Carl Dennis: Review by James Scruton
Dennis Another


Reason Enough by Carl Dennis (Penguin Press)



Off all the reasons we come to poetry, reason itself might seem far down the list. Passion, sure. Verbal invention, too. And insight: that sudden, surprising jolt of recognition or realization. Rarer these days but no less compelling are the more subtle pleasures offered by the expository—one could say dialectical—verse of someone like Carl Dennis. In Another Reason, his twelfth collection (and his third book of all-new poems since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Practical Gods in 2002), Dennis continues to eschew verbal flourish in favor of ethical force, extending a body of work that by now approaches the status of wisdom literature.

      In that vein, several poems here draw from Biblical or classical texts. In “My Noah,” the speaker wishes upon his neighbor a figurative flood that would provide a lesson in civic or political accommodation (notions like “first” and “last” proving irrelevant, “Along with the duo of ‘us’ and ‘them’“). Elsewhere, the story of Job undergoes revision:


      In our edition let Job complain

      About his treatment as long as he wants to,

      For months, for decades,

      And in this way secure his place forever

      In the hearts of all who believe

      That suffering shouldn’t be silent,

      That grievances ought to be aired completely,

      Whether heard or not.

              (“Job: A New Edition”)


     Here and there in Another Reason we come across references to Marcus Aurelius or to Sophocles, as well as poems with such classical-sounding titles as “To Taste” and “To Reason.” Others, such as “Virtue” and “Introduction to Philosophy” also nod toward Augustan or rabbinical antiquity, toward a literary tradition of sagacity as well as beauty. 

     Dennis’ poetry has always been less purely lyrical than rhetorical. (The title of his 2001 collection of essays is Poetry as Persuasion.) “To a Novelist” lays out his preference for the clear example over the arresting metaphor, admiring the novel writer for a “focus wholly on instances, / On a cluster of characters, say, crowding the entrance / Of Kensington High School on a rainy evening,” and for a willingness to forsake “flowery” figurative expression. Yet narrative has its limits, its “relentless plot waiting in ambush” (Dennis here indulging in metaphor himself), a novelistic imperative that he feels misses the characters’ (or readers’) chance for self-realization: “How quiet it is at the table they’ve left, / Where even now they might be approaching clarity / If you’d been willing to let them stay.”

     Like a novelist’s regard for his or her characters, many of the poems in Another Reason take up the notion of how we treat others, and of how we look at ourselves in doing so. The dramatic monologue “Words from a Poor Man” is all the more scathing a critique for its measured, well-reasoned tone: 


     You’d like to believe that wanting the best for yourself

     Means wanting the best for me as well.

     But so far, to judge by your actions,

     It seems to mean you want me to be as happy

     In my two cramped rooms by the dock

     As you are in your spacious house by the golf course.


     That so incisive an assessment of the class divide could come from one of their low-wage workers has probably not occurred to our society’s One Per-Centers. Money might buy happiness, though not self-awareness:


       Rain in the afternoon

       Means little to me, you want to believe,

       The annoyance of a damp blanket,

       While to you, accustomed as you are

       To exerting your will in small matters

       As well as large, it would be an injury.


      In other poems—“Point of View,” “The True Self,” “Virtue”—Dennis examines the ethics of generosity, of sacrifice, of patience, unwilling to allow our good intentions to let us off the moral hook. If, in the latter poem, he asserts that “virtue is less / A matter of yielding to one’s inclinations / Than of stout resistance for a larger purpose,” he also wonders which of such purposes should claim the highest priority, and what rationalizations our prioritizing would involve.

      For all of its philosophical gravitas, though, Another Dream is not without its moments of wry wit, as in “Mailing Gifts, December 21,” where the speaker, fuming about “[t]he slow clerk at window three,” wishes he “were more in harmony with the Christmas spirit, / Prepared to feel for an hour the flow of fellowship / That a saint is prepared to feel all year.” Mordant, too, are the most intimate poems here, the few love poems all the more moving for their muted hopefulness, not quite jaded but certainly clear-eyed. “The Odds” reverses the urgent carpe diem of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” though appealing just as much to his listener’s rational side:


       You may be right about how long the odds are

       We’ll be together ten years from now,

       Given how fluid our moods are,

       How fickle our memories.

       But our chances are good compared

       To the odds we’ve beaten just to be here:

       The odds against life as we know it

       Emerging on any planet…


     “Next Time” begins just as reasonably—“Just because we failed on the first try, / And the second, to be happy together, doesn’t mean / We’ll fail on the third if we learn from our errors”—though the volume’s concluding poem offers a less rosy scenario: “Don’t let the quarreling near the end / Convince you the breakup would have been predictable / From the beginning to somebody more insightful” (“Not the End”). The point here is not regret but gratitude, he asserts, if only for the memory of joy. “Beneath the story of cause and consequence,” the speaker counsels, “Another story is pointing another way.”

      As in many poems here, sage advice masquerades as humble suggestion, limited appreciations of life or musings about our common foibles unfolding into larger truths. Throughout Another Reason, Carl Dennis reminds us that poetry is not only an aesthetic but also a moral activity. It’s another way of thinking as well as feeling, another way to reason through the choices we’ve made or will make. 



James Scruton is the chair of the Humanities Division at Bethel College in McKenzie, Tennessee, where he teaches poetry and British literature. His poems have appeared in Mid-American Poetry ReviewEkphrasis, and Yankee, among other literary journals.