I don’t know about you, but lately life’s gales seem to gust past me toward the thin-lipped, unforgiving horizon. I’m always looking for that bloody slow button. Philip Dacey offers relief by setting up his Church of the Adagio in the artificial spaces that creativity engenders. His poetic moments linger until they don’t. Time stops and starts as anticipation surges through the connecting nerves as you climb over the profane and the sacred stanzas, easing into and then merging with the lines. It’s damn reassuring. He makes it so.
In Llama Days, a serendipitous poem plotted out in formal verse, Dacey considers the many facets of wonder encompassed in a brief meeting of unintroduced species, a parsed parley, which changes the very nature of time twice: first, the convocation itself suspends the protagonist’s disbelief, and second, the poem, itself emerges out of artistic (read daydream) time. Here’s the moment of decision in the heart of the poem,
But llama? I’d never noticed one before,
though no doubt my surprise at seeing him
was matched by his at seeing me—or more
then matched, he being lost, freedom become
a burden twice as bad as any bars,
so much so panic struck and he turned back,
high-stepping it onto the road, two-laned, tarred,
and I saw the headline, “Llama killed by truck.”
Dropping the rake, I raced to rescue him,
Who now stood frozen, straddling the centerline…
Attempts at political poems crash and burn all the time. The more self-righteous the poet the better the chance of failure. True believers rarely produce first rate art. There are exceptions however. Dacey’s poem News of the Day, for instance, takes three historical examples of man’s inhumanity to man, cedes some freedom to formalist techniques, slowing down a river of natural anger, and creates three hardened jewel-like pieces. He sets his inspired words into two rondels and a sonnet. The Hiroshima rondel is beyond exceptional. The last stanza burns into you,
The room reshaped itself around me, night
disguised itself as day, and words, undone,
turned ash. Gone blind by ecstasy of sight,
my eyes read fire. When spines began to run,
I turned the page and fell into the sun.
Another curiosity in this book is the way Dacey moves almost seamlessly from formal poetry of the strictest type ( rondels, villanelles, sestinas) into languid free verse and then back into formality. The relaxed prosy narrative of Dacey’s free verse poem White Trash lures you into an ongoing joke with very serious undertones. The poet opens his piece matter-of-factly,
When middle-class blacks
moved into my family’s neighborhood
in St. Louis in the Fifties
and we and all our neighbors
moved out, the property values
soared. Lawns greened, junkers
disappeared. I realize now
I was white trash.
Maybe I’m still white trash.
My parents never told me.
Did they know? Do they know now?
I like having a clear identity,
if not the one I’d have chosen for myself.
I’d long ago accepted the notion I was
My Allen Ginsberg Story, Dacey’s humorous poem of admiration, rocks one with fastidious details of stage props and prescribed paraphernalia. One doesn’t usually associate the word fastidious with Allen Ginsberg. And here lies the rub. Ginsberg apparently acted as a diva before readings with assorted ecentric demands. The myth of artistic spontaneity slows down and breaks into component parts in this piece. Ginsberg leaves nothing to chance when it comes to adding honey to his tea. The piece’s form, free verse lines, as Ginsberg might have written them, almost adds another layer of irony to the poem. Here are some lines from the heart of the composition,
Ginsberg saw me looking at the traffic jam
of paraphernalia and smiled. No doubt he knew
the effect of his phone call—beyond bizarre, honey
as an emergency. But now it seemed the act
of a consummate pro, perfectionist even, showman
not about to let an accident break a spell.
I thought of Whitman, whose “spontaneous me”
didn’t stop him from revising some poems for decades.
He’d agree that to place a honey jar and spoon
amidst that crush would ask for a disaster.
Still smiling, Ginsberg said, “You see what I mean.”
Leaping between the arts of dance and writing Dacey’s poem Nijinsky: A Sestina describes both the medicinal and the madness inherent in the famous dancer’s life. It turns out that Nijinsky was also a talented diarist whose words soar as they detail ruin and degradation. Dacey’s sestina in homage to Nijinsky is a short-lined poem with odd end words that Najinsky sputtered out nonsensically at one point in his life. But there is no nonsense in Dacey’s poem. The piece is a triumphant pas de deux between the poet and his subject.
One of this collections unusual pieces, The Cockroach Ball, skitters in with beautiful phrasing and organic unhesitant rhymes. Dacey uses the villanelle form here and it is lovely. Along with the obvious humor, the poet expresses his rather wondrous sensitivities. The poem works! Cockroach love in the midst of poverty—who would have thought it possible?
My advice: worship at Dacey’s Church of the Adagio for the very best in contemporary poetry. And do it as soon as possible.