This is a review I published in Bloomsbury Review three years ago.
Carl Dennis, Unknown Friends (New York: Penguin, 2007), ISBN-978-0-14-303875-7, 75 pp., $28.00 paper.
Carl Dennis is the master of the backward glance, a connoisseur of the road not taken. In his tenth collection of poems, this former winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry remains at the top of his game. The trademark Dennis voice is there, a quiet conversational style that usually falls into more-or-less iambic pentameter, as he comments on life in a city and a body, both of which are not what they were. The tone is often elegiac, but, though he often looks back, the poet is not oblivious to the destruction we continue to wreak upon our environment or to the deadly shenanigans of the most crooked administration in recent history.
On his birthday, the poet muses about:
the crowd of shadows who lost
Their only chance to escape the darkness
On the night I happened to be conceived.
I wonder how many of them would have felt more lucky
With the family allotted me than I did, more pleased
With the neighborhood. So many chances for them
To go out and investigate, in streets that often bored me,
Rumors that the beautiful had been sighted locally.
The above passage illustrates Dennis’s blend of the concrete local and the platonic abstraction, the flights of fancy that are nonetheless firmly tethered to a local habitation and a name. Dennis has often used the device of a minor god or an angel to serve as his observer and provide an alternative way of seeing things. “The God of Dogs,” for example, sees all of the world’s history since the creation of the planet as a scheme by a deity solely to construct a good home for the species he loves. The god even “spiked the human gene pool with an extra / Tincture of loneliness so that even a dog / Asleep by the stove provided some company / On blustery nights when the dark felt menacing.” In “The Will to Power,” a man deals with failure by imagining himself a minor god “. . . with his own mysterious reasons / For providing himself with obstacles.” In “Grass,” Dennis’s meditation on our love for lawns leads him to posit a world originally all grass, created by a god who loved to walk on it on weekends.
The typical Dennis poem runs just over a page, say 30 lines, beginning with a supposition or situation, moving through example or narration, and then, three or four lines from the end, finishing in a sort of non sequitur, like a small door opening at the end of a long room, where the reader suddenly finds himself outdoors. “To a Young Poet,” for example, talks about the pleasures and frustrations of trying to write a poem, compared to the problems of some other trade, a carpenter or a scholar, for example. Then he compares his poet to a workman on the Pyramids and asks whether the poet is proud of his work, as some of those laborers must have been, or whether the work should be considered a waste.
So many decades wasted
Making a mountain out of stone
When, with a tenth of the outlay,
The kingdom might be enhanced
By a thousand gardens, public retreats
Where workers could stroll at their ease on feast days
As if they were born for pleasure as well as toil.
What public gardens would Dennis have us construct instead of writing poems? Perhaps that greatest garden of all, the Earth itself, and Dennis is one of the foremost poets today writing political poetry. I don’t mean political polemic chopped into short lines; that’s easy enough, and the results are completely forgettable. Dennis’s poems in this vein are both angry and rueful. He can make fun of himself as a sort of crank, as in “On the Bus to Pittsburgh,” which begins:
Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother a stranger
I met on a bus with my plan
For saving the country. But you
Seem like a person ready to listen.
A rueful political poem is “Remorse,” which begins with the acknowledgement of the poet’s regret at having hijacked the conversation at dinner the night before to rant about global warming and “. . . the disaster of the energy bill / Now being hustled by oil money through Congress.” In the end, though, Dennis is a sober witness and the kind of good citizen this nation sorely needs, one who loves his country too much to see it run by lackeys of the military-industrial complex. “Our Generation” ends with picture of him and me and everyone else who marched four years ago against a misguided war:
A few unheeded, to be sure, but no more unheeded
Than a similar few in generations before us
Who hoped that in subsequent generations
A message like theirs, though no more pleasing
Would be more welcome.