The conjectural poetics of Carl Dennis' "Callings"
...Learn to take pleasure in the effort itself
And you won't be sorry if you can't step back
Far enough from your handiwork to see it whole...
--Carl Dennis, from "Style"
The 41 poems in Carl Dennis' new collection Callings (Penguin Poets Series) are full of hypothetical particularities, conversational voices speculating on the nature of free will, moral decision making, and whether one finds or loses one's self in one's work. At 2 p.m. Sunday, Dennis will read from and sign copies of the book at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the Buffalo State College campus. The event is free and open to the public.
Nominally, Callings is about "vocations": the work we believe defines us as much as we define it. But more specifically, it is a book about how we talk through, rationalize and ultimately come to arrive at the life decisions we make.
If this is not entirely new ground for Dennis, it's turf he revisits with a certain urgency and directness more prominent than in his previous ten collections. Now 71, the longtime professor at the University at Buffalo and 2002 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Practical Gods, has perhaps been our foremost practitioner of a kind of conjectural poetics in which ordinary speech and commonplace observation give rise to a cosmologist's dream of possible worlds of intention and outcome. Taken in this way, poetry is not only linguistic construct of plausibly voiced speech acts, but also a liminal art of empathic and moral possibility that attempts to transcend the particularity of its occasion.
It this connection to the aesthetics of both Yeats and Emerson that has made Dennis a singular -- albeit quietly insistent -- voice in American poetry over the past four decades, and the recipient of one of the literary world's most prestigious honors -- The Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement in American poetry in 2000.
At its best, Dennis' poetry escapes the formal constraints of its composition to soar off into the projected destinies and reversals of fortune of the figures that populate it. Thus in "Other Options," the first poem in the collection, we meet a "young clerk in the garden store / At West Ferry and Grant who's had to put off / His plan to become a forester," and the young woman, "A teacher of ecology at City Honors, / Who was once troubled to think a career in music / Might have been hers if she'd started lessons earlier / And proved more fervent." When the narrator suggests "that maintaining a list / Of all the callings available might itself / Prove a useful calling," she avers that devoting herself to listening to Chopin and Schubert with a "dedication that's undivided" was the calling she had chosen.
In "Rescue," Dennis' narrator finds himself tempted to intervene with the inevitability of the plot in a staging of Othello by taking to the stage as a counterpoise to Iago and offering the Moorish general the advice of a genuine friend. The obverse of this is suggested by the very next poem, "Silent Prophet," where the narrator is the only person on the planet aware of its immanent destruction, but upon reflection, decides that the illusion of a future is more life affirming than the truth.
For the first time in this reader's recollection, several of Dennis' poems are about the limits of empathy -- the narrator in "Tribal," for instance, who passes by a snowbound homeless man, even as the distant music in the winter night suggests a society where he'd be welcomed as a guest:
If better fortune finds him, it will take the form
Of someone enrolled in a tribe I don't belong to,
Bound by a code I have no trouble
Admiring from a distance as suiting
The gifts of its eager adherents exactly.
For people like that, such kindness comes naturally,
I tell myself. For me to attempt it
I'd have to pretend to be someone else.
More typical of Dennis' oeuvre are "One Future" and "Devising Scripture." In the former poem, the slightly manic narrator caught up in the throes of epistemological uncertainty awaits the arbitrary counsel of an unknown friend, while in the latter, a humble scribe working at the behest of powerful priests inserts the generous qualities of his own daughter into his portrayal of Isaac's wife, Rebecca, in the chapters of Genesis he is assigned to rewrite.
Three of the poems in Callings strike a distinctly retrospective note. "Belittle" takes as its subject the aging figure and diminishing reputation of Benjamin Franklin at the time of the birth of the Republic. "Recall Notice" contrasts the way an aging professor teaches King Lear to the headstrong way he taught it as a younger man. "Last Interview," is a maze of questions from a would-be interviewer, who may in fact be the aging narrator's alter ego:
Can you tell us about the day you understood
That the tree destined to shade your grave
Was already tall, that the shovel handle
Was already fitted into the steel socket?
Did the resolutions you made then
Suffer more, when they proved unworkable,
From a want of will or a want of focus?
Do you think your focus would have been more clear
If you asked yourself what we're asking now?
Callings is clearly not the book written by that self-doubting author. It's a leaner, slightly more tough-minded collection by a poet at the height of his powers, but contemplating age.