For me a good poem slips in through the layers of cultural conditioning with enough startle and spin to bring focus and context to errant idea fragments and give the familiar a fresh and knowing face. Good poems touch me in ways that are hard to describe beyond the usual adjectives. Complicating this difficulty is my vast academic ignorance of poetry, its traditions, and subsequently the conventional critical language that poetry scholars rely on to define whether a particular work meets certain acceptable standards. A saving grace for me is knowing that many poets celebrated today prevailed over disfavor from the scholars of their day.
My own feeble efforts penning the occasional verse have given me a respect infringing on awe for wordsmiths who dare to tread beyond the boundaries set by those who’ve gone before. Dennis Hathaway is one of those select few. His first collection of twenty-five poems, The Taste of Flesh, follows his story collection, The Consequences of Desire, which received the 1992 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
As I am unqualified to render a conventional review of The Taste of Flesh, I shall instead give you select snippets of its exquisite wordplay, its stunning visuals, humor, and delicate, soul-deep probes, many that left me slack-jawed, unable even to mumble the superlatives struggling up from somewhere near the heart.
These lines are from Cream, a reminiscence from his childhood on a Midwest farm:
He will remember the snow drifted against the barn,
He will remember the horses that bolted, or kicked, or otherwise misbehaved, Like surly children;
He will remember those children, and his wife, and his own father,
Dispensing wisdom that went down like medicine,
And he will feel that straggling line of ancestry,
Disappearing into the past.
And then he will sigh, and all will be quiet, and gone.
And this from the poem. Father, which has a Faulknerian feel:
And thus the son says, Goodbye.
Your strength, your endurance, your aphorisms,
They will settle with you into the earth
Which goes on, which persists despite our wanton recklessness,
And into the dust will settle anger, resentment, guilt, sorrow,
And you will be remembered,
And here’s a little whimsy—with bite--from The Invention of Ideas:
It would be interesting (for someone)
To examine the persistence of failed ideas.
Propositions that don’t bear scrutiny.
For example: The trickle-down theory.
Why not the trickle-up theory?
The hands of the poor will find its way to the rich
Who own the banks, the fast-food franchises,
The automobile dealerships.
For aren’t ideas really gasps of confusion?
Smeared ink? Blackboards imperfectly erased?
For example: The trickle-down theory,
A nice turn of phrase, almost poetic
And more revealing than perhaps it was meant to be
By its inventor, Mr. so-and-so with such-and-such degree.
The title poem starts out almost whimsically, mentioning the tale of sailors forced to cannibalism after their ship went down at sea. The poem’s speaker wonders how human meat would taste...The arm, the hip, the liver, the heart. He describes how the captain butchered a sailor, trying to imagine butchering a more familiar meat animal, and mentions another well-known story of the pioneers caught during a blizzard in the Donner Pass. He takes us with him during a reminiscence of being broke and homeless as a teenager, and how he spent the night on the couch of someone who had “wanted to get me into his bed.”
I knocked on his door
And gruff with sleep his voice delivered the news
That another man was there.
But he gave me a blanket and use of the sofa
Just for the remnant of the night.
Next morning all he could find to eat was a box of matzos, Strange, tasteless things for a boy/Just months from a Midwestern farm. I ate them all...
If not for the matzos
I would have eaten the curtains
Over the kitchen sink.
The woodwork with its scabby
Layers of paint.
The worn linoleum on the floor.
But would I have eaten one of the men?
The one who softly snored,
Unaware that I was creeping toward the bed
With a long, sharp knife?
|Donner Party preparing dinner|