Editor’s note: The 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday, Oct. 12. Consult the Festival’s web site, www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org for all authors, reading times and venues. The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival.
Carl Dennis is the author of 11 books of poetry, including "Practical Gods," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and his latest volume, "Callings." Dennis’ work is known for its quiet intelligence, meditative bent and honest exploration of the times and trials of a certain segment of the American middle-class. Dennis has also published a book of criticism, "Poetry as Persuasion." In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Dennis has received numerous honors and awards for his work including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and the Ruth Lilly Prize. He retired as Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
"Callings: Poems by Carl Dennis"
Penguin Books, 2010
When Carl Dennis sits down to write a poem, he opens the window, I think, and lets his poem float in. Smoothly, without strain, it seems, things associated with his subject move into place, and the poem moves down the page in 20 or 30 lines.
Of course, it’s
For instance, what work, we wonder, goes into so precise a description of the mood shift on receiving a good medical report? "A toast, say, on the day you learn, after tests,/that the lingering pain in your side/ Is nothing serious. A fine day,/ You’ll say to yourself as you step/ from the clinic into a street/ That appears in your hour-long absence/To have been washed by a yearlong rain/ More cleansing than any you’ve known before."
This quote from Dennis’s poem "At the Wine Store," floats on his quiet, almost imperceptible rhythm choices. Four beats, then three, then back to four. Like moving into a waltz from a fox-trot and on to something stately, maybe a minuet. Never a jig, though. Dennis doesn’t do jigs, or frugs, or twists and leaps. No, a Dennis poem is a slow dance of the most imaginative associations.
This reader is joyously amazed to see where a poem about "A Roofer" or "A Realtor" or "Ants" or "An English Teacher" can take him.
Carl Dennis tells about his giving up on a poem because, "I could never ground it convincingly in the ordinary world." Years later, he recalls, he combined the idea in that poem with another, and "realized I had the plot of the new poem."
Here we find helpful guidance for entering a Dennis poem. There will be smooth, subtle rhythm, far-ranging associations, true, but there will be a plot convincingly grounded in the ordinary world.
But then comes the wonderful surprise. Drifting along on the leisurely contemplation of the poem we travel from the ordinary park bench, the café table, the Bible story, the biographical tidbit, to the world as it might exist under other circumstances.
It is this fascination with what the world might be like that gives "Callings" its theme.
"The present/ Requires the future to give it substance," appears in a poem early in the book. It points us in the direction Dennis will take us. And we will arrive with him at the museum where we, like him, have to ask, "Which artist is only bluffing and which / Answers the question of how the world/ Ought to be viewedŠ ."
Charles Butterfield lives and writes in Hinsdale, N. H. His book, "The Heat and Burthen of the Day," is expected to be released later this year.
For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or email@example.com.