Carl Dennis: Review by Timothy McBride

Carl Dennis, Night School (Penguin)

Over the course of 13 books, Carl Dennis has quietly accomplished something with few analogs in contemporary American poetry: he has forged an utterly distinct and instantly recognizable voice that never lapses into self-imitation or predictability; his familiar rhetorical strategies never lose their emotional intensity or their ability to explore afresh themes of enduring importance—What can we know? How shall we live? What gives our lives meaning?

Maynard Mack famously described Hamlet as a play written in the interrogative mood. A key to appreciating Dennis’s accomplishment is to recognize how skillfully he employs the subjunctive as a way of exploring alternative lives, ghostly possibilities, and counterfactual realities—all of which demand imaginative leaps that encourage us to acknowledge the role of chance or luck in our lives, to see that we are following only one of the many paths we might have followed. As a consequence we not only look on others more generously—seeing them as possible variations of ourselves—but we also avoid a self-serving or nihilistic determinism that sees all our failures as preordained and thus rules out the possibility of serious moral reflection.

As the title suggests, Dennis’s marvelous new collection, Night School, requires an engagement with events not fully illuminated by the commonplace clarities of noonday. In “Two Lives,” for example, the speaker conducts a kind of multiverse thought experiment that juxtaposes the bookish, solitary academic that the speaker is “in this life” with a less privileged, more socially engaged counterpart in his “other life.”  Throughout the poem Dennis recounts the two separate narratives—as the characters diverge more and more widely:

In my other life, I have to leave high school

To bolster the family income as a lab boy

In the building attached to the factory that in this life

My father owns.

The poem closes by asking if the strangers are capable of seeing that each is the other in altered circumstances. The speaker sits at his desk “preparing a class / on solitude in the novels of the Romantics” while his outgoing, gregarious other self knocks on the door bearing gifts from what he hopes will become a communal garden: “Do I say to myself,” the speaker asks, “it’s one more stranger / eager to sell me something or make a convert, / or do I go down to see who’s there?”

Throughout Night School, Dennis suggests that the fullest achievement of our humanity depends in large part on how we respond to these knocks. In the first of the book’s four sections, the encounters tend to be with nature, with strangers, or with an aspect of the speaker’s own character. In “Know Yourself,” for example, the speaker finds the admonition from the oracle at Delphi too simplistic in its assumption that the self is like a book “waiting for someone like me to read it, / not a coat I stitch together each day / from dreams and wishes, habits and moods.” The sense that one’s character is fluid rather than fixed forces one to ask uncomfortable questions: Who will I be today? Will I honor or betray my ideals?

In “My Defender,” Dennis presents two opposed voices, one generous enough to see that the fatalism or despair in the other fails “to express / my deep convictions.” “How good it will be,” the speaker says, to be reminded that—whatever his grumblings—he doesn’t see the winter birds as malingerers too lazy to head south:

What I really mean, declares my defender

Is that I admire their courage

For daring to stay when the pickings are slim

Here where the green world has succumbed to snow.

In a free verse poem, the unexpected (and uniambic) pentameter of the final line provides a skillful sense of closure, one that reinforces the speaker’s comment that his defender asserts a truth “deeper than the history of my opinions.” The spondaic substitutions create a slightly uneasy regularity that affirms the defender’s position without entirely demolishing the counterargument against which it needs defending. The shift also enacts Dennis’s assertion—expressed in his Poetry as Persuasion (2001)—that “rhythm is not an adornment of statement but one of its elements.” “Used well,” Dennis says, “rhythm makes us feel the presence of an earnest speaker behind the words … someone interested in using form to say something of importance.”

As these comments suggest, one key to Dennis’s achievement is his attention to fashioning persuasive voices, a topic he discusses in a recent interview:

The premise of my book about poetic rhetoric is that the character of the speaker is the central fact in explaining how poems move us, that poems succeed to the extent that they make us feel that a particular person is standing behind every line, a person who cares about what he or she is saying, who has thought long and hard about it, and can connect the subject at hand to subjects that at first seem far afield.

One feels the fulfillment of this aesthetic behind every poem in Night School. One feels as well the fulfillment of V.S. Naipaul’s stern dictum that “the man must not precede the work.”  Dennis writes with acute awareness about the delicacy of the bond between writer and reader. His speakers are never merely victims, they never simply espouse the virtuous platitudes of the moment, and—perhaps most importantly—they never make all-too-tempting false step that advertises the poet at the expense of the poem.

In “Help from an Old Critic,” the speaker reminds us how easily writers can make such false steps, calling to mind Howard Nemerov’s line that the muse of poetry has a “fierce gaze” and an “implacable small smile”:

It’s a lonely job, telling a writer like you

That I don’t regard the poem you’ve sent me

As the big improvement you think it is

Over the poems of yesteryear.

