blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Review | What Is Owed the Dead, by by R.H.W. Dillard
               Factory Hollow Press, 2011

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Every filmmaker with a feature in the can intuits that at least half of anything meaningful that ends up suspended in the celluloid must result from a deliberate patterning of darknesses. In What Is Owed the Dead, Richard Dillard, perhaps channeling his inner cinematographer, has created textual effects akin to the long take, the establishing shot, and selective, close-on camera work to bring the shadowy worlds inhabited by his dearly departed into ever clearer focus. As the poems offer up their crosscut crash courses in twentieth-century poetry, literary biography, and good old-fashioned gossip, they also suggest, through the explicit notes that accompany them like a handy shooting script, the many possible forays outward, away from his own backlit framing, that Dillard, the teacher, hopes (and probably expects) his reader to attempt.

Indeed, Dillard’s generosity and dedication as an educator, and his bent to entertain even as he instructs, informs and complicates the collection along multiple rewarding axes. As his speakers carry on detailed conversations with various historic figures and texts (and texts, for Dillard, run the gamut from other poems to novels to films and TV shows to newspaper headlines), a careful reader will begin not only to discern, amid their fragmentary mutterings and purposeful self-interruptions, the amazing particularity of Dillard’s critical/scholarly point of view, but also to appreciate his disarming willingness to skewer himself with the very wit he levels at all bland practitioners of enervating theories, and to share his passionate commitment to effect some measure of enduring, karmic justice for the motley assortment of artists and writers and thinkers whose presences, even as he evokes them, seem to waver on the far horizon where flesh and blood blur into the mirages of history.  

So the somewhat enigmatically titled “Afterword,” which offers its terse, recursive tribute to F.T. Prince about a third of the way into the volume, seems intent on reminding us that literary preeminence is never completely determined by the babble of the mainstream. Prince, whose “Soldiers Bathing” is one of the most famous English-language poems of the Second World War, might have blipped off the radar screens of contemporary readers altogether had it not been for the visionary work of editors at small, independent presses like Fulcrum, Menard, and Anvil, as well as the dedicated semaphore of old pros like John Ashbery and Colin Wilson, whom Dillard conscripts to bring Prince in for a gentle landing with a lyric that’s one part homing signal, one part homage:

“So happiness,” Frank, “and sadness,” you said,
“Mix here,” and “everything in old age can sadden,”
But broke down early, five, mother forbade games,
Thus books, “so make all things clear,” then war,
DUCE on broken Italian walls, home, UK, then
Known, one poem in Oxford English Verse, one
In Twentieth Century Modern, but always there
And here, your edged, proud term, “Outsider,”
Not like those kids in Gorran Haven, “We’re outsiders,”
Pleading, “Let us in,” not really in, you, ever,
Except somewhat in USA, “this country, its laws
Of glass,” taken up, later on, clambering with love over
Stony flooded Cascades in Virginia (03/1984), always
“The attempt to wake,” poetry, “and breathe,” you,
“And be,” who knew, “because to love is frightening,”
How easy it is to choose “the freedom of our crimes.”

Dillard’s technique, exemplified here, consists of an intense hybridization of direct quotation within the expository scaffolding of his own musings. This can be a bit disorienting, especially given the syntactical leaps and ruptures that come with the territory. His grafting of source material onto fragments of astute observation and private note-taking requires the reader to invent new strategies for puzzling out the thematic linkages within any given text (or across multiple texts that, in some cases, share sequentially numbered titles like the designated variations of a musical opus).

The challenge is heightened by the fact that the poet tends to quote salient snippets rather than lengthy passages, weaving his pithy, wide-ranging excisions together (grammatically, mechanically) with cryptic jottings that may offer little more than parenthetical date stamps to qualify some personal journal entry or recondite bit of minutia to which the poet attaches importance. Thus, “Old Song” showcases what could be the dates Dillard acquired the “Pocket Book of Modern Verse (04/1954)” and the “Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (06/22/1956),” both edited by Oscar Williams, a “young scholar.” Dillard seems to admire Williams as much for his “kind arrangement[s]” of poems as for being the “loving husband” and fellow poet of Gene Derwood, both of whom kept “trying, trying,” with limited success, to be bold denizens in the published city. So, just as one must grow accustomed to a lower concentration of oxygen when hiking at high altitudes, the proliferating minimalisms of Dillard’s meditations require the reader to remain calm and engage in slightly deeper breathing/reading to appreciate the rarefied atmospheres they suggest.

Still, for all their surface complexity, these poems render their deepest concerns emphatically and with bracing directness. Dillard’s variations on the theme, not simply of “war” but, rather, “Next War,” unfold over the course of five separate movements in the text bearing this title. Within these linked passages, a pantheon of figures famed for chronicling the world wars of the last century in poetry and prose and pigment—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Keith Douglas, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas—speaks to the senseless curtailment of so many promising voices that accompanies the upheavals of each iteration of human-on-human violence, as Dillard, in an exasperated shorthand that reduces the names of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin to summary initials, telegraphs his steady warnings about “Death, old poetic companion, all around.”

