Cowfeather Press 2011
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
One of the first things I noticed about Bruce Dethlefsen’s poems in Unexpected Shiny Things, his second full-length collection (his first, Breather, was published in 2009 by Fireweed Press), was the complete lack of standard end or internal punctuation. As someone once said (perhaps me—thirty years of quoting and giving sage advice while teaching English sometimes causes this confusion) punctuation makes a big sound in poetry. If one practices the sometimes deceptive synesthetic art of hearing punctuation, the lack of it is like realizing there are no benches in the art museum. If one wants to ponder an image, one may, but no provision is made for lingering. However, as I progressed through Unexpected Shiny Things, I found that Dethlefsen had provided another comfort instead: deft line, stanza, and sometimes single word breaks. So, in a sense, in a poem like “The Opening Days,” which plays with word syllabication too, one receives bonus information about how to perceive the poem by the way the words are placed on the page:
the opening days
near march thirteenth
on rust black wing
lumps of coal
stuck in ice cream
freezing their mis er a ble
shuddering that barely
I mean barely pass as
Scanning the poem for rhythm, I found a basic 5-beat / 4-beat pattern, but by the second stanza this unit is varied as well, so that the poem is working another way. Its use of enjambment in imagery and sound unite it, the assonance of the short “u” in “rust,” “fumbling / lumps,” “bug-eyed / stuck” and “shuddering” holding the middle together, while the short “i” serves the same purpose in the final stanza. Without the safety net of punctuation, Dethlefsen has performed his “deth-defying” (sorry) acrobatics in the blank spaces.
Though not the title poem of the collection (which arrives in the variation “Shiny Things” in the fourth section), “The Opening Days” might also serve to signal one of Dethlefsen’s preoccupations in this collection: What it means to live in Wisconsin. This is altogether appropriate since Bruce is Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011/2012. His plain-spoken diction and modest “man of few words” persona invite diverse readers to appreciate “phenomena” that they themselves may have observed, but were not able to articulate as well. Breaking down the word “mis er a ble” and putting “pass as” in such close proximity to “asses” calls attention to how we are to hear and perceive the poem, with emphasis provided by the poet. His tone here is not one of defeat in response to our state’s sometimes interminable winters, but one of stoicism and even guarded celebration. We pride ourselves on toughness here, but we can also appreciate the return of the redwings and the robins, even if we have learned to doubt that they really herald Spring.
The book is divided into five sections, Stars on Strings, Golden Coffee Sunlight, Sifting Starlight, Unexpected Shiny Things, and Chasing the Moon, and each section contains poems that swing in mood from the hilarious to humorous to the somber, though there are necessarily more of the latter toward the end of the book as the poet grapples with the early death of one of his sons, Wilson. As a mother of a boy about the same age as Wilson, these poems hit me very hard. I think it would be too glib to say that by the final section the grieving father has recovered, since the death of the child before the parents is said to be one of the most excruciating ordeals one can endure. However, though poems such as “Bare Feet” and “Grief” sound a premonitory warning note as early as the first section, the poet does not deal with the subject fully until the penultimate section.
Dethlefsen is not averse to punning, in single words and in metaphors, but in his hands, punning can be a serious business. In “Bare Feet,” he takes the common metaphor of “walking on eggshells” and, as Ezra Pound commanded poets, “make[s] it new” by making it literal:
all night I walk on eggshells
and it makes me cry
I thought the tears somehow
might soften up the edges of the shells
each tear drowns
the crunching sounds a bit
but the moisture helps
the smaller splinters
slide into my heels
and sink like needles in the bone
the more I walk
the more I cry
the quieter the night
The irony of more sound making more terrifying quiet closes the poem more devastatingly than a period could.
It may be a cliché piece of advice to poets that the most critical parts of the poem are the first and last lines, or so I was taught. If so, Dethlefsen has mastered the art. In “Grief,” for example, he allows, like Emily Dickinson, the title to form the first line: “is salty numb cold water / come in waves / from the sadness sea.” One of the most beautiful poems in the book with its pulsing, wavelike construction, it is also one in which the central primal metaphor of the ocean is most consistently worked out, each stanza a part of the overwhelming analogy of inevitability. By the third stanza, “… your knees buckle / and you are going down / done for and at least / you think thank god whomever / it’s got to be over” but, of course, as we know of grief, the respite is a short one: “no the next wave comes /… but then the waves get smaller … you can stand up some /… rest for a while / cause oh you’ll need it / when the mourning comes.” The punning on “morning” and “mourning” is not new with this poet, but perfectly placed. The colloquial language of “cause” (for the more formal “because”) and “you can stand up some” also underscores the universality of the nature of grieving.
