//Go back to the beginning and embrace its bounty./ Beneath the story of cause and consequence/ Another story is pointing another way.”
R.D. Pohl is the longtime poetry editor of The News.