and Selected Poems: 1974-2001
interior of Jan Steen’s “Het Sint Nicolaasfeest”
(“The feast of St. Nicholas,” 1665-8) happens beneath
a high window, the late fall white of the sky in it scratched only
by some topmost branches. The quarter of the room he painted is
cozy and crowded—a smiling girl clutches her doll, a young
boy hugs his new club, his older brother begins to weep at getting
sticks in his shoes, mother leans forward in the foreground, father
looks on from behind. Bread topples over the edges of a basket at
one lower corner of the canvas and teeters over the seat of a chair
on the other. Each face opens almost fully out at you, bright with
the light of an unseen fire and with the excitement of the evening.
The unselfconscious smiles, each broadening freely out to the verge
of a decision, evoke a sense of the near ubiquity of contentment
in this Dutch protestant bourgeois home. After a while the crying
boy, bound in this affluent scene that has disappointed him, his
left hand up to his eye socket as if to wipe off and cram back tears
at once, his right hand tucked awkwardly behind his thigh, seems
wise beyond his years.
The wisdom of Carl Dennis deserves its due. It is as selective as Steen’s, as respectful of the complexities it can’t include. The tone of his homespun bromides and his boyish rue is not a shade fake. One measured confidence after the next confesses that he needs just so much insulation to survive. Here’s the softening filter through which “Pendulum,” from his 1997 Ranking the Wishes, imagines the furthest horizon of the meaningful world:
Dennis, a teacher and astute critic, knows that a careworn metaphor can still seem like a discovery when its motivating insight is not stated but insinuated—like the message tactfully given, here, that we are always falling, now out of darkness, now out of light. News has not yet reached this gentle soul of how unsettling the dim dream of the “time of the earliest settler” really is, of how the homes he gazes across mark the trace of the hydra of colonialism that went stalking madly forward for four hundred years to the lull of this pendulum. The news has not reached him, or perhaps it was turned away from his door. At any rate he has found a moment in which the “soul feels fluid,” he knows the extent of ground it can spread across before it disappears, and he has made his choice.
The most nourishing thing you will find in New and Selected Poems is a sense of the refined wishful thinking that can happen in the comfort of this spot by the window. Regret, disappointment, longing, resignation—for Dennis they assume grades of intensity that make possible a pleasure in contrasts nearly counterbalancing their sting. Art is, to borrow one of Dennis’s favorite phrases, the “heart’s companion” in this absorbing, intricate form of endurance. His poems aim for a point where an avuncular eloquence and his version of quotidian reality suddenly look at each other like old flames. Consider the beginning of “Adventure,” a poem that more than fills out the ambiguous irony of its title:
It is a mixed privilege to be the sort of creature for whom it can be so threatening that nothing happens, for whom it is not the bumpy, ramshackle, meager and muddy that injure, so much as knowing them too well. How much worse things would get for this woman were she born a bit later, the daughter of an anarchist or a Menshevik. But this is not Dennis’s interest. He would like his art to make the middle flight seem like rising to an occasion. He wants a poem that can tell her something soothing or jarring to put her mere persistence in a warm light—not for her, of course, but for the rest of us, those following in her tracks, those for whom she stands. Having tried out a few desperate wishes, he ends with this one:
Dennis is at his most winning when his enthusiasm for re-reading provokes him to a shy recklessness, and he seems carried away by the freshness with which a classic opens its even older verity to him. “What Homer leaves out to concentrate on a war / He points to openly in the similes,” he observes in “On the Way to School” [p. 110]. “Suppose Oedipus never discovers his ignorance,” begins “Two or Three Wishes” [p. 178]. “It does me good to see him defining self-interest / As something larger than self-protection,” he confides in “Socrates and I” [p. 7]. You can almost miss the achievement of his ability to “feel like himself” on the heights of epic, tragedy and philosophical dialogue, so thoroughly has every trace of pedantry been stripped away from his address. Returning to a text, the half-adolescent thrill he experiences gives him a sort of generous authority.
Still the sadness of a plentitude with the most wished-for thing missing is the sharpest experience of reading Carl Dennis. Is this because of a life spent as a painstaking writer in the province of Buffalo? A proposition not made, or an offer spurned thirty years ago, as more than one poem suggests? To fully accept Dennis’s work, I think, one would have to see his inexpungeable longing as more akin to the human condition. It is no small feat to surrender in the name of wisdom. The sharpest poignancy comes in poems when he faces this most directly, as in “The Next Life,” spoken to a “girl whose company I enjoyed / More than the company of others in high school” decades after she has taken her own life. The poem gives way to a daydream of a life they could have shared, then it ends like this:
The chief vanity of human wishes is that they drain the energy with which we could re-claim the life we’ve found and chosen. The greater the opening made by longing in our lives, the larger looms the dream of a life not subject to the correction of wishing. How long is long enough to sit with the paradoxical ache of this truth? It is a reader’s and a teacher’s question. If the library of Don Quixote de la Mancha had sheltered a slim translation of Juvenal’s tenth satire in the place of one of those voluminous chivalric romances, he might have spared himself an enormous effort for glory and bliss and turned out poems like the most piercing and deflating ones of sad, wise Carl Dennis.