The old critic informs the haughty poet that he’s wrong to assume he composed his poem while standing “on the shoulders of older poets,” that he hasn’t glimpsed “a promised land they couldn’t see”; he’s merely “stood on the ground in fog,” taking us “to a little field we know already, / close to the edge of a creeping desert.”

The first poem in the collection, “A Stand of Cottonwood,” avoids these pitfalls and exemplifies the voice of authority that Dennis seeks to establish—an authority based less on a search for objective truth than on what is true for a speaker who acknowledges his limitations and misgivings as he struggles nonetheless to make sense of experience. In this case the speaker recognizes that he must “focus on the life at hand” if he hopes to become “familiar with the residents on my neighborhood.” The speaker’s enthusiasm for this search is unambiguous, and indeed “glad” may be the most frequently used term in the collection:

I’m glad to be here, amid these cottonwood trees,

Feeling the wind from the lake on my face,

Sniffing the marsh smells and lake smells

As I listen to the calls of unseen shorebirds

And I’m glad as well to acknowledge my civic coordinates.

The speaker’s experience of the natural setting is also mediated thought texts—a pamphlet, bird signs—addressed to him by writers unaware of his existence. Though the speaker admits to knowing little about the natural world, he asserts that this “doesn’t mean / I’m too old to learn”:

Maybe when I learn to listen, I’ll hear

The tree toads scratching, or the tree roots

Gripping the stone-rich soil and drinking,

Or the termites tunneling in the logs.

Dennis is interested in the processes of communication generally, but in Night School, he is especially interested in address. The proper attitude toward being addressed—by tree frogs, “fellow pedestrians,” poets, voices from the past or the future—is gratitude. The moral expression of gratitude is to listen. Dennis’s poems speak in order to recommend listening, receiving, struggling to make sense of the world—virtues that apply to both the principals in his poems and, at one remove, to his readers. Our interpretations are apt to be flawed or incomplete, but we have a duty to don our birdwatching hats and wield our binoculars, joining the speaker in his perhaps quixotic hope of learning “all he needs to know.”

Often Dennis addresses imaginary characters, as in the environmentally concerned “To the People of 2060” or our personified planet in “To Earth.” Other times he reverses the angle as in “A Traveler from Alturia” in which a speaker from a fictional country outlines a custom for achieving greater social equality by requiring the rich to loan their possessions two days a week to the poor—and by following this semi-annual tradition:

… on the solstice our customs ordain

A potluck banquet where lenders and borrowers—

After serving each other their specialties—

Raise the question whether their customs

Are as good as can be expected

Or a stop on the road to something more.

Notions of borrowing and lending run throughout the book. In “Clippers” Dennis constructs a dialog with a man he cannot remember, the person who loaned him a pair of hedge clippers. The poem closes with a beautiful passage, an imaginary monologue in the voice of the absent lender:

Try to guess, I can hear him saying,

Whether the wind now ruffling the boxwood

Is bringing a fragrance from woodlands

You visited often in times gone by

Or whether you never glimpsed them

But have no trouble believing

That if you had you would have enjoyed them.

It doesn’t matter which, I hear him saying,

So long as you recognize the day as ideal

For working outside. Devote yourself to the trimming.

Don’t feel obliged to ask if this is the first time

You’ll be giving the ritual your full attention.

Don’t waste time wondering if it’s the last.

The notion of address is wonderfully managed in poems about Whitman and Dickinson, between whose opposed gravities—the clarities of solitude, the communion with comrades—Dennis creates his own poetic space.  The poems complement each other, one speaking directly to the poet who has boldly addressed his future readers, the other speaking indirectly to the poet who seems to have little faith “in a word as remote / and bloodless as posterity.”

“To Whitman” begins “Given how often your poems address your readers, / It doesn’t seem unmannerly to address you.” Dennis then enlarges our view of Whitman by imagining not his moments of expansiveness but his moments of doubt:

To respond to your confidence, the least I can do

To bring you closer is to try imagining you

After the ferry had docked and the sun has set—

In the grip of a mood less certain

As you wander home alone under feeble streetlamps

To a ramshackle district where people like you,

Without steady work, find lodging.

Is that you up ahead, climbing the outside stairs

To your two small rooms? Is that you

Resting awhile on the cot by the stove

As the day grows quiet, wondering

If anyone anywhere in the world

Is thinking of you at that very moment?

By beginning with a portrait of dejection, Dennis depicts Whitman’s rising a moment later to write “the poem that boldly addresses me” (“Sundown Poem”) as an achievement of the will rather than a reflexive aspect of his nature. And although Dennis humorously admits to being “less prone to expansive moments” than Whitman, his carefully qualified closing lines nonetheless authentically relay Whitman’s exhortations in Dennis’s own more modest (unexorting) voice. The self-possession of the truncated un-Whitmanesque final line (the shortest in the poem) provides a skillful sense of closure.

