Tuesday, May 11, 2004
In Praise of Paul Dresman's Poetry
THE SILVER DAZZLE OF THE SUN
Selected poems by Paul Dresman
(Cottage in the Park Press)
Readers frustrated and ill by the tone-deaf grating of bad modern verse would do well to acquire a copy of Paul Dresmans terrific collection The Silver Dazzle of the Sun. Dresman, a poet, writer,translator and teacher born in Southern California who presently lectures at the University of Oregon, emerges with this collection as a major voice in American poetry.
Where the trend among celebrity poets has moved largely toward a softness scarcely distinguishable from herd-instinct nostalgia,or a reshuffling of old avant gard tricks more iconic than satisfying, Dresman returns poetry to the realm of discourse, experience, ideas. The distinction between the work in Silver Dazzle of the Sun and the nervous elegance of much accomplished contemporary poetry is that Dresman understands how to talk about the world through the rigor of verse. Pliant, rhythmic, malleable, fluid and yet solid as the material objects philosophers drive themselves insane interrogating, there is nothing shy nor tentative in these pieces.This is poetry that wants to talk to you.
Blessed with an ear for the turns,snaps and lacing configurations that word forms and phrases can bring to bear on a subject, the poet here has mastered William Carlos Williams' compelling if sketchily described notion of the "variable foot" and , achieves what Pound preached when insisting that poetry be written with a mind on the musical phrase, not the metronome. Irony abounds here, as Dresman achieves the strange and wonderous music the idealized speaking voice can give us, while Pound's work sounds its age, creaking flummery at best.
Dresmans poetry is rich with a spinning, dynamic music , full of speedy Coltrane-like runs , or modulated with an ensemble compactness and precision . This is a writer who approaches his experiences from many routes, paths, ways of entrance. Style is appropriate to subject and tone, and Dresman knows exactly which notes to play, and how often, how loud and how soft. The poems dance and swing and rock and float in a medley of styles united by Dresmans splendidly discriminating ear.
Most of all, this is a poetry that lives in the world, poetry as a means to absorb and comprehend events, not something to recede into, feeding on a looping ambiguity.
He captures the sense of speed and aggression of California life ,where remnants of past years are destroyed in an obsession to build new, useless things, as in "California Frontage" :
The years zip past
like your address in the glass
of a passing Cadillac,
and the curbings repeat.
The grass looks greener
because its older and well kept
women amble the avenues
surrounded with leaves.
Under the eaves of spreading ferns,
we sit looking out for sunsets,
flags by the driveways,
cars returning from work,
porches, doors, sunbursts in bas relief.
We drift though the windows by the sea
and the saber-tooth fronds
on the overhead palms
rattle like fistfuls of keys.
One of the keen things about this body of work is Dresman's particular interest in bringing local and regional distinctions into the pieces he writes. An astute critic of the late Ed Dorn's masterpiece Gunslinger, Dresman's own poems are details of place ,studies of personalities sussing out the manufacture of meaning as terrains are transformed,with an intense , curious intelligence bearing witness in ways that are awed, aghast and swift of stanza, a personality snagging fleet impressions of the disarray created by hubris-laden intentions. History, traditions, specific joys and insanities are restored to poetry's particular mission to make a reader consider themselves deeper in their world, in their own accumulated habits and habitats. It is not, let us emphasize, the mytho- paleontology of some writers who side with Pound and are content to have their fabled genius remain unreadable, parseable only by an anointed coterie. Dresman's poems have an extreme empathy with the world.This is a world where one speaks in a tongue that invites response.
The speakers are shaped by language that accommodates the vastness of region, The West, both as a physical place and collective social construction, looms large in a good deal of the present poems(as it is in Dorn's long lines), and it is the marriage of voice and location that gives the poetry in The Silver Dazzle of the Sun a life that is absent from too much published poetry. The world climbs through the language and appears through deft description fresh as a moment of first perception; style is content, to beg an old question, but it's a worthwhile distinction to make clear. Dresman's work brings us a world of felt experience that can be addressed in useful ways. There are no epistemological quandaries here, no rueful mediations on malformed vowels. There is , though, plenty of wit, anger, flights of lyric speculation, writ with a sure composing hand.There is something of a medley of voices at play in these works, where a terrain on which innumerable generations of have written on emerge in a layered and subtly orchestrated music. The poetics of wonder, rage, joy and sorrow are harnessed with extraordinary skill. Above all else,
the poems come from a voice that is speaking to you;
there are moments when the candor and unreticent wit of the writing makes you ponder again the incidents in your own experience that you might not have regarded for years. The poetry is that good.
An interesting tension is created in "California Frontage", and even within the emphasis of constant change and evisceration of landscape, the poet still finds the poetic on the broad street corners and patios.The seeming stasis of neighborhoods wedged between strip-mall glutted intersections coexisting alongside the redundant dynamism of a Los Angeles freeway; for all the noise that is generated, a still life none the less. The ordinary detail of neighborhood life is caught in fluid, painterly strokes.
Dresman works in many different lengths of line, and the eclectic nature of what his ear picks and his pen composes is remarkable; the conversational twines with the philosophical, zen stillness minds a synthesis with clipped and stinging cadences that suggest hard rock guitar,while nature poems lead to urban realism. These are poems of a world in constant flux, sometimes subtle, graceful, but alway dynamic,with an effect on the emotional life of person and place. The snapshot accuracy of the author's description of the churning acres we live on allows us a sense of the large existence we are passing through.
There are scores of splendid poems here, some of the surest and best poetry that's been written by an American poet.
Dresman's range is impressive, and the works are organized into six sections, "a western child", "histories","california frontage","how to make a chinese landscape painting","en castellano"
and "on sundays, in America". As you can surmise, the titles reflect the places Dresman has been and what he has written about, moving across the continent, over borders and oceans, and back again, with eyes open, ears tuned,the pen ready write. The Silver Dazzle of the Sun is the rare thing in an age where even "instantaneous" is too slow a concept; this work draws you back to it. Additional twists and turns are revealed, nuances are brought to mind, and unexpected inspirations resonate like soft, swift rhymes, just as our own lives characteristically unveil every unexpected thing.
The Silver Dazzle of the Sun is available for $7.OO from Cottage in the Park Press,480 E. 30th Ave.,Eugene, OR. 97405. The publisher will pay the shipping costs.