Dethlefsen is a literal musician as well as a lyricist and includes one song labeled as such, “Rag and Bone,” with the dedication “song lyrics for Obvious Dog,” his band. Given his penchant for punning, he may be referring to musical “rags” of the Scott Joplin variety and is almost certainly quoting Yeats’s famous line, “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” Given that the lyrics are meant to be sung, they rhyme regularly in couplets and have a refrain as follows: “rag and bone / men are but rag and bone / searching the roadways for home / this way and that way for home.” Given the strictures of a song’s rhythm and rhyme, this poem still retains Dethlefsen’s mournful (perhaps ironic) message found in some of his other poetry—“disheveled and bruised / every crossroads we choose / wandering mazes toward home” and “each river meanders alone / swallowing stone after stone / the stick men awashed / their souls have been lost / hoping for ways to atone.” While I have not heard Obvious Dog, it strikes me as a bonus in a poet laureate that he be talented in as many ways as make him accessible to the general public. After all, poetry has a somewhat notoriously small and rarified audience, but music can deliver similar messages in a much more popular medium.
While Dethlefsen can be a philosophical poet, as is to be expected given the gravity of his subject matter in some sections, the majority of his poems employ a much lighter tone. Sometimes the tone results from his play with sound, as in “Tapestry,” a poem dedicated to “the poets at St. Joe’s” without further explanation, which employs heavy alliteration and assonance throughout:
regard the artistry of carp
the way they swim in woven water
doing carp wheels
down the tapestry
bump the surface
then sound in deep discussion
perfect swirling circles
to bark among themselves
regarding artistry of carp
Anyone who has ever witnessed these monstrous inland leviathans swimming thickly can vouch for the felicity of the poet’s description here and his ability to reproduce the somewhat everyday image is admirable.
A mock “list poem,” his “Sixty-one” employs a similarly playful, yet still thought-provoking tone by ticking off his diminishing career choices, ranging from cowboy to president in the first three lines, and culminating in “thursday I couldn’t find my list / friday my own fishing show / saturday catching for the cardinals / sunday I took a nap / sorry / I had to / the moons flew by too soon.
One of my favorite poems in the collection carries no specific dedication (the poet is fond of dedicating poems to specific friends), but feels familiar to anyone who has ever loved and perhaps lost, which I imagine includes everyone over the age of five. “Forgotten” begins with a kind of e.e. cummings-esque inversion of the expected: “I will always forget you / you’re the first person I forget / each morning and the last / one I recall at night” and continues to recall in ironic detail a special girl whose “whispering hair” he forgets best, since he repeats the refrain three times in this relatively short poem. It tells the story of an early, if not first love in imagery of Spring and fecundity, lilacs and forget-me-nots, but also in darker and more painful memories—“your beat cop father / charlie who drank too much.”
For my tastes, in fact, the poet is at his best when recalling his early school days, some sweet and some brutal. He keeps the reader from lapsing into rosy false nostalgia by reminding us that however innocent, most of us suffer to some degree while being educated. The section Sifting Starlight contains five such poems in quick succession: “Astronauts,” “Apple,” “Fair Territory,” “From the Principal’s Desk,” and “Crying Lessons,” the last of which begins with these ominous words by “miss richards”: “you mark my words … each one of you sometime this year / will run from this classroom in tears / some more than once I guarantee.” “Apples” contains the horrific image of a child being tied face down on a toilet seat “by wrists with a towel or two” and warned by another monstrous teacher “if you cry … you’ll go to the principal’s office.” The biographical notes disclose that Bruce is “a retired public educator and public library director,” which helps explain some advice he gives a son in a goodbye note called “Goner”: “I hope you are publicly happy / and that if you’re teaching / you’re affectionate / otherwise sell tires.” A poem placed very late in the book, “Wealthy,” also notes with gentle humor how becoming a good educator and poet, despite the fact that these are notably low pay to unpaid careers, can make one wealthy indeed: “after my reading / a very serious sixth grade girl / asked me if I was wealthy / well I said I have twenty-two / dollars in my wallet right now …” and ends “I’ve got my health my hands my eyes / my family and friends who love me / and I can come here to sennett middle school / to read poetry to you guys for free / so yes I’m very wealthy / wealthy indeed.”
I am writing this review on the day of the year when the moon is reaching perigee, the closest in its orbit it has been in one year, so I feel I would be remiss in my mission if I did not point out that among the shiniest of shiny things in Bruce Dethlefsen’s Unexpected Shiny Things is the moon. (The sun is a close rival, but the last section of the book carries the title Chasing the Moon and begins and ends with poems full of lunar imagery and lore.) “Fingernail Moon,” written from Guatemala, hopes that the anonymous person to whom it is addressed “saw the moon hang in the sky / somehow tonight / if only but a fingernail” and ends “I know now why all poets are lunatics / good night.” The last poem of the book, “I’ll Take the Moon,” begs others, maybe other poets, to take on the responsibility of describing the sun, the water, the wind, and the earth, love, fire, birds, and flowers, but asks that they leave for the poet himself the right to “take the moon / and dedicate what’s left of my life / to capture keep show and tell / utterly and complete / the epic story of the moon.” I, for one, think he has made a good start.
Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or radio4all.net.