A similar treatment of the human and cultural dispossessions of exile (as a function of personal politics, as a component of racism, and as the inevitable by-product of generational change in any creative or technical discipline) is orchestrated over four linked texts. The names and faces change with each scenario Dillard films for us, but the subtext takes on its own life through the power of his tenacious Re-presentations. By yoking the figures of Ovid and Nelly Sachs and Joseph Brodsky together in the asynchronous, printed conversation of the leading poem in the “Exile” series, the poet revivifies their individual predicaments for his reader in the real time of the text:

Loneliness, you, Ovid, on the Black Sea, Pontus
, year 8, exiled, imperial claim, for love,
Ars Amatoris, Nelly, 1940, safe in Sweden
From Nazis but not from die Blicke, glances,
Der Toten, of millions going up in black
Smoke, Joseph, 1972, you, safe, too, in U. S. A.,
persona non grata in terra incognita,” behind
All of you, landscape, pines, lindens, aspens,
Those faces, most of all, language, “vix
Subeunt ipsi verba Latina mihi
,” old words
“Rusty and stiff,” intoned (04/01/76) Russian
Verse, few understanding, sleeves rolled up,
Cigarette poised so carefully on filter,
Joseph, hand on shoulder, to shy student poet,
New room, new world, πγςτοτα, emptiness,
“Don’t be,” exile’s best advice, “nervous.”

The words of the ever-present dead, gingerly taken up and deployed in Dillard’s unique constructions, speak at once for and through the poet. Their images and ideas, their very language(s), flow across the openings carved into these highly wrought verbal containers by Dillard’s personal locutions in bursts of haunted, syncopated resonance. The resulting mix of tones, like those produced by any jug player worth his moonshine, has at least as much to do with the size and shape (and relative fullness or emptiness) of the vessel he’s picked up as with the lungs and lips that accomplish (between deep swigs) all the blowing.

This effect is most pronounced in pieces like “Eros” and “Doubt,” which rely on samplings from a highly varied palette of voices (each weaves together meditative strands originating in the work of seven distinct authors) to explore the abstract notions to which their titles merely serve as signposts. The inclusions in “Eros” (which also reference an Umberto Eco essay and two anonymous medieval lyrics) cluster around Dillard’s appreciation for the “wry ironies” of Edna St. Vincent Millay; but, the “sweet / Love, sweet thorn” of her sonnets is swiftly and radically transformed by the poet’s headlong associative flight past the “hot guilt” and “[b]urnt love” of George Barker’s “nine-tiered tigress” restlessly pacing the “cage of sex” into something altogether ominous and unsettling.

A similar dynamism propels the reader through the manifold opinions voiced by the cast of commentators in “Doubt,” though the poem reads a bit like a treatise concerning Alfred Lord Tennyson’s lifelong preoccupations with the occult (and the extent to which these mirrored the struggle of all Victorian thinkers to reconcile the emerging world views of the physical and social sciences with older spiritual philosophies). Experts ranging from Thomas Henry Huxley to T.S. Eliot to E. O. Wilson chime in here, but Dillard chooses to give Tennyson the final say in the argument, perhaps because he shares so unabashedly the late lord’s exact and exacting curiosity to know “‘how fares it with the happy dead.’”

In other instances, rather than dispersing his ruminations across a wide constellation of minds, each of which may have some distinctive light to shed on the central theme being explored, Dillard chooses to address a solitary figure. This creates a more focused and intimately illuminated space within which the poet’s subject shines forth. In “Fire Sermon,” the deft portraiture of William Empson (the English critic and poet perhaps best known for authoring one of the foundational texts of the New Criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity) moves the reader as much through the economy of its visual preservation of the troubled professor “Breaking off mid-lecture to sit down, briefcase, / Exchange white socks, resume, eyes bright,” as through the genuine empathy that places him before us, alone, in all his austere complexity, so “close / To madness . . . so far from love.” In “Fame,” the speaker’s tender commiseration with Emily Dickinson mingles with his unmistakable vitriol for the myopia of “dull” teachers who merely wish to “codify” and “tame” texts like “Wild Nights” into manageable memes for the chalkboard. A major component of Dillard’s stated project in these poems is, after all, to offer some corrective to the “lies” and “old calumnies” heaped by history upon such iconic figures as Poe and Pound, Eliot and Auden, and to damp down the noisy misprisions of theory and explication that can make it so difficult for new generations of readers to hear essential voices like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, above the crazed academic commotion that surrounds them.

