April 19, 2019

From the Shelves of Lobal Orning…“Waiting for Stars or Voices: New and Selected Poems” by Carl Denni


“Poetry is what gets lost in translation” said Robert Frost, but, simply said, poetry can make your day. And such is the case with “New and Selected Poems” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis. What could be better than opening up a brand new book and discovering gem after gem of wonderful poems?

The other day, I was delighted to find this book in our very own Topanga bookstore, Lobal Orning in Pine Tree Circle. Lobal Orning is actually more like a personal library than a bookstore because all of the books in the store are ones that the owner, Shellee either has read or plans to read. The shop name Lobal Orning is a made-up term meaning “to decorate your mind.”

A professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of seven other volumes of poetry as well as a book of criticism, Carl Dennis was born in St. Louis, and from the University of California at Berkeley, he received his doctorate in English literature. His awards include the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for “Practical Gods,” the $100,000 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

Even though Dennis is a powerful poet and has won numerous awards, he is not as well-known as one would imagine. But among writers, he is a poets’ poet. University of Pittsburgh poet Tony Hoagland has this to say about Dennis’ work, “From beneath that comforting, tranquil, processional hum of reason, a subterranean order arises, subverting its intended ends.”

Ironically, the quietude and distinctively understated tone of his poetry may well be the reason why he might not be as famous as his work warrants. Dennis’ lack of self-promotion might also play a role in his work not being widely distributed, a problem I intend to fix, here in Topanga at least!

As for craft, Dennis claims that to be a successful writer, one has to be “a combination of humility and ambition…to be humble to know that you don’t know [yet] be ambitious enough to believe that if you really do put yourself through school, you will do something worthwhile.”

“New and Collected Poems,” an anthology, combines new pieces with the strongest most memorable work from previous volumes. Subject matter ranges from gravestones, to dreams, to mythical figures and philosophers. Dennis offers stories, advice, wit and lots of wisdom.

In “Useful Advice,” the narrator cautions, “Whatever you have written or will write is true/Then all you need is the patience to wait for stars or voices.” Waiting, is a promise as well as a controlling theme in “Time Heals All Wounds,” “Later,” “Ingratitude” and “The Next Life.”

There is a strong sense of voice and humor underlying the work that one can only call quietly courageous, from the female narrator in “Heroic,” Minny Temple, who says, “There is no comfort in life away from people/Who care for you” to the tongue-in-cheek opening stanza of the poem “Loss,”

Just because your cousins perjured themselves

On the stand to steal the house you inherited

And have settled in, and are filling the rooms

With furniture your aunt would have hated,

Doesn’t mean they’re getting away with it

Dennis understands raw truth about life, and he appears eager to share this with readers. He writes of “the ordinary” in our heroes and the extraordinary in everyday “folks.” Fear of the dark, visiting friends, and piano recitals are the stuff that lives are made of. He finds beauty in odd places, and examines heartbreaks that are not necessarily brave circumstances to work through, but important landmarks:

What if the great day never comes

And your life does not shine

with vivid blossoms,

Just with the usual pale variety?

What if the best china never seems called for

“The Great Day”

Ordinary people made extraordinary. In “Becky’s Piano Recital” Becky “screws her face up as she nears the hard parts,” but ultimately, “Even old age won’t cramp her.” Over and over Dennis portrays strong, silent, honest people. Hardworking. Brave.

In these poems are gods formerly on pedestals—gods brought down to another kind of greatness and fallibility to walk among their constituents.

The coach, Mr. Dellums, of “Little League,” who “Four evenings a week and for no pay” pushes his players’ patience and their hearts is a coach who exemplifies a game with a breaking point, where there are “no boys who must dream one up on their own.” Like Dennis’ readers, they have a guidepost. A place to hang their hat.

This is a book to carry with you and mull over. A book to think about while eating nachos at Abuelitas or while illegally reading when waiting for that red light to turn green. These are poems that carry men and women gently and turbulently through their days—funny, hopeful and damn full of normal life, juxtaposed with a touch of divination. These poems people can sink their teeth into.

Keats said, “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless…the setting of imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him.” Poems should jump out and grab us, like nature or a beautiful hiking trail in Edelman Park. Like Sinatra singing “All the Way.”

In this sense, Dennis’ poems come seem to come naturally to him, like old friends we run into at a bus stop, catch up the last 20 years with, then take leave of, forever changing and impacting our ordinary lives. n

“Two of Three Wishes”

Suppose Oedipus never discovers his ignorance

And remains king to the end,

Proud as he walks the streets of Thebes

To think of himself as his city’s savior,

The fortunate husband of Queen Jocasta.

The blessed father of two dutiful daughters.

Would we call him happy, a man so unknowing?

If we did, we’d have to admit that happiness

Isn’t all we ask for. We want some truth as well,

Whatever that means. We want our notions,

However beautiful and coherent,

Linked to something beyond themselves.

First, I want to dream I am in your thoughts.

Then I want that dream to be a picture

Faithful in flesh and spirit to what is the case.

First I imagine your heart as a city like Thebes

With me as the park you prefer to visit

Then with my open eyes I want to see you

Resting again and again on one of the benches,

Gathering strength for the messenger

Who may be nearing the outskirts now

Wondering if you’ll know how to take the news.