I’m not sure what’s implied near the end

When you turn from me to exhort the sun

To shine on, the water to glitter, the gulls

To wheel over the boats on the river.

Maybe you’re simply thanking them for existing.

Or maybe your praise is meant to exhort them

Not to grow older by a minute. Let their power

Be undiminished when they offer others

All they’ve offered you.

“At Emily Dickinson’s House” subtly responds to the poem quoted in the final line (“To fight aloud”) in which Dickinson observes how little recognition accrues to those who wage the “gallanter” inner wars (“within the bosom”) rather than much-heralded outer wars on the field of battle. No one observes this more heroic struggle, she says; no ritual honors this bravery, no “even feet” march in “plumed procession.” Dennis’s pilgrimage humbly responds to her achievement—though he does so indirectly here, as though it would be presumptuous to assume that the reclusive Dickinson would be eagerly awaiting his words: 

… I’d like to tell her          

I’ve climbed the stairs in my heavy boots

To the room with the little table  where once

She sat in her slippers, summoning her reserves

To charge “the cavalry of woe.”

Like Yeats’s “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” a number of poems in Night School earn their authority through their willingness to balance opposed viewpoints—avoiding what Dennis calls “benighted certainties.” In “Bad Days and Good Days,” for example, the speaker contrasts those moments when his life seems either predetermined by the laws of physics (or mere acts of cosmic chance) with those moments in which his existence seems “like a miracle” and freedom of choice leaves him “infused … with gratitude.” The focus is a story his mother told about how his grandfather would never have met his grandmother if his train hadn’t broken down “in a field by Brest-Litovsk,” thus delaying by a week his departure for America and placing him on the same ship with his future wife.

On my bad days choice seems denied to him.

He’s no more free than the train is free to stop

Or start when it pleases, or to leave the track.

On my good days he’s free to interpret the accident

As one last chance to cancel his plan to emigrate

And return to his friends and family, who want him to stay.

And now I conceive him as free to set the question

Aside awhile to note that the scene before him

Would merit a painter’s close attention.

There he is, letting the lantern light absorb him

As it falls on the workmen kneeling in the shadows

Beside the engine while the snowy fields

Stretch away behind them into the framing dark.

And now above them a display of stars

Appears to be just in time, after a journey

Of many eons, to complete a picture

He isn’t likely to see again.

In “Fast Food” Dennis sets up a series of counterfactuals in which the reader occupies the outermost ring—an effect akin to a theater-goer watching a play within a play. The speaker begins with the repetition of what “I’d like to believe” about the words being written by a middle-aged woman “eating her dinner alone at the picnic table / provided by Ernie’s Red Hots just off Route 5.” He hopes that rather than composing a letter “accusing someone of betrayal or indifference,” she’s writing a magazine article about those fast food providers who “take pride in their work.” The focus quickly shifts to what “she’d like to believe” about which readers might be “gladdened” by her words—including Ernie, the owner of the place at which she is eating. In other words, the focus shifts to the speaker’s imagination of what the woman he’s imagining is imagining about an owner he’s never met, who may be comforted “when he asks himself / if he’s doing the work he was meant to do, / or some of the work, at least, if not all.”

Dennis is clearly doing the work he was meant to do. The poems in Night School reward repeated readings as they range from meditations on solitude and friendship to explorations of social justice and art. There’s a generosity here unpolluted by any hint of sentimentality or self-regard or false consolation. The book closes with an unforgettable poem of astonishing fluency, “Old Story,” which artfully integrates the major themes from each of the book’s four sections.

“I like hearing the story my friend likes telling,” the poem begins—inviting the reader to take part in the narrative’s “many retellings.” The gist of the story is that when the friend was a young boy, his father helped him overcome his fear of the dark by allowing him to walk down a path until the boy felt frightened, at which point he could turn and head back to the father he knew would be waiting for him. Eventually the boy is able to walk the entire path. The poem subtly explores the nature of storytelling and the bond between father and son, between a widening circle of friends, between poet and reader, between the living and the dead—all of us accepting and extending what partial comfort and reassurance we can as we move into the unknown dark:

I can call the story a votive candle

The son lights to his father’s memory.

And now that the son is some twenty years

Older than his father when he died,

I can call it another rehearsal for the night

When his own soul is compelled to leave his body

Behind forever and wander along on a road

He doesn’t recognize. No house up ahead,

But off to the side, among the trees,

The light of a campfire where strangers

Sit in a circle, each one introducing himself

By telling a story. And here’s the story he’ll offer,

The one that may earn him an invitation

To stay by the fire as long as he wants,

Not to move on before he’s ready to tell

His story to others who may be glad to hear it

By another fire that’s burning who knows where.

Timothy McBride is the author of a collection of poetry, The Manageable Cold (TriQuarterly Press, 2010). His poems and reviews also have appeared in ShenandoahSeneca Review, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Northwest, among other publications.

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