Sometimes Dillard’s meditations juxtapose multiple aspects of a specific trope or formal strategy as it has played out within the particular cross section of the poetic tradition referenced by his notes. The historical sweep of these samplings can be quite wide, as in “Sheep,” which drops its plumb line from “Caedmon’s Hymn” down past an assortment of idylls and eclogues that trace the entire arc of Western literary production from biblical times through the middle of the twentieth century. It would seem that Caedmon earns primacy of place not through chronology (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the Gospel According to St. John, toward which Dillard also gestures here, predate the Anglo-Saxon herdsman by centuries) but rather because of what Dillard perceives to be the authenticity of Caedmon’s firsthand experience—his living out of the spiritual charge issued by “‘That great shepherd of the sheep,’” whose voice Paul and John merely echo in “love’s continuing / Demand, ‘feed my lambs,’ no doubt, ‘feed my sheep.’” Theocritus and Virgil, in their anachrony, are rendered suspect as “not really herders, only ‘got up as poets / In farmer suits,’” and thus disqualified in Dillard’s numinous score keeping both because their hands lack the Christian shepherd’s actual calluses and because their classical imagery pulls none of the heavier symbolic freight that comes to be associated with those “wooly / Bundles” of “mere mutton” that give his poem its title.

On other occasions, Dillard’s stubborn, sixteen-line structure barely spans a single human lifetime, as in “Memory,” whose poignant reflections on the lives and work of Julia Randall and Theodore Roethke may be the only instance in the entire collection where the majority of the text is composed in Dillard’s own words. The lambent (con)fusion of the second person here makes it impossible to discern which figure is being addressed as the piece comes to a close. The reader is left to wonder which wounded ego lacked awareness of the “deep . . . shadow” he/she

Cast, so smart, unaware, tough, ambitious, then
Told by editor, too old, poetry is for the young,
Yet hard lines, bare words, incantatory, strong,
Those poems remain, alone, God help you, yes.

Yes. Dillard’s hand on the camera is so steady here that the text itself reminds us: sometimes a good dissolve is truer than any kind of clarity. And the poems, those poems, are the crucial, significant remains.

Some of the most delightful moments in the collection occur when Dillard is moved to situate himself in front of the lens, amid the beset throng of the dead and dying, allowing the reader to eyeball, fly-on-the-wall-style, a self-deprecatingly recollected version of himself in the process of processing the lives and literature that these poems so joyfully amalgamate. We bump into him in 1959, on a train in “Visions,” trying unsuccessfully, it seems, to be absorbed in Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. He recalls being distracted then by all the “Sweet Briar girls” who would “strut the aisles, / Hang over seat backs, bare thighs,” but allows, with charming hilarity and rue, that his “not digging it” (the book, that is) probably had much to do with not knowing enough in that instant, with being “dumb as a pig” and “twenty-two.”

For, even though it is true, as Sean Siobahn points out toward the end of the informative interview with Dillard, which appears in its entirety in this issue of Blackbird, that “the first person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours) never appear until ‘I’ and ‘us’ appear in the last line of the final poem” of What Is Owed the Dead, the poet’s response to the notion that this somehow renders the work “impersonal” is categorical—“These are the most personal poems I have ever written.” They’re personal precisely because they offer the reader such direct insight into the finely calibrated wisdom of Dillard’s lifelong passion for art and for the folks who spent the better part of their own lives creating it.

Perhaps it is no accident that this very visible eruption of the telltale first person occurs in the volume’s final poem, which is itself the last, numbered piece in a consecutively arranged trio on the theme of “Passion.” This closing triptych, followed immediately by a single quoted passage from George Barker’s The Dead Seagull, which serves as the collection’s coda/epilogue, most fully evokes that troubling figure whom Dillard acknowledges as “the guiding spirit” of the “entire enterprise” of What Is Owed the Dead, and no better case in point could be chosen to exemplify the extravagant salvage operations underway in the collection.

An extensive blog post about George Barker, published by the now-deceased Reginald Shepherd back in 2007, sheds some useful light on Dillard’s dubious choice of mascot. It speaks of how Barker is usually remembered for his scandalous love affairs (gay and straight) and the fifteen children he fathered with several different women rather than for his poetry. It observes that he has never been much read in America, despite his early success in Britain, and that his work was eclipsed even there, back in the 1940s, by the writers in Auden’s circle. Shepherd indicates that Barker’s poetry was fairly universally dismissed by the 1950s for what was perceived to be its dated Romantic excesses, noting that Barker’s diction and phrasing, “while usually surprising yet apt,” does have a tendency to feel archaic and overly “poetic.” But, ultimately, he argues in favor of the work, which he notes “is never complacent, never content with what has already been done.” He goes on to state “Barker’s is a unique and idiosyncratic voice that deserves to be heard again.” Richard Dillard would probably concur, and remind us to be gracious as we consider this source. We owe the dead that much.  end

R.H.W. Dillard is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently What Is Owed the Dead (Factory Hollow Press, 2011). He is also the author of two novels, The First Man on the Sun (Louisiana State University Press, 1983) and The Book of Changes (Doubleday, 1974), and a book of short stories, Omniphobia (Louisiana State University Press, 1995). He is a professor of English at Hollins University, where he is also the editor of The Hollins Critic. An interview with Dillard by Sean Siobhan appears in this issue of Blackbird.

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